Succulents in the suburbs
- Monday 4 January 2016 2:05PM
- Tim Entwisle
The director of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, Tim Entwisle, heads to Albion Park in NSW to meet Jayde Caldwell, supreme champion of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales, to get acquainted with some prickly plants.
Pulling up into the drive of Jayde Caldwell's home in an Albion Park subdivision, an hour inland from Wollongong, I found a house like any other. Yet there were already signs of something exotic going on behind the brick veneer.
Growing cacti can be very competitive but Caldwell comes from good stock.
On the front porch I see potted succulents, plants with fleshy stems and leaves that come from deserts and other dry parts of the world. Caldwell's parents meet me at the front door, but Caldwell, 30, soon takes over and guides me through the house to see his collection.
Caldwell is a gardener. His day job is managing a retail nursery in western Sydney, where he cares for plants of all kinds, but at home it's all about cacti and succulents. He's a prize-winning grower of these striking exotic plants, and was most recently crowned supreme champion of the Cactus and Succulent Society of New South Wales (after a brief period as novice cactus and succulent champion).
Growing cacti can be very competitive but Caldwell comes from good stock: his uncle Lester Myers is a legendary cactus grower in Gilgandra, in inland New South Wales, a place more suited—you would think—to these drought-loving plants. Albion Park gets very hot and very cold, and also wet and windy. So although most of Caldwell's plants survive outdoors, they are mostly protected by shade cloth and a transparent roof to keep out the rain.
A walk through Jayde's collection is a (quick) walk around the world. First we visit southern Africa, via so-called 'living stones' (Lithops) from the deserts of Namibia. They are tricky to grow but reward with a variety of colours, of which red (called 'rubra') is the prettiest.
We pass some sea urchin plants (Asterophytum), many of which also look like coral. It sounds very marine, but they actually live in North America, in places like Texas or Mexico. Some have attractive white flecks—Caldwell's narration is full of flecking, blotches and tactile textures.
Caldwell told me it was a pity I hadn't arrived a week earlier, when the flowers were spectacular (ah, to have a dollar or two for every time someone has said that to me). There's a sea urchin cultivar called 'super karbuto', bred in Japan and now one of the most popularly grown and shown—a prize-winner.
Still in America, down Mexico way, we turn to the mamillarias. These are popular and tough cacti, pretty easy to grow, and there are more than 200 species to choose from. The one we stop at is grey and soft, as many are. Although it's covered in spines you can pet it like cat or dog. This particular one is 14 years old and Caldwell grew it from seed. It has 60 balls of grey softness, and looks a bit like an exotic cauliflower. Caldwell confesses it is perhaps his favourite plant in the collection—or at least in the top five.
Again, it's not in flower but 'you should have seen it'. It blooms in winter, which is unusual, and the flowers have a very sweet perfume. Most cacti don't have perfumes, says Caldwell, and most flower in summer.
IMAGE: JAYDE CALDWELL POSES WITH A MADAGASCAN SUCCULENT, APPARENTLY A FAVOURITE OF CLIMBING LEMURS IN ITS NATIVE HABITAT (TIM ENTWISLE)
Then it's back across the Atlantic, to the other side of Africa, where in dry parts of the island of Madagascar you'll find not only lemurs but pachypodiums. You'll even find the two together. Apparently the endemic mammals enjoying climbing the thorny stems of pachypodiums (which have common names like elephant foot or trunk, a nod to the swollen base of the stem, which stores water and helps the plant survive in its desert home).
We see a cristate or fasciate specimen—a mutant growth form with crested tops, and apparently a big success in cactus shows. The next one's a prize-winner too and I suspect it helped Caldwell become supreme champion at last year's Royal Easter Show in Sydney.
There are many other cacti, many other succulents, and many other stories of arid lands and strange animals in Caldwell's backyard. He says cacti and succulents are becoming increasing popular as our climate changes and becomes dryer and hotter in many places. His neighbours are intrigued—one often looks over the fence to see how the cacti are faring. But, Caldwell admits, some people still hate them.
Me? I used to grow and admire them as a youth but strayed away during my young adult years. Now, I think I'm back! I'm not a dispassionate observer, though. While director of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust I was patron of the Cactus and Succulent Society of NSW. I'm now patron of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Australia, based in Melbourne.
A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.