Inside Los Angeles' legendary 'Cactus Store'
Cactus Collective: A lesson in rare cacti from L.A.’s vibiest store
Words— Ben Kriz
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
So you got yourself a few cacti for the apartment. You’ve been researching the best ways to care for it, looking into different pots, looking at the best soils. “I’m obsessed!”, you tell your friends. You aren’t alone. What you’ll find, if you dig into the brambly corners of the internet (and real life), is that there are many just like you, but who have been infatuated with cacti (and xerophiles in general) their entire lives.
If you find yourself in Los Angeles—just off Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, you'll find one such obsessive epicentre. An unassuming shop filled to the rafters with prickly friends, like Pelecyphora strobiliformis, Yucca thompsoniana, and Tunilla erectoclada.
Once you step inside and look around, you may notice that each terra-cotta pot is unique—not like the ultra-glossy vessels over at Whole Foods. Look even closer you’ll notice that the cacti, too, are special—no generic cartoon cacti here. And that’s when, out from the back store or side garden, one of the proprietors will coolly drop some knowledge on you. Yes, this is when the fun starts.
This is Cactus Store (a.k.a. Hot Cactus), a shop that will set you up with an exceptionally rare cactus, but that also acts as a sort of botanically-minded creative collective. Cactus Store has a floating cast of six or so folks from creative disciplines who found each other through a common interest in uncommon plants, or as one of its members, Christian Cummings, puts it, “things that grow and thrive where nothing should survive.” Christian helps run the shop alongside his cohorts Carlos Morera, Max Martin, and “Uncle” Johnny Morera.
Their love of cacti has taken them to the far reaches of the globe. Christian shows me one such example, Eulychnia castanea spiralis from the Atacama Desert in Chile. “It’s an incredibly slow grower,” he says. “Normally a cactus will grow like this [he draws a straight line in the air]. This cactus, however, grows like this [he makes a spiral motion]. For a twisting plant, an inch of growth doesn’t necessarily translate as height.” Christian then describes its habitat, which happens to be the driest place on Earth. Parts of this desert haven’t seen rain for more than 200 million years. Plants living there are fed by a coastal fog created by incoming Antarctic moisture. “You wake up soaking wet but technically it is drier than Death Valley”. He then mentions how NASA uses the Atacama desert to test their Mars rover technology because its landscape so closely resembles the surface of Mars.
I am fascinated and want to know more.
We spoke about the kinds of cacti they collect, the charming (and sometimes nefarious) characters they’ve met along the way, their book, and about popular theories for why millennials are so obsessed with plants.
What is the main idea behind the kinds of plants you carry at Cactus Store?
Most nurseries that sell cactus plants sell babies, and cactus babies, like human babies, are pristine. Similarly, adult plants like adult people, are ugly, scarred and wrinkled.
Quite a few of our plants come from old collections. We do not disrupt the roots of a plant growing in its habitat. We have never done that and we never will do that.
Sometimes they come from the dilapidated greenhouses of once-active collectors who have migrated their interests to other things. Sometimes we rescue plants from old growth desert gardens before they are demolished and replaced with suburban lawns by real-estate flippers. Some of the collections we’ve acquired come from researchers who have spent their lives in the field, studying the growth habits of desert plants. You would be surprised by all the unlikely ways our plants find us.
But you do more than just sell cacti, correct?
Most of what we do happens in a studio down the street. Our projects range from designing botanical garden spaces to working on a nature documentary about the relationship between people and plants. Ours is a sort of Earth citizenship project. It’s not so much about buying and selling plants as it is about our unique relationship with them.
Sometimes we turn our store into a secret bar called Saguaros where we drink Mezcal with friends while hosting small events, from plant-based poetry readings to listening to instrumental renditions of Steely Dan songs played on the Wurlitzer.
"I don't think a plant can be a fad any more than oxygen can. There's no such thing as life without plants period."
I was surprised to find there’s a fairly substantial cacti community out here, but perhaps I shouldn’t be.
It’s not as big as you’d think. In fact, it’s pretty small. Everyone kind of knows each other.
When Cactus Store began in 2014 there was an existing community of hobbyists interested in rare African succulents, but most collectors kept away from cacti. Fast forward to now, what was once a very small clutch of cataphiles has since blossomed into something astounding. So much so that it’s become difficult to find plants that a few years ago were common and readily available.
Why do you think people are gravitating towards cacti and succulents?
It’s a good question. I actually think there is a sort of rebalancing happening, not just with cacti, but with all things that grow. We get a lot of people asking questions like, why are young people so interested in plants? Many articles have been written in the last few years about this subject. Most of their conclusions are cynical like, because millennials can't afford babies they are buying plants, or, because young people spend so much time on social media and so little time in the actual world, they need plants to connect to something real. I think this is totally insane, the idea that plants are “trending”. I don't think a plant can be a fad any more than oxygen can. There is no such thing as life on Earth without plants period.
Our parents and our grandparents inherited a world that believed although capitalism isn't pretty, at least it makes us comfortable, and there is no alternative so fuck it. I’d like to believe that younger generations are wising up to their role as citizens of Earth—learning to think more holistically about the health and happiness of our planet and the things that grow here. This is what I mean by “rebalancing”. People are coming back into a relationship that’s was theirs all along.
What’s the leap from “I like cacti” to being a total head?
I had a little collection that I started maybe 15 years ago—they were all plants from the dollar store. As they started to get bigger, they just started taking up more space in my consciousness. I was worried about doing something wrong so I looked one of them up and found out that although is incredibly common in the trade, it no longer exists in habitat.
Another one of my plants I discovered was a monotonic plant, which means that it’s the only species in its genus. Then I started to get really interested in monotypic species in particular because humans are monotypic. Like humans, monotypic plants often develop unique strategies to survive and can be highly individual. From there it spiralled over many years into something deeply personal and nerdy.
You guys put out a book as well—Xerophile: Cactus Photographs from Expeditions of the Obsessed—how did it come about?
Out of our fascination with the plants, and with others like us who share this passion. The book also serves as a reminder that a cactus plant doesn’t belong on your mantle or desk. It is not a decoration, but an extremophilic organism, each adapted to thrive in a highly unique situation.
There are 25 photographers represented in the book. These people have spent most of their lives climbing around the most remote deserts of Earth just to photograph plants. A few contributors to the book are established plant researchers, but most are just obsessives who have dedicated much of their lives to this niche hobby. The cover image for instance was taken by a man who was a high school art teacher for 40 years. Before that (in the 1960s and ’70s) he was in an eco-themed psychedelic rock band. Every summer of his adult life, when his students were on break, he would schedule elaborate trips to Peru, Africa, Argentina, Chile, etc. to see plants growing in their own terms. Another contributor to our book snapped most of his pics while on a trip around the world on his bicycle.
At the end of our chat, I remarked, benignly, that I wished I could take a cactus home to Montreal. “If you want, we could try to smuggle one,” Christian said. Before I knew it, he had boxed up a rare Gymnocalycium baldianum (a.k.a. a dwarf chin cactus) for me to take home. "It might even bloom," he said. "Just don't let it die, or I'll know." It made the journey back safely and, just last month—as predicted—we got a first bloom. Wonder if Christian felt it.