From a distance, Gary Lyons’ frontyard doesn’t seem remarkably different from others on the tree-lined street of pre-World War II houses in Burbank. A palm towers above the roof, ivy climbs the trunk of a magnolia, a pleasant flower bed adds a little dash of color.
But move in closer to the chain-link fence and suddenly you notice whole battalions of thick, fleshy stems with their armature of spines and thorns, pots and pots of them like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
On this tiny plot of Earth, “my postage-stamp garden,” as Lyons describes it, are no fewer than 1,400 cactuses and succulents of varying shapes and sizes. They’re everywhere -- on tables, on benches, lining the driveway and porch steps, scattered in the landscaped beds.
It comes as no surprise then to learn that Lyons loves desert plants -- truly, madly, deeply -- as he has for more than half a century, since his grandmother gave him cactuses and rocks from her Sun Valley garden. “It’s just about all I do,” Lyons admits. Today, as curator of the Huntington’s desert garden in San Marino and author of “Desert Gardens” (Rizzoli, 2000), he is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on cactuses and succulents.
Lyons is by turns scholarly and plain-spoken, matter-of-fact and poetic, low-keyed and fired up. In a subtle but palpable way, you can feel your energy lift as he talks about the wonder of the natural world and his awe of everything from the “glorious” wildflowers along the road toward the High Sierra to coming across a manuscript from 1375 when he was researching aloe vera in the Huntington Library. “I was exhilarated,” he says, sounding exhilarated all over again Mostly, he pulls off the unlikely trick of turning you into a confirmed appreciator of cactuses in one conversation. And he isn’t even trying. Just by his own fervently expressed sentiments for the undervalued plants, he makes you see them as if for the first time. “They’re numinous,” he says simply, pausing for only a second before he thinks of what else it is about cactuses that has made them the passionate focus of his whole life.
“It’s their sculpturesque aspect,” he says. “I love their form. Their symmetry and geometry. I always wanted to be a sculptor and in fact, I don’t see what I do as landscaping at all. It’s more like sculpture gardening. While I’m creating, I’m looking for balance and harmony and a sense of amazement. It’s a soul-making activity.”
Lyons makes frequent references to his plant dreams and his years of Jungian analysis to interpret those dreams. “All my dreams, for years, were connected to working in and making botanical gardens. When I was a child, I dreamed constantly of plants that didn’t exist.”
His descriptions of the essential nature of cactuses make them sound like old friends with whom he has shared the deepest intimacies. “I could see that they didn’t hide anything. They revealed so much about what they were. They were survivors in a harsh landscape. I guess I identified.”
His imagination was fired, he says, by Walt Disney cartoons, which often featured cactuses that came alive; the imagery stuck with him. It was not until he was a young man that his mother, a secretary for Disney’s brother Roy, told him about what he calls “the subplot.”
“I was born at the end of the Depression, with a club foot. We didn’t have any money to get it fixed, so Walt paid for a surgeon. I probably wouldn’t have been able to walk otherwise. To this day, I’m still fascinated with all things Disney.”
Lyons has more to say about desert plants, lots more. He mentions yucca, cholla, Spanish dagger, palo adan, euphorbia, the bottle palm, the dragon’s blood tree, the Joshua tree. He knows desert gardening so well it doesn’t seem to immediately occur to him that his listener doesn’t know it well too. But there’s not a hint of disbelief or impatience when he is continually asked, “What’s that?” Lyons is all for educating the ignorant. It would be more than fine with him if a lot more people would ask questions and get converted.
“I go to Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, and I see gardens filled with drought-tolerant plants. And I wonder why we don’t see desert gardens here, where water is going to be a big crisis. Of course, I also wonder why people drive SUVs. I guess it just suggests a lack of a really reflective attitude. It goes along with all this mindless forest razing, overbuilding, the whole denaturing of our country.”
Plants have so much to teach us, he insists. Gardening turns you inward, helps you rediscover yourself and the spiritual gifts of the natural world. “I don’t say prayers,” Lyons says. “I plant them.”
Freelance writer Karen Dardick contributed to this report.