"A hobby gone wild."
That's how Kim Thorpe describes Desert Creations, the novelty gift shop and well-stocked nursery that she and four friends from the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society opened in Northridge this past April.
So far, she says, "business is going great."
Chalk it up to timing. The new nursery opened when interest in drought-tolerant plants was, and still is, on the rise, a response to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Cash for Grass program and Gov. Jerry Brown's 25 percent mandate in the face of California's historic drought.
And it's not just collectors, but everyday folks who are showing their affinity for cacti and succulents by planting them in the yard, outdoor entertainment spaces and centerpieces designed to sit on the dining table.
"Finally, there's a practical reason for it," says Dave Bernstein, owner of the California Nursery Specialities' Cactus Ranch in Reseda, who has seen interest in his unusual mix of cacti and succulents driven by a variety of reasons since he opened the nursery in 1976. "The peace and love was fun and I was happy to be a part of that. The cowboy thing was fun, too. But this makes sense for Southern California.
"People are starting to get that it's not just the stark saguaro in the desert," he says. "With succulents, you can have a lush, colorful, Mediterranean landscape that rivals nothing else."
A growing number of retailers sell assorted cacti and succulents, from IKEA to Vons. The big box stores also carry them. But the biggest variety can still be found at the independent nurseries, such as California Nursery Specialties, California Cactus Center in Pasadena and Granite Hill Nursery at the Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center in Riverside for those in search of interesting specimen.
Desert Creations founders Artie Chavez and Steve Frieze started importing cacti and succulent plants nine years ago. Their travels have taken them all over the world — Madagascar, Peru and Namibia, as well as South Africa — in search of plants suited to Southern California's Mediterranean climate.
"Part of our responsibility is to educate people about the conditions that are necessary to have them thrive," Frieze says. "Most people like to see their plants flowering and in perfect condition, and that takes the same kind of care that any other plant would. The difference is you don't have to water this plant three or four times a week."
"Otherwise, you'll have to take a trip to the trash can," adds Chavez. "But the hobby is much more than just collecting plants on a windowsill or a greenhouse. It's gone into the yard and now inside the home. The way people are growing cactus is much broader than it was even 10 years ago."
Granted, it was slow-going in the early years; but orders soon picked up.
They experienced so much traffic coming into their back yards, where the plants were housed, that they decided to open up a retail shop with Thorpe, Steve Frieze's wife, Phyllis Frieze, and Gerald Richert as partners.
The nursery sits back from a busy stretch of Parthenia Street. It shares space and rent with Bear State Nursery, a California and Australia native plants nursery that plans on vacating by the end of the year, leaving the location to the five cactus crusaders, four of whom were gathered there one stifling July afternoon.
"Gerald (Richert) makes a majority of the pottery that we have, and what's nice about that is people will come in and say, 'I need a pot that's going to fit this plant,' and he can custom make it for them," Thorpe says, showing off an assortment of his work alongside other offerings.
There are vintage desert postcards, cactus-topped swizzle sticks, stained-glass art, handmade soaps and jewelry. Thorpe designs succulent fairy gardens, and the partners have singled out handy tools for maintaining prickly cactus.
Shoppers will also find soils, geodes and top dressing specifically for potting cacti and succulents.
Young kids can plop down in the Kid's Corner and play with dinosaurs and blocks, or color while their parents have a look around. Outside, they may encounter purple-flowering Raphionacme, leafy Sesamothamnus lugardii and a Pterodiscus with its trumpet flower and bulbous root above the surface of the pot.
Some specimens are simply potted while others are artfully displayed by Chavez to bring out the plant's different qualities, whether it's daring spines, variegated color or a shape. And that's the thing about cactus and succulents, Chavez says.
As he puts it, "when people come here, they're amazed at what they see."
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