Succulents: Chlorophyll With Character

My first flower memory is of a cactus.

I was about three years old and peering up into a huge, red Epiphyllum flower. It sprouted from an old, much-loved plant belonging to my Grandmother.

My sister still grows a cutting from the plant Nan acquired during the Great Depression (around 1929). It’s been in my family for three generations.

I had forgotten another favourite cactus of Nan’s, and only remembered it when I saw a family photo dating from around 1967.  That image brought back another childhood memory: Nan’s Echinopsis werdermannii. This was a dumpy, globular cactus that, briefly, detonated with giant waterlily-like pink flowers every summer. Ta da!

Nan fed my interest in collecting cacti, giving me (in modern terms) 45 cents each week, enough to buy one potted cactus seedling from a florist shop. She told me the story of Rhipsalis baccifera, the only cactus that lives outside the Americas. The reason, Nan said, was that cuttings had been ripped by a cyclone from tropical America and dropped in the rainforests of West Africa. That spurred me on to collect a ‘cyclone cactus’.

Collecting helped me discover that cacti are all related, belonging to the Cactaceae family, one of many succulent plant families that use a wide range of strategies to survive dry weather and harm from enemies.

Thanks to Nan’s deep purse and Dad’s shelf-building skills, succulents filled my bedroom. A Saturday job at a pet shop and Sundays spent tidying gardens enabled me to save up for a 3m by 3m greenhouse, greenhouse tables to keep plants off the cold, damp ground of London. In the long,  gloomy English winter, glasshouses provide succulents with good light, and protection from damp. With a paraffin heater to frost-proof my house, I could safely keep highland cacti, like fleecy Espostoa lanata.

As a teenager I got inspiration from the succulent collection at Kew Gardens: Madagascan and Namibian curiosities,  elephant foot yams, stem-succulent grapes, leaf-succulent cucumbers, and weird gesneriads.

I learned about how certain succulents have reorganised their metabolism, respiring nocturnally to reduce water loss, and many other adaptations to often harsh or unpredictable weather.  I’ve been hooked ever since.

All this came back to me while ABC TV were filming with me at Merv Whitehouses’ Bellbird Park garden (near Ipswich). Most of the photos are from his garden on 17th July.

If you’re interested in seeing Merv’s garden, he will be opening it through Open Gardens Australia later this year.

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Jerry Coleby-Williams 19th July 2014