Cactus Center shares passion for exotic plants

33-cactusLast Sunday, I was fortunate to spend a most enjoyable hour at the California Cactus Center in Pasadena, courtesy of Molly Thongthiraj. She and her five sisters operate the center, a cactus and succulent nursery founded by her father, who immigrated to California from Thailand in the 1950s.

As a child, Thongthiraj learned to drive a tractor on her family’s 4 1/2-acre cactus ranch. The ranch was located not too far away, in the foothills that would later become Bradbury Estates (between Duarte and Monrovia). Her father insisted that his girls learn to drive a tractor before driving a car and, his daughter hinted, this instruction was instrumental in developing a strong work ethic in her and her sisters.

Being in the company of Thongthiraj was a real pleasure due to the palpable passion she shows for her work. Listening to her talk about the history of her family’s business, a love of plants and devotion to their care shined through.

Truth be known, many plant growers I have met over the years displayed a similar passion, coupled with a deep sense of gratitude and humility.

“All this started from a few little plants,” Thongthiraj explained.

As we walked up and down the aisles of plants, Thongthiraj did not just say the names of the plants for me to copy down but graciously wrote out their names on yellow sticky notes that she handed to me. Often, it seems, people who nurture plants on a full-time basis are ennobled by the experience. Giving is second nature to them.

Although only 1/2-acre in size, the California Cactus Center seems much larger, probably because of the seemingly inexhaustible selection of exotic plants on display, a considerable portion of which even seasoned gardeners, horticulturists and botanists probably have never seen.

I marveled most at those species with thick, caudiciform trunks and leafy tops. A caudex may best be described as a thick, fleshy structure bulging up from the ground, frequently resembling the top of a football, a rubber dome, the top half of a corky pine cone or some other waterproof hemisphere. A caudex grows ever so slowly but eventually, to quote Thongthiraj, “It may reach the size of a Volkswagen bug” in some species.

The first caudex at the Cactus Center that caught my eye was that of an elephant’s foot (Dioscorea elephantipes).

Elephant’s foot has a deeply furrowed, corky stump of a trunk topped with flimsy light green leaves. A wonderful contrast is created between what appears to be an ancient trunk and the freshly minted flush of foliage attached to it. If you saw nothing more than elephant foot foliage, you would never think to classify it as a succulent. Looking for a holiday gift for the gardener in your life who has everything? Consider an elephant’s foot.

Some of the plants at the Cactus Center are decades old and each has a story behind it.

At the entrance to the Cactus Center there is an enormous, 75-year-old tree aloe (Aloe bainesii/barberae), the largest aloe species, which can grow more than 30 feet tall. It was transplanted to its location 30 years ago after one of the sisters loaded it onto a truck and drove it to Pasadena. It was already huge at that time, and was damaged during the move, but has recovered nicely.

There is also a 150-year-old giant saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) that was transplanted from its desert home several years ago into its container at the nursery. It is matched in size by a blue saguaro (Pachycereus pringlei), growing nearby, that is only 30 years old but demonstrates, according to Thongthiraj, the fastest growth rate of any cactus species.

Thongthiraj had an interesting story to tell about exporting golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) to China.

Golden barrel cactus ownership has so much prestige in China that purchase of each specimen is accompanied by a contract that must be signed with a Parker pen in order to be valid. The Chinese eventually began to grow golden barrel cactus on their own, but there was a problem. China’s climate does not benefit from the long dry summers that are favorable to the development of golden barrel cactus’ signature curved and gilded spines. In China, spines grow straight and green so that the same species of cactus, cultivated there, is not golden at all.

Looking for a whimsical selection for a hanging basket?

Rik Rak plant (Cryptocereus anthonyanus) is guaranteed to produce smiles. An epiphytic or tree-dwelling cactus, Rik Rak’s deeply lobed foliage and droopy habit of growth seem straight out of a Dr. Seuss escapade. Fish hook plant (Senecio radicans v. glauca ‘Fish Hook’) is another outstanding hanging basket selection. It is highly drought resistant, an important characteristic where hanging baskets, which dry out more quickly than other containers, are concerned.

Argentine ball (Abromeitiella brevifolia ‘Argentine Ball’), in its own subtle way, may be the most arresting plant at the Cactus Center. Its jeweled plantlets combine together like an army of mini-agaves or a gigantic sea urchin. Grow Argentine ball on a volcanic rock. Like its air plant (Tillandsia xerographica) kin, it needs virtually nothing other than regular misting to grow.

California Cactus Center, at 216 S. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena, is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, call 626-795-2788 or go to

Tip of the week

Succulent wreaths make colorful door or wall ornaments. A circular wire frame is covered with presoaked, wrung-out sphagnum moss that is secured with transparent fishing line. Cuttings from your choice of succulents are inserted into the moss. Keep your wreath hydrated by misting with a spray bottle.

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