Gardening club and Dominguez Rancho Adobe enjoy a prickly relationship

Dominguez Rancho Adobe's stunning cactus garden maintained by members of the Long Beach Cactus Club.
Dominguez Rancho Adobe’s stunning cactus garden maintained by members of the Long Beach Cactus Club.
(Axel Koester / For The Times)

It was a Sunday afternoon in 1974 when a black-suited Claretian missionary known as Father Pat walked into the monthly meeting of the Long Beach Cactus Club looking to make a deal.

Turn the sunny dirt patch next to his home at Dominguez Rancho Adobe into a cactus garden, Father Patrick McPolin said, and you can use the state historic site’s carriage house for all of your future meetings.

Botanic garden: In a Feb. 6 Home article about the historic Dominguez Rancho Adobe, a source referred to a cactus garden in Claremont called Rancho Santa Fe. The garden’s name is actually Rancho Santa Ana, and it specializes in native plants, not cactus. —

Members of the club, who had been convening in a small room at the Angelo M. Iacoboni Library in Lakewood, didn’t think twice. They started targeting specimens from their home gardens for transplanting, and they talked local nurseries into donating cuttings of prized aloes and succulents. Some members contributed shovels and rakes; others hauled in truckloads of dirt and lava rocks from the western Mojave to line the paths.

Thirty-six years later, their small but thriving cactus garden is as much a part of Dominguez Rancho Adobe as the six-room 1827 hacienda, the rolling hills and the rusty farm equipment that remain from its days as a cattle ranch and one of the first Spanish land grants in California. Located in an industrial area near the south edge of Compton, the ranch is now a historical museum run by the heirs of the original owner, Juan Jose Dominguez.

Small in size, the garden is unusual for public cactus gardens in Southern California because it was started by volunteers, said Tom Glavich, vice president of the Pasadena-based Cactus and Succulent Society of America. Whereas others, including Rancho Santa Fe in Claremont and Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, have professional paid staffs, Glavich said, Dominguez Rancho is still maintained by the 77-year-old Long Beach club.

“It’s really an achievement and a mark of distinction for a public garden to be maintained solely by volunteer labor,” he said.

The garden sits on the north edge of the 13-acre property. A striking swath of arid exotica borders an expansive lawn, site of a significant battle of the Mexican-American War in 1846. Two swollen ponytail palms sit near the entrance, kept company by Mexican barrel cactuses, South African aloes and clusters of red-tinged jade plants.

Nothing is labeled, and a few pale gray specimens in the back appear close to death, but the garden does boast its share of showpieces, according to its curator, Eunice Thompson. A green Agave titanota sprouts a 6-foot-high spike expected to break into spectacular yellow bloom this month. A floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) studded with thorns anchors one side of the garden. A hybrid aloe tree from South Africa -- a cross between a rare Aloe dichotoma and a larger Aloe barberae -- stands more than 30 feet tall in another corner, its highest dark-green leaves lost in blue sky. “It’s a statement,” Thompson said.

McPolin, now 93 and living in a convalescent home, wanted to start the cactus garden as a nod to Gregorio Del Amo, husband of Maria Susana Delfina Dominguez, a descendant of the original owner, said Alison Bruesehoff, executive director of Dominguez Rancho Adobe.

Del Amo, a horticulturist, liked to bring plants from all over the world in the early 20th century, and “if they grew at the ranch, he put them in his nurseries,” she said.

The Claretian missionaries, whose retirement home had been a seminary for Catholic priests, also may have been inspired by the small desert garden on the grounds of San Gabriel Mission, said Joe Clements, director of the arboretum at Pitzer College in Claremont and former Desert Garden curator of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

“Throughout the 1920s, cactus gardens were popular,” he said. The devoutly Catholic Dominguez family “probably had seen the one at the San Gabriel Mission many times,” he said, and created a satellite garden based on that.

The Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum ( and its grounds are open for free guided tours every Wednesday and Sunday as well as the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the month. On a recent weekend, docents led visitors through the thick-walled hacienda while Long Beach Cactus Club members raked gravel and pulled weeds outside. Then they headed to the carriage house for a lecture by master grower Gary Duke.

“This is not a pampered garden,” curator Thompson said. “It is a labor of love.”

Randall is the author of “Peaceful Places: Los Angeles,” to be published this summer by Menasha Ridge Press. Comments: