17 DECEMBER 2005, Page 62

Closet passion

Ursula Buchan

Ihave been in denial for years, I realise that now. I refused to believe that I was a grower of cacti and succulents until one dreary afternoon in early December when I went into the heated greenhouse and experienced a sudden and unexpected shock of pleasure at the sight of a lithops in flower. Oh, no. I had become a cactusand succulent-fancier.

For some years, I have been cultivating (although ‘maintaining’ has always seemed to me a more accurate word) a number of cactus and succulent plants: rebutias, echeverias, lithops, mammillarias, haworthias, astrophytums, schlumbergeras. Some of these were survivors from early and futile attempts to encourage my children to grow plants; the rest I have bought on those occasions when I have interviewed cactus nurserymen, since it seems impolite to go away empty-handed and, anyway, the plants look rather sweet when small and growing in neat, square, gravel-topped pots. I do very little for them, except resist the temptation to water them for six months between September and March, keep a weather eye out for vine weevil, and very, very occasionally repot them. Yet so amenable are they that, despite this neglectful care, they have lived on, slowly multiplying and, every so often, breaking out into marvellous flower.

These random-seeming flowerings take me entirely by surprise. For most of the year, for example, Lithops helmutii has squat pairs of fleshy, fat, green and marbled leaves (hence the common name for the genus, ‘living stones’) but, in autumn or early winter, yellow, white-centred daisy flowers suddenly erupt from the fissure between the leaves. Lithops species come from semi-desert in the northern Cape of South Africa and there is something very appealing, even awe-inspiring, about plants which have evolved to mimic their surroundings so closely.

Cactus and succulent growing has always seemed to me (I am ashamed to admit my snobbery) an anorakish pursuit, more about compiling a great long list of disparate species, not capable of providing a convincing, integrated effect — unless you landscape your greenhouse as if it were a small part of the Mohave desert, that is. What this stupid, pointless snobbery blinded me to was the beauty, botanical fascination and variety in the individual species even those which look too phallic at first sight for sober contemplation.

It was quite uncomfortable, therefore, to discover my closet passion; it produced a painful collision between fact and selfimage. We none of us can stand the blinding light of too much reality in our lives, and I had always considered myself an outdoor gardener, almost as deadly a scourge to tender plants as vine weevil. I can be relied upon to kill off houseplants, if called to look after them for any length of time, so that my indoor gardening these days is limited to growing forced hyacinths for winter display. For me, the pleasure in gardening has always resided principally in being out in the fresh air and sunlight among good, solid, hardy garden plants.

And yet, and yet ... When I entered the greenhouse that December day, I had to stretch past a score of streptocarpus and pelargoniums in rude health and flower, as well as pots of South African bulbs, a citrus tree with a couple of very promising young lemons, a massive banana plant, tender marguerites by the dozen (brought in to shelter from the stormy blast), in order to pick up the lithops pot to examine it more closely. So, not only am I a cactusfancier, and didn’t realise it, but it appears I have also been a longtime greenhouse enthusiast as well. (In fact, I have to own up to possessing two greenhouses, one heated to a minimum winter night-time temperature of 7˚C and one simply insulated with bubble polythene to keep the worst of the frost out.) So it is high time to come clean and admit that the appeal of the greenhouse is compelling, and particularly so at this time of year. For, when the weather is bleak, there is a special pleasure in being inside looking out, sowing a pot of seed here, removing a botrytis-affected leaf there, or simply dreaming away an afternoon, looking at seed catalogues and making lists and even examining closely, with the help of a hand lens, the areoles and hook spines on a mammillaria. I know it’s sad, but there we are.