I don't think of myself as someone who is particularly good with plants. Once upon a time, in my teens, I managed to accidentally kill a tree that I'd wheedled my parents into buying for me (yeah, I was a really wild kid). Since then, I've watched various plants that other people have given to me die slow, no doubt agonizing, deaths in my "care", so I've become convinced that I have a black thumb and there's just nothing to do but accept it. But last weekend, I saw a glimmer of hope. I saw—succulents.
In fact, I saw a ton of them, because on Saturday and Sunday the Cactus & Succulent Society of America (CSSA) had their annual show and sale at . Now in its 46th year, this event kicked off on Friday with an early-bird sale and moved into full swing over the next two days with a large exhibit in Friends' Hall, educational displays and plenty of friendly experts on site to share their knowledge about these tough, delightfully strange-looking plants.
Buck Hemenway, the show's chairman, has been involved with CSSA for 15 years. He and his wife moved to Southern California from the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and fell in love with the succulents that thrive in our dry, desert climate.
"We were overwhelmed by the individuality of the plants," Hemenway said. Eventually they started their own cactus and succulent nursery, The Prickly Palace, in Jurupa Valley, CA.
Around 600 plants—including species that grow in areas such as Africa, Chile and the Pyrenees—went on view on Saturday in Friends' Hall and its adjoining courtyard after a juried competition with 122 different categories. The competition, though, was not the main point of the event.
"The goal of the show is really to attract people to our hobby," Hemenway said.
And attract people it certainly does. I spoke with several enthusiasts who had braved the heat on Friday to come out for the early-bird sale, which was set up along the walkway to The Huntington's main entrance. I met Laura Hatcher of Pomona when we both paused to admire a group of small, individually potted aloe plants that looked to me like spiny starfish. When I told her I was working on an article about the show, she introduced me to Oscar Flores, a member of the San Gabriel Cactus Society who also started his own club seven months ago in Studio City. His club has 52 members now and meets once a month at his home, where his backyard is given over to his vast collection (another collector estimated it at around 4,000 plants).
What draws Flores to events such as the CSSA show is the chance to find an unusual plant, perhaps one made rare by virtue of a mutation or the way it was cared for. Flores said that for him, it's not about just liking succulents: "I'm a collector, that's what I am now. My eye is…drawn to recognizing something that's odd." He's not the only one. Lorraine Parvin of Pomona showed me a plant she was going to buy, a member of the Crassulaceae family called aeonium. She said she had picked it precisely for its form, as it displayed a growth mutation called "cresting" that she liked.
But collectors' specialized interests aside, everyone I talked to said that what they loved about succulents was the fact that they are wonderfully death-resistant. When I confessed my unfortunate luck with plants in the past to Hemenway, he just smiled. "We have a mantra. It's called 'benign neglect'. It's the best way to raise cactus and succulents." Benign neglect apparently means that all you have to do is water a cactus or succulent plant maybe once a week, and that's about it.
Like I said—there may be hope for me and my black thumb yet.
If you missed the show this weekend, the CSSA will be having another event at the L.A. County Arboretum next month (check out their online calendar for that and other listings). Meanwhile The Huntington, of course, has its own year-round succulent "show" going on in its , which is one of the largest and oldest such collections in the world. More than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants are on display across 10 acres in the southeast area of the grounds, so you can experience a wide (and fascinating) variety of these hardy survivors.