A boy and his cacti

Why do I like chocolate, British farces, Leonard Cohen songs? More to the point, where did my interest in cacti come from? I’ve always been a collector, starting with various boyhood collections, and now with a large collection of beer bottles, art and bric-a-brac featuring frogs and spiders, and of course, cactuses.

I grew up in the then small town of Prince George, B.C., 800 km west of Edmonton. A basic sort of town in the nineteen fifties, prior to TV, Macdonald’s or pizza.

People didn’t travel much, or eat out much, or, it seemed to me, do anything much. So I made my own fun, ranging from blowing things up with my chemistry set to injuring myself on outings with the Boy Scout troop.

A boy’s cactus sketch

A boy’s cactus sketch

Because I was interested in the world, people would sometimes give me things they thought I would like, such as nice rocks or outdoor gear to injure myself with. Occasionally people would give me plants or cuttings. To house these, my parents let me build a set of shelves across some west-facing windows in our house, and before I really knew it, I was a plant collector.

A few plants got me started when I was 11 years old, but the collection really developed when I was 13–14. I didn’t know that I was destined to become an accountant, but even then I was an ardent record-keeper, writing down details of when I acquired plants, from whom/where, what their sizes were, and what success I had in growing them. I sketched them all and wrote comments on peculiarities. In my records, I even had a (large) section for “deceased.”

Here is an example sketch, of a Cereus I obtained in July 1955.* My record says the new arm started to grow in August, so when I made the sketch some months later, the arm was prominent. The cactus was tiny then, but Betty and I still have it, and now it is over 6 feet tall, with yet another arm starting last year. At 54+ years of age, it is the centerpiece of our collection. Only some 42-year-old Sansevierias rival it in age. (Though we also have African violets descended from some I crossbred back then.)

My interest in cacti was increased by injuring myself stepping on an Opuntia fragilis in the dry country near Cache Creek, B.C. in 1955. I took a few pads home, where they did well according to my records. I began to admire something that could survive, even thrive, in such unwelcoming conditions, and that could make beautiful flowers out of what often seemed a pretty ugly base. Now I see beauty in the ugliness too, seeking out cactuses that are not conventionally pretty, even for cactuses. And I continue to injure myself on the fierce Opuntias I have!

* I got the Cereus from the Princess Flower Shop in Prince George. This shop was mentioned in a 1950s National Geographic issue, which noted the shop’s focus on artificial flowers and said that was because it was too cold in Prince George for real flowers to grow! It was an early lesson for me in doubting what I read, even from a prestigious source.

>>by Mike G.

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