Blistering triple-digit temperatures seemed a fitting forecast for an event dedicated to the appreciation of nature’s extreme condition survivors. The 31st annual Inter-City Cactus Show & Sale hosted by the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden is an unusual showcase put together by the Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent societies dedicated to offer a stage to a spectacular array of exotic cacti and succulents sourced from arid deserts, semi-arid jungles, and mountain highlands from around the globe.
This is Comic-Con for people who love drought-tolerant plants.
Outside the exhibit hall an array of cacti and succulents were made available across long tables for attendees to peruse and purchase, each ranging from a couple dollars for common specimens all the way into the thousands for rarities that might require multi-year loan approval (I learned to abide by “look, but don’t touch”, lest I find myself the new proud owner of a $1,300 Cyphostemma uter). I observed attendees shuffling and cradling cardboard boxes full of lithops (aka living stones), euphorbias, stapelias, and other recognizable varieties, picking each with the same recognizable furrowed brows expression I usually exhibit while deciding which pastries to add to my tray at a Chinese or Korean bakery.
The most unique and unusual specimens were offered by the aptly named, Rare Succulent Nursery, a dealer specializing in mostly African varieties, most I had never seen before. Many looked almost pathetic, small plants with the hunched stature of a dog caught chewing on a shoe and scolded for its misbehavior, attributed to the fact that any life that must survive the harrowing conditions of hellish daytime desert temperatures only to weather frost-forming cold nights is going to look humble by necessity. Even so, the prices attached to these plants reminded me to never assume price according to size.
As much as I enjoyed navigating the traffic jam of grizzled buyers and literally melting with every passing minute outdoors, I knew something better awaited within the walls of Ayres Hall (besides air conditioning): over 1,500 prized plants competing for ribbons and medals.
All manners of spikes, paddles, and numerous shapes defying explanation (one cactus was comprised of stacked spheres, obviously the inspiration for a Super Mario Bros. enemy) vied for prizes awarding health, color, and composition. My wife and I spent a few hours doddling slack-jawed, inspecting each entry with the same “OMG” expression of a child peering inside their first aquarium, overwhelmed by the diversity of otherworldly life before our eyes. We left with a greater appreciation for plants that can take decades to grow even a few inches, evolved to fight for every nutrient and stave back the elements with quiet fortitude.
It’s a wonder more Angelenos aren’t into growing and tending succulent and cacti, as our temperate to hot dry summers seem a good fit when compared to our city’s ongoing obsession with tropical plants and lawns for landscaping. The arid lands of Africa, South America, Australia, and our very own Southwest States all seem a better template for landscape design in a city challenged by drought conditions and increasing summer temperatures.
Who knows, perhaps in time xeriscaped cactus and succulent gardens will become the rule rather than the exception here in Los Angeles…but probably not in my lifetime remembering how much Angelenos love their lawns.