Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day of the cactus

Today's another side trip from 100 years ago to the present. Taking advantage of a pleasant winter day last weekend, we drove over to Morongo Valley to drop in at the Cactus Mart. The yards around the house are more than ready for some serious xeriscaping, and this was field research.

Cactus Mart is a cactus and succulent nursery that advertises itself as "poison free." If you love the prickly things as I do, it's more fun than Disneyland. Walking past the gift and birding shops, you're at the operation's epicenter (never a word used lightly here along the San Andreas Fault). It's a shady spot, under an ancient tamarisk, with a bubbling fountain and a view of the foothills of Joshua Tree in the distance.

Then venture out into a large open area filled with multiple specimens of desert plants. Prickly pears are a personal favorite, and pretty much first thing I found a large congregation of them.

Prickly pears (Opuntia) come with and without spines, and there are some 200 species. They have colorful flowers in the spring, followed by fruit that grow the size of chicken eggs. These have various uses as food, I'm told, though I have only eaten them as napolitos where Mexican food is served.

Palms are actually water lovers, but some varieties are drought resistant, and these fan palms are another personal favorite. There are only a few palm trees native to southern California. Washingtonia filifera survives from a more tropical geological era, and a last remnant of them grows near Palm Springs in Palm Canyon, where there is a constant flow of water.

Here are barrel cactuses, another favorite. These puppies, about the size of cantaloupes, can grow to many feet around. When they flower, the brightly colored blooms appear on the top. Forget about trying to pick them.

I've been wanting to get one of these metal and stone roadrunners that you see on the left of the picture above. As the breeze catches their tail feathers, they rock back and forth. Here a rooster and two hens were busily scratching up edibles from the gravel underfoot.

The browns, tans, and beige of the desert call out for brightly colored pots. These were one of two or more displays of them soaking up the winter sun.

Indoors, there is table upon table of smaller cacti and succulents. Above and in the following pics I tried to capture some of the variety. I haven't figured out yet how I'm going to decide which ones to take home. I like pretty much all of them.

These are agave. The sharp points are at the ends of the leaves. I like their color and how they've figured out a way to look entirely different from all the other desert plants. There are a couple hundred species, some huge and sprawly. These are neatly symmetrical and seem to be standing at attention. Oh, and agave is a source of a sugary nectar, used for sweetening.

More variety, and each with its own name, home, and history.

These are called Mexican fence posts, or Pachycereus marginatus. I've read that they can grow to 20 feet and, planted close together in rows, have actually been used for fences.

I get a kick out of these hand-painted amphibians. I believe this is referred to as Talavera pottery and comes from Mexico.

This feline, by the name of Butch, was snoozing in the succulents, in a sun-warmed greenhouse out of the wind. He was found on the property as a tiny kitten, the owner said, along with a mate (also snoozing and just out of the picture).

I could go one, but I'll stop with this bunch a friendly guys - they seem friendly to me anyway.

And then there were these little ones from South Africa, which look more like funny shaped stones than living plants.

And what's a nursery without a half acre of terracotta. Besides the gift shop and the birding shop (already mentioned) there is a whole separate gardening tool shop. The Cactus Mart can be found on Highway 62 in Morongo Valley, about 30 miles north of Palm Springs. Great place to spend some time away from the computer screen.

Coming up: Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande


  1. I love cacti, although we have very very little of it in Louisiana. Far to wet, I guess. I see a fair amount of prickly pear type when I got to Texas.

  2. You make me itch to return to the Southwest. Maybe I could start an agave plantation and make mescal.

  3. That's a lot of cactus. Love the shot with the cat.

  4. I have one nice cactus in a pot, now inside for the winter. Liked the photos and am thinking spring.

  5. I am really enjoying the cacti in southern California. Can't believe how large they can grow.

  6. My ol` man was a cactus nut! he had hundreds.

  7. I would have loved this place. Thanks for the tour!