TODAY I wish to declare a love affair. It is with cacti and other succulent plants, has lasted more than half a century and shows no sign of waning, particularly since I am aided and abetted by an equally enthusiastic missus.
It all began when I was 12 and we had a family holiday in a rented villa just outside Estartit, on the Costa Brava (my father drove all the way there and back to Lancashire, non-stop, fuelled by handfuls of Pro-Plus caffeine tablets). In the garden were several large opuntias, or prickly pears, which I found fascinating although I came to regret handling them and getting hundreds of little spines lodged in my fingers.
On our return home I visited a nurseryman’s stall on Nelson Market where there was a small opuntia on sale for 3s 6d (17p in new money). It found a home on my bedroom windowsill and was soon joined by several companions. Since the room faced north and the sun seldom shone, they struggled to thrive but I was delighted when my first flower appeared on a gymnocalycium.
Sadly for me, girls failed to be impressed by this interesting hobby and before long my plants began to suffer from neglect as I attached more importance to going out on the lash.
By the time I got together with Margaret in our thirties, the Ashworth Collection had dwindled to a single succulent plant, Aloe variegata, the partridge-breasted aloe, which was a fourth- or fifth-generation offset from an original market purchase. This is one:
To my joy it turned out that Margaret too was an enthusiast, having been given a small cactus ‘garden’ as a child, and like me had a windowsill collection when a teenager which was eventually abandoned. For the uninitiated, all succulent plants store water in their stems but not all succulents are cacti. The latter originate from the Americas and tend to have spines produced from specialised structures called aereoles.
We were soon exploring the succulent world together. One of our first purchases was a money plant (Crassula ovata) of the type frequently glimpsed through the steamed-up windows of Chinese takeaways. We still have it 30-odd years later, and it rejoices in the name Planty.
Before long we were visiting some of the many specialist nurseries in the South East and were captivated by the vast variety of seedlings on sale. Soon the windowsills of our sunny flat in Shoeburyness were crammed with small cacti, mainly mammillarias, rebutias and sulcorebutias which rewarded us with prolific and beautiful flowers in springtime.
Before long we joined the Southend-on-Sea branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society (BCSS) and were invited along to an evening meeting at which the treasurer sidled up and bade us welcome to the dwindling throng. Sotto voce, he confided: ‘You know, we’ve lost a lot to bonsai.’
Cactus people tend to be very generous with advice and surplus plants. We were fortunate to be introduced to several brilliant growers, including Joyce Cocozza and Pat Delaney.
Joyce had a fabulous collection of haworthias – South African succulents of which many have transparent ‘windows’ in the top of their stems. In the wild, they pull themselves down into the soil to cope with the heat, with just the windows showing to soak up the sunlight. Here is a 35-year-old example from our own collection, Haworthia truncata x pygmaea, ‘Frosty Top’. This plant had the honour of winning first prize at the Chipping Village Show a few miles from here in August 2017.
Despite being severely disabled, Joyce was full of energy and enthusiasm. When she wasn’t tending her plants, she created pictures of them made up of thousands of tiny black ink dots. She was also a huge fan of the singer Tony Bennett, and her proudest possession was a picture she made of him which the great man had signed for her.
She created many beautiful hybrids, some of which she named after members of her family, and Luisa Cocozza was one of our favourite plants. When Joyce died a few years ago it was a huge loss to the succulent community.
Pat Delaney we met at a cactus nursery and he invited us to his home near Luton, where he worked I think at the Vauxhall factory. He was an astonishingly successful cultivator and we were staggered by the size and quality of his collection. When I asked him for tips, he whispered in his soft Irish brogue, ‘Three things: light, air and water, in that order. What’s in the compost isn’t all that important so long as you have good drainage.’ Sound advice.
At the time we had only ever seen one Euphorbia piscidermis, an Ethiopian native which as the name suggests has fish-like scales on its surface. The example we were shown by a proud grower was less than an inch across. I asked Pat if he had one and with a slight smile he reached up to the top of his central heating boiler in the conservatory and produced a magnificent grafted specimen fully a foot long.
By the time we moved from our flat to a house with a garden in Beckenham, we had built up a collection large enough to fill half of a 12ft greenhouse. I should mention that succulents tend to need repotting every year or two, and every time you move up to a size bigger pot it takes up double the space. Hence the greenhouse was soon full.
In 1995 we moved to a bigger home in Bromley, with a larger garden and immediately installed a 20ft by 12ft glasshouse. With hundreds of different species growing like stink, this was quickly insufficient for our needs and so up went another 20-footer, this time with a central bed for our larger specimens. These included a magnificent Agave ferdinandi-regis, a rosette almost 2ft across. It was with a mixture of pride and sadness that we saw it put up a 12ft flower spike which grew through a vent in the roof; flowering for these plants is their dying act.
With both greenhouses full, looking after our large collection could have been a full-time job. Unfortunately I already worked full-time and when we got an energetic working cocker spaniel which needed a minimum of three hours’ walk per day the plants inevitably suffered. By the time we left the Daily Mail in 2013, some had not been repotted for five or six years and it was a massive job to get back on top of things.
In 2014 we decided to move back up north to our current cottage which has a small garden bisected by a brook and certainly no room for 20ft greenhouses, so a drastic cull was required. After completing the purchase of the property, without having sold our own because some unscrupulous would-be buyers had messed us around, we decided to visit for a couple of weeks to see what work was required. Following a blissful fortnight in the Ribble Valley there was pressing business in Bromley, but I simply could not bear to go back and face the overcrowded, congested South East. Therefore it was left to poor Margaret to clear out the Bromley house while it remained on the market for another six months or so, and deal with the cacti, while I selfishly tramped the northern fells with the dog, who was in heaven, as was I.
My ever-resourceful better half had the brainwave of offering the collection to the local branch of the BCSS to be auctioned for society funds, setting aside a few choice haworthias which could thrive on the cottage windowsills. The cactophiles descended like locusts and snapped up our treasures at knockdown prices. The branch chairman, the renowned succulent expert and author John Pilbeam, who had his own nursery, found himself buying plants which he had sold to us more than 20 years earlier.
Fully moved up north, of course it was not long before we found a way to accommodate a 10ft greenhouse on the other side of the brook and so we started amassing another collection. This time, of necessity, we are much more choosy and restrict ourselves to a few favourite genera. And when a plant becomes scarred by pests, we ruthlessly chuck it out.
Here are a couple of our favourites – a Gymnocalycium horstii, the size of a small football, and a Euphorbia obesa, both in flower.
This reminds me that we used to know a woman in Bromley whose husband was national treasurer of the BCSS. One day on a visit to their greenhouses she declared that she ‘couldn’t bear to be in the same room as a gymnocalycium – they make me feel physically sick’. As for the obesa, also known as the Baseball Plant, this was so sought-after in my youth that I saw a single seed offered on sale for £1, equivalent to more than £20 in today’s money. Thanks to the efficiency of modern propagation methods, we were able to buy our mature specimen a few years ago for a bargain £3.50.
The two highlights of our year are our visits to the North West Cactus Mart and the Mesembryanthemum Show, both run by the Manchester branch of the BCSS. Yes, I know it’s sad, but when you’ve got the cactus habit, you stay pricked for life.
Old jokes’ home
I went to see a friend in his new flat. He told me to make myself at home. So I threw him out. I hate having visitors.
A PS from PG
I wouldn’t have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves