The great cactus comeback

Cactus along wall

Rachel Wells

Posted October 18, 2018

Thanks to dry spells and passionate growers, cacti are enjoying a fresh spike in popularity.

When Libby McLean started removing rose bushes and lush green lawn around her mid-century Geelong home a decade ago, replacing them with thorny cacti, most people thought she was mad.

“This was back in 2008 and at the time a lot of friends and family were like, ‘that’s really weird,’” says Libby, a former fashion designer and product manager. Libby now runs Arizona Living – a nursery renowned for its extensive range of cacti – down a disused laneway in Jan Juc on Victoria’s Surf Coast.

While Australians have had a long fascination with cacti, Libby says it is only recently that perceptions have shifted from “unusual and even hostile” to “fashionable and on-trend”.

“It’s only been in the last few years that people have started to think, ‘oh, cacti are actually an attractive plant rather than an unpleasant one,’” she says.

When Libby started the business in 2015, indoor plants made up about 95 per cent of her sales.

“Now, the cacti are the major part of the business,” says Libby, whose nursery features millennium pink walls, a shipping container and a geodesic dome that doubles as a hothouse.

“There’s been a huge shift, particularly in the last 18 months. People, who might have previously thought of cacti as a weed that farmers had on their farms, are now coming in and asking for certain varieties because they’ve seen them in a home magazine or on Instagram.” 

Jim Hall, who runs Cactus Country – Australia’s largest cactus garden – in Strathmerton, near Cobram in north-east Victoria – says that while there have always been people with a passion for the “architectural beauty” of cacti, the plants, which are native to the Americas, are now being appreciated far more widely.

Jim’s own interest in cacti began as a child. His father, a keen gardener, had a small collection on his Strathmerton dairy farm.

“I was the only one who really enjoyed the garden, apart from my father,” Jim says.

Returning from overseas in the mid-1970s, Jim was devastated to discover his father had sold most of the cacti. “Dad was moving and when I came back there were only a few plants left, so I bought them and started my own little collection.”

Family exploring Cactus Country

That collection was the early beginnings of Cactus Country, an extraordinary 12-hectare garden that was officially opened 30 years ago, in 1988, and features more than 3000 species and tens of thousands of individual plants.

Jim says the garden, which he runs with his wife Julie and son John, has boomed in recent years. “Last year we had 15,000 visitors through. This year, we’ll have about 30,000.” 

Jim points at the garden behind him, at the architectural shapes that range from the towering Peruvian torch cactus (Trichocereus peruvianus) to the Trichocereus pasacana, which look like something straight out of a spaghetti western. 

“Look at them,” he says. “They’re a growing sculpture, a changing sculpture, a living sculpture. People come here and take thousands of photographs and put them online. We have people coming here from China just to take wedding photos. It’s gone crazy.”

Dan Torre, avid cacti collector and author of Cactus – a book that explores the history of cacti – says the plant, in particular the prickly pear, has finally shaken off its “menacing” reputation in this country. 

The highly invasive prickly pear (from the Opuntia family) was introduced to Australia in the late 1700s in an attempt to establish a cochineal (red dye) industry. At the time, the colour was produced by cochineal bugs, which lived on prickly pear. 

However, by 1920, the prickly pear was deemed a noxious weed, found to be choking some 25 million hectares of farmland in Queensland and northern New South Wales.  

In 1932, after many failed attempts to eradicate the cacti, millions of larvae from the cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) were brought from Argentina. The biocontrol worked – they managed to eat the prickly pear into submission.

“It’s a really fascinating history,” says Dan, who is originally from Southern California. “Because where I come from, cacti aren’t regarded as a pest at all. But when I first arrived here in the ’90s, there just wasn’t a big interest in cacti, because of its bad reputation from earlier decades.” 

In those days, the only people with prickly pear in their gardens were Maltese and Italian immigrants who grew them for their sweet-tasting fruit.  

“Now you can’t go anywhere, even places like Kmart and Target, without seeing cacti for sale,” he says.

Pink cactus close-up

Cacti, along with succulents, first started appearing in public gardens in Melbourne in the late 1800s. Botanist and landscape gardener William Guilfoyle led the way, using cacti and succulents extensively throughout the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.  

But it was during the 1920s and ’30s that a handful of prominent cacti collectors – namely Tom Dawson, Justin Gill and Ralph Fields – pioneered the importation and growing of thousands of cacti species in Victoria. 

Around the same time, a number of private collectors were beginning to plant their own cactus gardens and, in 1927, the Cactus and Succulent Society of Australia, based in Victoria, was established.  

Dawson and Gill established what was to become Australia’s largest cactus garden in the early 1930s on a one-acre allotment in White Hills in Bendigo. It quickly became the main supplier of cacti in the state, with more than 2000 species. Today, the property is owned by John Martin, who regularly opens what remains of the heritage-listed garden to the public. 

Meanwhile, a large part of Ralph Fields’ extensive collection, originally gathered by German botanist Harold Blossfeld during an expedition to South America in the mid-1930s, was recently acquired by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The collection, grown on Ralph Fields’ property in Tennyson, near Echuca, and most recently maintained by his son Robert, will be used, along with another recently acquired private collection, to redevelop the Arid precinct in the Royal Botanic Gardens next year. 

“All up we’ve got over 400 species and 1500 individual pots from these two amazing collections to go into the Arid precinct,” says Royal Botanic Gardens executive director Chris Cole. 

Chris says the timing of the refurbished garden couldn’t be better given the renewed interest in cacti, which he believes can be traced back to the so-called Millennium drought. 

Lyle Filippe, from Roraima Nursery in Lara, agrees the drought and accompanying water restrictions in Victoria in the early 2000s inspired the resurgence of interest in cacti and succulents. 

“People started planting things you didn’t have to water a lot, and even people who didn’t like cacti much started mucking around with them and began to appreciate how beautiful they were,” says Lyle, who bought the old Lara Nursery 16 years ago and rebuilt it from scratch, including two acres of stunning display gardens, which he opened to the public in September last year.

The gardens combine thousands of unusual plants – including succulents and cacti, which represent up to 40 per cent of the garden – with eye-catching sculptures, artefacts and reclaimed industrial elements like concrete, stone and steel. 

“It’s funny, Victorians were really forced into planting cacti in the beginning because they couldn’t water anything,” says Lyle. “And now they can’t get enough of them.”

Path in Cactus Country

Five ways to savour cacti

  • Cactus ice-cream: Cactus Country makes theirs from the apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus), and serves it in the on-site cafe.
  • Cactus jam: Made from the fruit of the prickly pear. 
  • Cactus cake: Using the leaf of the prickly pear, Cactus Country’s delicious cactus cake has developed a cult following.
  • Prickly pear lemonade: Mix prickly pear juice with half a cup of lemon juice, cold water, honey and ice.
  • Cactus and ginger beer margarita: Mix tequila, fresh lime juice, prickly pear syrup and ginger beer. Serve with lime wedges and coarse salt on the rim of the glass. 

Where to see and buy cacti

Cactus Country
4986 Murray Valley Highway, Strathmerton

Roraima Nursery
20 Swan Street, Lara

Arizona Living
Stuart Ave, Jan Juc

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
Arid Garden and Guilfoyle’s Volcano

Collectors Corner
810 Springvale Road, Braeside

Dawson’s Cactus Garden
White Hills, Bendigo
03 5448 4270