Spine tingling

19:30, Feb 07 2013
hooper stand
Kathryn and Vance Hooper in their garden.

Pat the cats, not the cacti at Magnolia Grove.

That's the safety message to visitors wandering through the desert garden near the house in Vance and Kathryn Hooper's park-like property near Waitara.

"Those furry ones; people are tempted to pat them and you don't do that because they stick into you," Kathryn says.

hooper strap

Vance says she is referring to Cleistocactus and Oreocereus celsianus known as "old man of the mountain", which hail from the Andes in South America.

"Lots of species have fine hair- like spines, particularly the prickly pears," Vance adds. "If you get a bunch of those on your skin it can be very irritable."

But if you have a close shave with a furry cactus, that's exactly what you need to do.


"One way to deal with that is to shave the area because they are only in the skin far enough to irritate," he says.

Best of all is to not touch them at all and turn your affections to the Hoopers' 1-year-old cats, Charlie, a Russian blue, and Tiger, a rabbit-catching moggie. They definitely have a lot less bite.

You may see the felines slinking through the agaves, aloes and yuccas or sunning themselves below the column-like Cereus and the Opuntia, the prickly pear, which is the largest and most widespread genus of cacti.

And if you sit quietly at the right time of year, you may see other creatures gathering fluff.

Kathryn says the birds love the fuzzy cacti. "They take the fur for their nests, especially the finches."

Vance refers to the fur as "wool". "The wool grows around the spine and the birds just lift it off."

Some of the plants in the desert garden have taken off, despite Taranaki's wet weather and the temperatures getting down to -5 degrees Celsius.

They have also coped with being shifted.

While the desert collection of plants has been gathered over 35 years, the cacti have only been living at Mahoetahi Rd since December 2005, when development of Magnolia Grove began.

"This cactus collection has been to Tauranga and back," Vance says.

Some of the dragon trees (Dracaena draco), whose trunks look like Roman columns, have thrived, but others have died.

"Those dragon trees make it nice and formal, which gives it that nice combination," he says.

Adding to the structure is a border of "hen and chicken" echeveria backed by Sedum spectabile, whose dark purple and carmine flowers attract butterflies in February and March.

Beyond these, the dramatic- looking cacti sprout from a free- draining slope. "I want to get the natural effect as I imagine it would be in nature."

Among the cacti is a statue of a Mexican man snoozing beneath his sombrero. "He's been sleeping an awfully long-time - long enough for lichen to grow on him," Vance says.

Another sight straight from an old-time cowboy movie is the sculptural Saguaro cactus from Argentina. This type can soar skywards, up to 15 metres, but not in Taranaki.

"It seems happy enough through the winter but it's not hot enough in the summer to get much growth."

The 25-year-old cactus is only 1.8m tall, but in December 2009 it flowered for the first time.

"The flowers are set at the top but with age they will scatter the cup-shaped blooms down the stem too," the Magnolia Grove website states.

Many of the cacti produce beautiful and sometimes scented blooms.

The Golden Torch cactus has massive white flowers in early summer, while the night-blooming Cereus cacti come out in late January. "These are open at 9 o'clock at night and as soon as the sun hits them in the morning they close up," says Vance.

Before they close up, the bumblebees get busy collecting pollen and pollinating the flowers. In the Americas, this job is done by hummingbirds.

"This is the worst flowering season we've had for a long time," he says. "It was too cold in November to set the buds."

Using ungloved hands he opens up the white bloom of a trichocereus, which fills the air with perfume at night and early morning.

"Sometimes these things have too many flowers on them and they snap off.

"In less than a metre of stem I have had 20 flowers out, and on a plant we can have 60 to 100 flowers out at any time."

Nearby, he points out a prickly pear, also known as nopales or paddle cactus, which can be eaten.

Another edible is a monster.

This has nothing to do with size, but the deformed "monstrose" shape of a Cereus cactus. "They grow them in the orchards in the Caribbean and these are more productive than the normal growth habit," he says. "I grew seed from fruit markets in San Francisco and a very high proportion of seedlings came as monsters."

The oval fruit, which grows up to 6 centimetres across, has a melon-like flavour. "They get to the size of a small orange. When the fruit's ripe it splits to reveal the flesh and seeds for the birds to eat. I have a nibble on them - several years ago, the kids would go out with sticks and knock them all down."

Kathryn, a teacher at Highlands Intermediate, says pupils on a school visit to the garden were given a sample to try.

One not to get close to looks like a dangerous sea anemone, but is actually the golden barrel cactus, also known as the "mother-in- law's chair".

Vance's fascination with cacti began many years ago.

"When he was a little boy of 8, his grandmother gave him his first cactus," says Kathryn, who also comes from garden stock. Her mother is long-time festival gardener Mary Dickson, originally from Ararata and now Hawera.

"When I was 10 or 12, I was already growing them outside. I've always known they do better in the ground than in pots."

Beyond the islands of cacti is the "park", a garden that began as a paddock and is now a regular in the annual Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular. As its name explains, it features magnolias - but that's another story entirely.

For this one, we have stuck to the point.

Taranaki Daily News