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There are profound mysteries in a Real Cactus Soil which no cactus maniac would betray, even if you broke him on the wheel. All these sects, observances, rituals, schools and lodges, as well as the wild or hermit cactus maniacs, will swear that only by their Method alone have they achieved such miraculous results.

We eye each other from a short, spiky distance. What difficult secret do we share? We hardly want to know but we keep looking, and the middle distance fills with cacti and succulents we have known. Our encounters usually take place under the cover of something else. We should be talking about literature but we're talking about the rare varieties you can sometimes find in supermarkets, and how you might not really know what they are till they flower. Other people indulge our conversation for a moment then leave us in our thicket of strange forms, by the checkout.

How far back does this go? A long way, usually to childhood. We grew cacti from seed by the age of ten. Every day over an entire winter and a spring we pulled out the box from under the living room sofa, and one day we knew the crystal of dust that was a pinpoint of mammillaria in a sea of John Innes No. 1 compost. Two weeks later an opuntia. Or was it a lithops? Already we saw the eleven-inch star-shaped flower the stapelia variegata would have one day, purply-black with gold markings, and the sky-eating white of the epiphyllium. The Latin was proof of elegance, enigma and things that don't move.

Cacti and succulents were part of civilisation. Their aureoles of spines, their clusters of hooked hairs left an itch that was hard to locate. They were mysteriously alive, inscrutably contained, the ones that looked like stones or sausages, the ones that spat their young off the ends of spotted stalks, their ears, bracts, entire forms masquerading as leaves. You could take cuttings and one day see a new green sausage fill with light. Bits that fell off would grow. They came from the desert and the jungle, they were parched, replete and on your windowsill, the face you turned to the outside world, lapping the slender small-town sun.

A cactus is a succulent, sub- of a genus, member of a family, butt of a joke if not beyond one. The prickles are there to remind you. A cactus becomes a succulent when it loses its prickles, and vice versa. Are you with me? Some people find cacti unbearably enigmatic, and succulents irritating. So many fleshy leaves off a like-minded stem, so few reluctant flowers. That disinterestedness of the born skeptic. You can ignore a cactus, can't you, leave it in the window for years? You don't need to water them more than once a year, if that, they're reservoirs aren't they? Ships of the ships of the desert, last ditch for desert rats. If ignored they will prosper, and may even let out a rare, astounded blossom, the sudden riot of life almost more than you can bear, the background music Beethoven, a cactus if ever you heard one.

You can't ignore a cactus, can you? You have become one.

Don't judge me by my spots, you say, rather, by my spikes. I'm awkward in a crowd but can hold a windowsill single-handed. Generic desert all around me. An isolationist. A reservoir. Groups of us can portray a gawky charm. We like to be plunged to the neck in gravel and watered indirectly. We agree to tell all and we tell nothing. We try for a south-facing aspect. The world could end and we'd still be there, inviolate. You begin to guess that there's no such thing as normal and we're proof of it, cacti and succulents, members and friends. Like mayflies in May and mushrooms on St. George's Day, we're reliable and unaccountable, scattered about in shops, houses, offices, in a habit of light in a gap between net curtains.

Was it that first propagation under the living-room sofa? Or the first visit to the greenhouses at Kew? Or having a greenhouse of your own? Or when you were given your first cutting by Jimmie, the first cactus fancier you knew? A moment whereafter you felt a bolt of recognition at the sight of a fellow, an absentee in a window, like Emma Bovary-an underwatered succulent if ever there was one.

Jimmie was soft and slightly withdrawn. She looked at you from far back, her hands on the staging in the conservatory in front of a large, dusty, nameless plant with a crock of red-pink flowers. Was she looking at you or just taking you in on her way through? The glass on the conservatory mossy within and milky without. She leaned back as she told you the name in Latin and the habit of the plant. Downy, with fine, hooked hair. Straight fringe, wide face; between a smile and a daze, stooped shoulders in a big frame. Jimmie was one of The Girls, three women who ran a small-holding, a café and a Jersey cow. Girls of a feather. Jimmie was the horticultural Girl, Eileen looked after the animals, Mollie ran the café. Eileen was a cactus, Mollie a succulent. Jimmie was epileptic.

Members of the Society of Cacti and Succulents, and Friends, take heed: there are more of us than you know, we're lodged on all manner of shelf and saucer, usually far from the window which may well face North. Sometimes we're watered too indirectly. A glance round the door. Mist through an open window on a summer evening. We might not be watered at all. We might search high and low. We might not be able to move. Then the cactus maniacs begin to shout all together, and attack one another with their fists, teeth, hooves and claws; but as is the way of this world, the real truth is not brought to light even by these means.

from Global City Review




cacti and succulents

judy kravis