A thorny history with the cactus
L.A. gardeners have been going native for more than a century. Around 1900, nurseryman and plant sleuth Theodore Payne pushed for West Coast flowers and shrubs. His word was gospel: “Be a good Californian: Be loyal to your own state and keep your landscape Californian.” Payne was not alone. The Garden Club of America, founded in 1913, helped bring native plants to thousands of homes, and its female members replanted countrysides wrecked by industrial sprawl.
FOR THE RECORD:
Cactus rustler: The Home section’s Lost L.A. column June 13 said that the man who transported cactuses from the Texas-Mexico border to millionaire Edward L. Doheny’s L.A. greenhouse was Paul Howard. It was Edward Howard, Paul’s brother. —
Native gardeners delivered their message with moral fervor, convinced that good people raise good plants. But their actions weren’t so high-toned when it came to planting grandma’s cactus patch.
Cactuses were survivors like L.A.'s settlers and reminded Southlanders how far they’d come. Cactus said: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” As Southern California developed, new homeowners ordered shaggy pitahaya, yucca, aloe, euphorbia, senecio and agave for bungalow backyards.
Horticulturists working for nurseries and competitive collectors met demand by developing a cactus league of their own. They raided Arizona, Cuba and Guatemala. In 1918, expert Paul Howard prowled along the Texas- Mexico border. With dynamite, hammers, wedges and chisels, he blasted ancient specimens from their native terrain for deportation north to the West Adams greenhouse of his patron, oil millionaire Edward L. Doheny.
The less ambitious headed to the Colorado Desert, a checkerboard of private and public land overseen by the federal General Land Office. Undeveloped acres were an untapped, and unpoliced, mine of cactus gold. All a plants man needed was transportation between remote fueling depots.
Nominated by his peers as Mr. Truck of California, Watt Moreland was an early Los Angeles inventor. In 1909, at an auto show held in Hamburger’s department store in downtown L.A., he introduced a long-range motor. The following year Moreland opened the Moreland Motor Truck Co. He manufactured six models with a Gasifier engine fueled by distillate, a form of diesel. Distillate got 60 miles to a gallon and was cheaper than oats for a horse.
Watt marketed his trucks through newspapers, trade magazines and postcards. In one, two workers hang out in a Joshua tree, a species uprooted for suburbia and sliced and diced to make surgical splints. Below, more men wait by a Moreland, some desert loot barely visible in back. The running board boasts that this cactus chariot has passed an unspecified “Official 2000 Mile Fuel Test,” guaranteeing the eco-tourist and eco-thief a safe round trip between backyard and God’s garden.
When Spanish Revival haciendas were fashionable in the 1920s, “cactus rustling” by car became an interstate hobby. Back seats and trunks were ideal for transporting stolen plants back to L.A. for replanting in courtyard pots. Persistent poaching denuded the Mojave and stripped Devil’s Garden along the road from L.A. to Palm Springs.
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt of Pasadena came to the rescue. Supported by the Garden Club of America, she promoted desert preservation at plant exhibitions. In 1928, she shipped cactuses by rail and air for display at New York’s annual flower show. In 1930, she organized the International Deserts Conservation League. At Hoyt’s urging, Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio set aside a 10,000-acre cactus forest near Tehuacán and anointed Hoyt the “Apostle of Cacti.”
She pushed the Hoover administration to create a California cactus park, but her effort failed as the Depression deepened. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt to realize her vision. In 1936, the president established Joshua Tree National Monument. Hoyt helped stop the crime wave and Moreland closed shop in 1942. But cactus theft continues. Officials in Arizona embed tracking chips in saguaros residing at the Saguaro National Park. In Palm Desert, police patrol to protect their city’s plants.
Going native has never been easy. At what cost do we transplant the exotic and rare from remote canyons and unprotected hillsides? Is a cactus that matures in one desert still native when it’s in yours?
For more of Watters’ columns on homes and gardens of eras past, go to latimes.com/lostla.