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A Blooming Piece of the Desert, Down the Street

The House of Cactus, run by a couple since 1978, has devoted customers hooked on the special flora.


Desert lovers in Orange County need not journey to the desert to find their favorite plants. Enter the House of Cactus and you'll encounter cacti and succulents in every shape and form.

Cactuses with red, yellow, pink and purple flowers, cactuses with long hair, cactuses with fuzz, cactuses covered with colored spines, cactuses with barely visible spines, tall and skinny cactuses, tall and round cactuses, short and round cactuses, branched cactuses and cactuses resembling flat metal statues await appreciation of their exotic virtues.

The nursery has successfully operated on Beach Boulevard for 42 years. Richard Hipp and his wife have owned it since 1978. Hipp says he never lived in the desert, but it's clear he appreciates the plants. Point out any of 1,500 cactuses or succulents and he can tell you their origins and often their complicated Latin names.

Wanda Nero of Newport Beach says she's been buying plants at the House of Cactus for 20 years. She likes their looks, which complement her home's contemporary style.

On this weekday morning, she's made the trip to Stanton because the outer leaves of her Agave victoria-reginae, a succulent, are black, and she fears the plant has a disease.

After taking a quick glance, Hipp assures her the plant is healthy. He trims the black leaves and points out the new growth toward the plant's interior. He tells Nero she needs a new pot because the glazed interior holds too much water, a death knell for desert plants.

Once assured that her beloved plant will survive, Nero looks for another. She picks out the tall, elegant Cereus peruvianus monstrosa, which has branched nine times from a central stalk, saying it will go nicely on her porch.

Given the right lighting and a dry, hot environment, cactuses and succulents require relatively little care. But desert plants aren't cheap. A small, round cactus 4 inches in diameter called Gymnocalycium tortulosum costs only $5. Another, 8 inches in diameter with the common name of golden barrel, costs $28. And the 5-foot-tall Cereus peruvianus monstrosa bought by Nero costs $120.

"People don't understand why they're so expensive," said Hipp. He explains that such plants come from all over the world, but they must be bred locally because of international legislation prohibiting removal of plants from their native environments. In addition, the plants grow slowly, some only an inch a year.

"They're expensive because they take years to raise," said Hipp.

Despite the price tags, many who wander in, like Nero, don't mind, and Hipp says he has many longtime customers. They're collectors of rare desert plants, or they simply like cactuses' exotic looks.

As for Hipp, he prefers the rare ones over the more common types. But, he says, "I'm fickle. I like them all."


Judy Silber can be reached at (714) 966-5988.

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