Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: A Nursery with Spine: Get The Point at Cactus Jungle

Ron Sullivan
Friday June 16, 2006

There’s a certain set of people who fancy succulents, and, as the judge famously said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” 

Succulents in general are plants that hold lots of water within their leaf or stem tissues. The term refers to a strategy, not really a taxon. They come from all sorts of families, including geraniums and cucumbers.  

One thing they have in common, right on the surface: they look, shall we say, distinctive. We might even say “kinky” if we weren’t worried about offending cacto-Americans. (A letter-writer recently gave me a noodge about “some unaware race/cultural bias,” which was a bit off the mark. I’m quite aware of the biases I’m making fun of.)  

They tower in spires if they’re cacti, dress in temporary delicate leaves and permanent ferocious spikes, disguise themselves as weird green toe-sies barely poking out of the ground, crouch in scowly brown lumps and send out a delicate green thread to the world. 

They’re cuddly and scary, graceful and ridiculous. They burst into outrageous scarlet and crimson and yellow and white blooms, some of them intensely fragrant, some of them only at night. Serious cereus infatuation rapidly becomes euphorbia euphoria. 

In short, they’re irresistible.  

They’re also tough, if you know how to treat them, and for a local virtue, they don’t drink much. This means more than reduced water bills. 

It means you can plant them in a place as rough and stressful (for plants) as a rooftop garden, and they’ll stand up to withering winds and constant sun.  

West Berkeley’s a good analogue of a rooftop—flat, windy, and mostly sunny. So Cactus Jungle has picked a good location to show off its weird wares, just a few blocks from the Fourth Street shopping corridor. 

It’s a small lot, aesthetically unified by the red lava rock underfoot and mulching all the plant pots, and the pots themselves almost entirely good old red clay, the best thing for succulents.  

The Jungle’s proprietors, Peter Lipson and Hap Hollibaugh, have been raising succulents 20-some years. 

Besides this retail spot, they install succulent gardens, including rooftop oases. They’re also turtle fanciers, so of course they’re good people.  

One neat innovation here is the collection of landscaping succulents, blabla and blabla and such, intended as groundcover and garden plants and sold in sixpacks—not your average sixpacks, but plantable dissolving peat pots in little wooden crates, as sets or mix-and-match. Ecogroovy and handsome besides.  

They have a little greenhouse of succulent houseplants, too: tillandsias and sanseverias and a stapelia like my own obnoxious office pet. 

(That’s the starfish or carrion flower, several inches across, hairy, and scented like rotting meat. Which reminds me: don’t dare use “kinky” around me as a put-down.) Also a select few grasses, bamboos, and other congenial perennials.  

Pots, fertilizers, remedies, accessories, and tools, too—the last from The Rumford Gardener, a British company whose products include a favorite of mine, a simple rounded, laterally curved piece of metal with great utility in small spaces.