When we think of cactus, we usually visualize ungainly, prickly plants that somehow survive in stark surroundings such as the Mojave Desert. Actually, cacti and other succulents grow just about everywhere--from desert to tropics, sea level to mountain peaks.
Because of the micro climate peculiar to Vista and surrounding areas, more growers of cacti and other succulents can be found here in just a few square miles than anywhere else in the world. The region provides the perfect climactic compromise: warm but not too warm, cool but not too cold.
Although each grower has carved out his or her own niche, all share a love for the plants they raise. They also say that interest in their product has increased lately, probably for two reasons: the need to conserve water and the trend toward the Southwestern look in architecture and design.
Cacti are just one of many plant families categorized as succulents because of their ability to store water. In other words, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
Cactus plants store water in their stems and tend to have a spiny or hairy covering rather than leaves, while other succulents retain moisture in either roots, leaves or stems.
"Succulents were designed to survive in dry climates, and they came up with all manner of techniques to protect themselves from the harsh environment--from dryness, sunlight and animals," said Sandy Williams, who owns and operates Homegrown Cacti and Succulents in Vista with her husband, Bruce. "For instance, spines and fur provide protection from sun, ribs a surface to gather water and to shade the plant."
Many cacti also manufacture protective substances in their spines. You know when you've run into one of them because it hurts for days.
The Williamses grow a wide variety of cacti and other succulents and sell their plants in 4- and 6-inch pots to wholesalers, who in turn sell to retail outlets, including nurseries, smaller non-chain stores and tourist attractions.
Like most local growers, Sandy Williams sees an increased interest in succulents, and in using the plants in unique ways--in wreaths, for example, as a substitute for holly.
The owners of Silhouettes of the Desert in Vista also market succulents, ranging from the tiny to the huge. They sell to garden centers, nurseries, chain markets and landscapers all over the United States, as well as in Canada and overseas.
"We've seen a steady increase in business the last two or three years," said manager Thais Aguirre. "People have discovered that cactus gardens don't have to consist of rocks and cow skulls. As fast as we get the plants in from the field, we're loading them up."
Business has been so good at Hilltop Cacti in Vista that owner Theresa Roberts has added four greenhouses and increased her growing space by 10,000 square feet. Hilltop sells about 50% of its product to brokers, who resell to their own clients in the Midwest, New Jersey, New York and other areas.
"The cacti and succulent business is very healthy right now," said John Cooper who, with wife Mary, owns Cooper's Cactus & Succulents in Vista. "We've received numerous calls recently from local landscapers looking for drought-resistant plants."
By mixing cacti and other succulents, Cooper said, Southern Californians can create a pleasing landscape at a reasonable price.
Another mass wholesaler in North County is Western Cactus Growers, with acreage in both Vista and Escondido. Hans and Margaret Britsch have been in the business since 1966 and grow their product in greenhouses and fields.
"The soil is better in Escondido for field growing," said Hans. "In Vista we have adobe soil and must add a lot of sand and other amendments."
In general, cacti get their start from seeds while other succulents grow from cuttings.
Unlike most local growers, Carl Volkers and Jim Kampwirth of C and J Cactus Nursery in Vista eschew what they call the "chop-chop school." They planted their first seeds on New Year's Day, 1977, and they still grow by seed exclusively, hand pollinating with the help of small paintbrushes.
"We have the best of both worlds," said Volkers. "We sell to collectors, especially European collectors. Cactus is big in Germany and England, and they've discovered it in Australia."
David Grigsby bought the first plant grown at C & J, and Grigsby Cactus Gardens sells plants retail as well as wholesale. Grigsby's clients range from local gardeners who drop by to pick up a plant or two, vacationers wanting a gift for their African tour guide, as well as botanical gardens around the country.
Other growers who have a retail market include Ferguson's Cacti and Succulents in Solana Beach, Cactus King Nursery in Encinitas and Rainbow Gardens in Vista.