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Have Trunk, Will Travel : Giant Plants Are Now Big Business. The Problem: Getting Them to Their Destination in One Piece.

June 05, 1988|LINDEN GROSS | Linden Gross is a Los Angeles writer.

THAIS AGUIRRE climbs up the rutted dirt road that cuts through the field of oversize cactus. She checks her order sheet once more, then scans the thousands of specimen plants that litter Silhouettes of the Desert's steeply pitched slope in Vista, Calif. She ignores the slender cactuses that grow in dense patches of greens and pewters. Her gaze stops on a Euphorbia ingens , a waxy, cactus-like succulent with branching arms that stands tall and alone. Its sculptured look makes it a top seller among interior "plant-scapers" and designers. But for cactus movers, the tapered base on this 10-footer presents a problem, as does the long arm that juts out midway up the stalk. Even if the South African succulent can be safely dug up, its single arm can snap when it is lying on its side with hundreds of other plants in the truck. The solution: paper--even more than the ample amount usually used to protect the Euphorbia ingens ' prominent ridges, which are easily bruised or broken.

So two men stuff crumpled wads of butcher paper between the branches to stabilize them during the move, then start to wind the paper around and around the plant. Meanwhile, other workers use long, thin scoop shovels to dig out the base. Suddenly the plant begins to wobble and the diggers pause, to make sure that the plant won't uproot itself. "Now we play catch as it comes down," says Aguirre once most of the roots have been severed. The fields are so steep that it's impossible to use cranes or forklifts. Instead, the men strain to lower the newly dug 300-pound plant onto a co-worker's protected shoulder, where it will rest until it's completely padded. His legs shake with the strain as the others race to finish the job.

When fully wrapped, the Euphorbia ingens looks like a giant, mummified Tootsie Roll Pop. Silhouettes owner Connie Tarman recalls the time when an agricultural inspector at the Arizona state line stopped one of her shipments and called the police. "They were sure that we had illegal aliens, standing (with their arms up), pretending to be cactus," she says.

One task finished, Aguirre heads off to look for the next plant on the order, a 12-foot version of the last find. But nothing in this field will work. She has to bypass the crop of multiples--single plants with two or more separate stalks or clumps--because they're more expensive ($350 to $500 each wholesale, with about a 250% markup for retail) than the single-stalk plant that the decorator has ordered ($200 to $250 each).

Suddenly a voice sounds from Aguirre's beeper. "Add on. Need Mexican fence posts, a 10, nine, eight, seven, six." The dense stand of Mexican fence posts, tall, light-green cactus about 8 to 10 inches in diameter with shallow ridges edged in grayish white, lies low and to the right. Aguirre squeezes through the thicket to find the plants she wants, then directs the removal crew. "Wrap more paper around the top so it doesn't snap," she directs. "Cushion it real good." On these plants, the new, soft growth at the tip is the most delicate part.

The plants are stored in an old greenhouse until they can be loaded, layer upon layer, into the truck. The number of succulents to be shipped--779; the price--$20,000.

Business lately has been good. Though the Southwest look has been popular since the early '80s, within the past year, sales of specimens at Silhouettes--which claims to be the country's largest wholesaler--have jumped. Like many of their orders, this load is destined for a new luxury hotel in Arizona. That's not as crazy as it sounds. Though the state is known for its own giant desert cactus, the saguaro, many of the plants installed in interiors are succulents from the more humid climates of Africa and South America; they can't stand life outdoors in the Arizona desert. So, since they would have to be raised in greenhouses in Arizona--cooled in summer, heated in winter, it's far cheaper to buy them in temperate Vista, which is considered to be the succulent and cactus capital of the world.

GUARANTEEING that plants arrive intact becomes something of an imperative when they can cost more than $50,000. There's no single right way to move giant cactuses and succulents, but there is a wrong way. Although they're heavier than people usually think, "most cactus are fragile," says Bill Cook, co-owner of the Plant Shop's Botanical Gardens in Reseda. "They're water-storage mechanisms with cells and thin skins." Awkward to handle due to weight, shape and spines, the spongy plants can break just as easily as their outer layer can tear. Snapping off a spine is inconsequential, but a break in the pad or flesh will either scar it, reducing its value, or invite infection, which could kill the plant.

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