Stuck on Cacti : A Passion for the Prickly Plant Has Inspired Band of Long Beach Devotees for More Than Half a Century

Times Staff Writer

Consider, if you will, the cactus.

To some detractors, a cactus seems more appropriate in a Western starring John Wayne than on a sunny windowsill. As they see it, the spiny succulent is about as lovable as Howard Cosell.

Despite those opinions, the barbed desert plant has a devoted band of local supporters--the Long Beach Cactus Club. To them, a cactus is a whole lot prettier than a pine tree and has charm a rose could never muster.

"Some people who grow orchids look down their noses at cactus collectors, but they shouldn't," said Edward (Ted) Taylor, 78, president of the club. "Orchids are pretty, but we don't think they're nearly as nice as a well-tended cactus."

Subject Is Succulents

The 70 or so members of the group meet once a month--and the talk is strictly succulents.

They trade cacti. They watch slide shows and hear lectures on cacti in native habitats. They discuss methods for growing a good cactus. They share stories of problem plants sprouting flowers for the first time.

They even cart their prize specimens to cactus shows, hoping one will be named

best of show. Such an honor, one member joked, makes a winning cactus "the Miss America" of succulent society.

Scores of area cactus fanatics will match their best and brightest plants later this month when the Long Beach Cactus Club holds its annual show and sale at the Dominguez Ranch Adobe near Compton.

The July 21 exhibition, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free to the public, includes tours of the group's cactus garden on the grounds. The 90-foot-square garden, which club members began cultivating in 1976, features hundreds of succulents from around the world.

Members of the Long Beach Cactus Club have been sharing their zeal for the plants since 1933. The group, composed of people of many ages from throughout the area, is one of the two oldest cactus clubs in the country, according to club members. It shares the honor with the El Paso Cactus and Rock Collectors Club, which formed the same year. Several club members have even gone on to hold high offices in the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, a nationwide umbrella group.

Ridicule Ignored

Although some cactus critics ridicule the plants for their glacially slow growth and occasionally bizarre shapes, supporters see those traits as nothing less than admirable.

"Cactus and other succulents can symbolize patience, strength, endurance," said Carol Wujcik, secretary of the Long Beach Cactus Club. "I think they appeal visually to many people. There's nothing more sculptural than a cactus. There's an exotic aspect to them."

Of course, Wujcik and other members of the club are confirmed cactiholics--for them, one plant is not enough.

Take, for example, the case of Rowena Thompson.

Cactus Convert

A decade ago, Thompson hated cacti. "We'd see them when we'd drive out through the desert, and I thought they were the ugliest things that grew," Thompson recalled.

But when a doctor diagnosed Thompson, 53, as being allergic to pollen from some trees and grasses, she decided to try landscaping the yard around her Wilmington home with various types of cacti.

First she got a few from a relative's yard. Then she bought a few. Then a few more. Then more.

Today, Thompson says she owns more than 5,000 of the plants. She has even established a kind of cottage industry with her cacti, marketing the plants she propagates at home from seeds and cuttings.

'It's Therapeutic'

"I find it's a lot better than going to a psychologist," Thompson joked. "It's therapeutic. You go out into the greenhouse and start grooming your plants and you forget about all your troubles. It's a relief from the day's tortures."

For many fans of cacti, cultivating the plants becomes a very personal experience.

"I know one couple that gives names to all their plants," said Eleanor Barker, a past president of the club. "Some people do go that far. Mostly, though, they don't give them names like George or Henry or Marshall."

Although Southern California is the mecca for cactus collectors, with nearly a dozen clubs from San Diego to Bakersfield, the plants can be grown in less inviting climates, Wujcik said.

Started in Ohio

"I started growing them when we lived in Ohio, putting them under fluorescent lights for eight months of the year," she said. "You could probably grow cactus in Nome, Alaska, if you worked at it long enough."

Barker, who works in a nursery and has more than 2,000 cacti at her home in Lawndale, said many people grow so fond of their plants that they can spot them in a crowd.

"If someone stole it and you saw it later, you'd know it was your plant," Barker said. "You become quite attached to particular plants."

She recalled having a cactus at her house that continued to grow bigger and bigger, but refused to bloom.

"One day I got so frustrated I started shaking my finger at it and said if it didn't bloom this year I'd throw it out," Barker said. "That summer it covered itself with orange flowers. It was probably a coincidence, but I like to tell the story."

Bloomed on Anniversary

Taylor has cactus tales of his own.

Recently, a 16-foot Old Man cactus at the club's Dominguez garden began sprouting flowers. It was a rare event, but seemed even more significant when Taylor realized that the first flower appeared on the 10th anniversary of the death of Clarence Wright, the plant's original owner. The club's garden is dedicated in Wright's memory.

Later, Taylor talked about the event with one of the priests who runs the rancho for the Catholic Church, which has used the property as a seminary.

"I told him it seemed like a minor miracle," Taylor said with a smile. "He said it did indeed. So if a priest says it's a miracle, it must have been."

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