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Stuck on cactus? He's your man

Steven Brack's New Mexico nursery houses 15,000 species of dry-climate plants. He sends the seeds worldwide.

August 12, 2007|Matt Mygatt | Associated Press

BELEN, N.M. — Living stones and baby toes. Creeping devils and elephants.

Welcome to Steven Brack's kingdom of cacti, which resides on a sandy patch of desert atop a mesa in the heart of New Mexico.

Never heard of his Mesa Garden? Not surprising.

But to connoisseurs of cactus, he's the prince of prickly, the sultan of succulents, who keeps them flush with seeds both rare and common.

Brack reckons he's about the only full-time producer and exporter of cactus and succulent seeds in North America.

And his business could be slaking the thirst for rare cacti plucked from the wild.

"It's not worth it anymore because of all the work tramping around in the heat and the hard conditions," Brack says.

"Another factor is the ethics of the growers. Most growers won't touch the selling of wild plants," he says.

His 14 greenhouses -- which he cobbled together with boards and sheets of plastic -- hold about 15,000 kinds of plants. The plants come in a rainbow of colors -- except blue -- and range in size from BBs to 14 feet. Most of them are little guys.

Each year, Mesa Garden ships about 150,000 packets of seeds and about 35,000 live plants -- "wild guesses," Brack says.

On this summer day, packages were ready to be mailed to Ukraine, Great Britain, Brazil, Romania, South Korea and China.

The previous day, he sent 500,000 seeds to China, which accounts for almost 40% of his business.

"They're crazy about American culture in general and there's a lot of interest in American plants," he says. "There's a lot of growers growing stuff for their local markets."

Sales to Europe total about 30%, while Russia accounts for about 20% and the U.S. makes up the rest.

"I think people want to have something new and exotic and unusual. The American deserts are very exotic to the European psyche. It goes back to the lore of the Westerns and cowboys," Brack says.

The seeds can be as big as peanuts. Or as small as? "Gnat dander," says Elsie Chavez, who has been separating, cleaning and stuffing them in envelopes for 11 years.

Brack says nearly all of the seeds are sent to private individuals. "They are completely passionate about it and stick to it for a lifetime," he says.

Brack, 58, started the business 37 years ago.

"We started as a nano-business and made it up to micro," he says. "I started on a shoestring. Then it just snowballed."

The business is Web-based -- no images, but thousands of names and prices. And no visitors, please, to his greenhouses.

"This is not a tourist destination. We're too busy," he says.

In the fall, there are 10,000 flowers to pollinate each day. Some need pollinating at night. Seeds must be harvested, cleaned, packed and shipped -- all by hand.

Brack became hooked on cactus as a child growing up on a dairy farm outside Eau Claire, Wis., where he was active in the 4-H club.

"When I was a kid, I guess I saw some of these plants on a windowsill, and that led me to the library, and one book led me to another," Brack says.

"Some books I discovered were seed books from Europe," he says. "It was real fun, and it excited me that these plants had a Latin name on them."

Brack is a stickler for scientific names in Latin. He eschews his plants' common names.

Those living stones and baby toes? Genus lithops, many camouflaged among small stones or pebbles in small patches in Africa, watered only by nighttime fog.

"It's insanely difficult to find them in nature," Brack says.

Creeping devils? Genus machaerocereus. Elephant cactus? Genus pachycereus.

After his interest was piqued by plants, Brack became interested in geography.

"I read that this plant came from this mountain in Africa. Then I thought, 'Why don't I go to these places? Then I'll have the plant,' " he said.

That curiosity led him to Mexico, southern Africa and across North America. Each trip is "like going into a candy store."

Brack also was intrigued by a book on succulents written by an Englishman who mentioned taking a trip to New Mexico. Brack decided to do the same.

Jackie M. Poole, a botanist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says she doesn't know if Brack's business is helping to cut cactus poaching.

"But it's not hurting," she says.

A few collectors in the United States still want cacti from the wild, but most are either happy to see it in the field or happy with the seed-grown plants, Poole says.

"We don't hardly ever see people anymore target an endangered species and just take all of them," she says.

Brack says cactus poaching is a fraction of what it was 40 years ago as more exotic plants are available from seed.

Doug McKenna, resident agent-in-charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arizona, and Julie Scully, the agency's assistant special agent-in-charge for the Southwest, say they think cactus rustling has scaled back quite a bit.

Exportation laws and a variety of state and federal agencies enforcing regulations probably have helped, McKenna says.

"Endangered cactus remains a high priority for us," Scully says.

Janet Rademacher, sales and marketing manager for a wholesale nursery in Phoenix, says the demand for drought-resistant plants for landscaping has grown about tenfold in the last 15 years as water has become more precious.

"I think a lot of people are growing those plants now, so the need for rustling is not as great as it used to be," she says.

"A lot of the cities and the municipalities have all been working on educating the public on using desert plants to save water," Rademacher says.

Bob Sivinski, New Mexico Forestry Division botanist, said there are no data in New Mexico on cacti being taken from the wild.

"You're still seeing these guys selling cactus out on the back of their pickup trucks at highway interchanges for landscaping," he says.

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