Cacti King Syd


cactus9

 Sydney Partridge and his greenhouse with his collection of echinopsis eyriesii  in full flower.   Picture Hattie Miles


By Jeremy Miles  

Ever since the first cacti were brought to these shores from the New World by pioneering voyagers back in the 15th and 16th centuries, these extraordinary plants with their strange shapes and spiny protuberances have proved a source of endless fascination

 Initially studied by professional botanists and occasionally used in exotic displays, they remained a rare sight for the average person.

Named after the Greek word kaktos, which means thistle, they have a glorious history. Legend has it that the Aztecs spied an eagle perched atop a large cactus and promptly founded their capital on that precise spot. To this day the scene is shown on the Mexican flag. 

Cacti have long been used by Native Americans for ceremonial and medicinal reasons, for making fishing barbs, weapons and everything from mats to hats.

They grow in a bewildering variety of species and include extraordinary specimens like the giant saguaro, the tallest cactus in the world, which can grow to 60 odd feet in height, weigh up to six tons and lives for 250 years.

Little wonder then that by the mid 19th century Britain’s amateur gardeners - fascinated by exotic tales – had taken to the joys of cultivating cacti and succulents. They didn’t always get it right though. 

Writing in the journal The Garden in December 1895, the then president of the National Cactus Society of England J.W Singer announced: “The reason that cactaceous plants have not hitherto been grown satisfactorily is due to mistaken ideas as to their cultivation.”

He expressed dismay that, because cactus are found in near desert conditions, it had become widely accepted that “any rubbish, or old mortar mixed with road dirt” was a perfectly acceptable growing medium.  Singer had discovered that plants potted in ordinary compost did a whole lot better than those grown in rubble and scree.  What’s more they were actually quite fond of moisture and sunshine. 

This offers an intriguing glimpse of the long and involved learning curve that has led to cacti collection and cultivation  becoming the widespread hobby and passion it is today.

The present day descendant of the National Cactus Society of England is the British Cactus and Succulent Society - an organisation with dozens of branches nationwide. It has some 3,000 members who hold regular meetings and enjoy exchanging  news, views tips and discussions about their plants. 

According to veteran member Valerie Sawfoot, who edits the BCSS newsletter: “We appeal to all kinds of people from the very scientifically minded to little old ladies who might water their plants with tea-bags or whatever but somehow still manage to produce spectacular results.”

Ironically while cacti collecting is more popular than ever membership of the BCSS is in gradual decline.  “I don’t think it suits the contemporary lifestyle,” says society secretary Eddy Harris. “People work much longer hours these days. They simply don’t want to get involved in going to meetings and listening to talks.”

Mrs Sawfoot agrees: “There’s still a huge amount of interest but people would rather look up information on the internet. It’s a shame because our society has a lot to offer.”

At the moment, she says, cacti are particularly popular among decorators and designers. “They’re very sculptural and offer the kind of form and texture that can look really good set against minimal contemporary designs.”

However cacti have long held a fascination for all kinds of people. Typical perhaps of the slightly unorthodox breed of cactus grower is Sydney Partridge.  

A man of decidedly stout views, who eschews membership of any fixed organisation in favour of doing it is own way, Sydney - who claims he is so old that the Australian city was named after him - is the epitome of the amateur cacti enthusiast. 

I was summoned to his greenhouse one sunny Sunday morning earlier this summer. A phone call on Friday afternoon had informed me, with absolute assurance, that “the first flowers will be coming out at seven o’clock this evening and will die at four on Sunday afternoon. They’ll certainly be over by Monday.”

Sydney - who is actually 87-years- old and therefore not quite as old as the city which bears his name - decided that the optimum time to examine his flowers in full bloom would be 11am on Sunday. Needless to say he wasn’t wrong. 

That such fine-timing can be involved in the life-cycle of a plant grown thousands of miles from its natural habitat in South America, is extraordinary. 

That Sydney, with no formal horticultural training and initially little more than a passing interest in his subject, should become so knowledgeable about his plants is also intriguing. 

The  Echinopsis Eyriesii  that he grows and year after year and produce beautiful, if fleeting, collections of blooms are by no means uncommon. But even the experts from the BCSS are impressed that Sydney can be quite so precise about their brief floral displays. 

Over the years he has formulated his own methods of cultivation, professes little time for expert views and adopts a healthy disdain for fancy treatments.

Within minutes of arriving at his home, he was waving a book at me. A 25-year-old publication by a cacti and succulent expert purporting to give chapter and  verse on the cultivation of, among other things, Echinopsis Eyriesii.

 Turning to the appropriate page he stabbed a finger at the text.  “There are one of two things in here that are quite useful but I’m afraid that, in my opinion, a lot of it’s just complete rubbish.” 

He chuckled happily and steaming ahead on his walking stick led the way down his garden to the greenhouse that contains the remarkable crop of cacti that he has grown on and off since he was a boy.

For Sydney the pleasure of seeing the plants that he tends through each summer burst into flower for a few short hours is intense. He achieves it with nothing more than a pot of earth from his garden and, during the growing season, a spoonful of water each day. 

His argument is simple. “The things grow quite happily in a near desert so I’m sure I don’t have to do too much to make them grow here.” Many a cacti expert would disagree but he  has a point! Surveying the south coast garden that has been his pride and joy for the past 30 years, he admits that the soil is poor but when it comes to Echinopsis  Eyriesii it clearly has what it takes.

There are no set rules, simply recommended methods, and Sydney, while adopting a slightly individual approach, clearly knows how too nurture his crop.

A one time accountant, he retired to the Bournemouth suburb of Southbourne in 1979 and threw himself into gardening with gusto, taking particular interest in rediscovering a childhood interest in cacti.

It was originally in the early 1930s that the then 12-year-old was given a plant by the father of a friend. He potted it, looked at it, inspected it every so often and then basically forgot about it until one day in 1944, while serving in the Middle East with the RAF, he received a letter from home. Penned by his father, it contained lots of family news and an intriguing postscript that simply said: “By the way your cactus has come into flower.”  Sydney may not have realised it at the time but he was hooked.

Although physically frail, he is remarkably nimble: “I basically died a couple of years ago,” he told me, pointing at his stick...“Duodenal ulcer,” he added. “They didn’t think I was going to make it but somehow they bought me back. Anyway now they tell me I have an S-shaped spine.” He paused and gave a brief snort of derision at this annoyance before waving a hand towards his pride and joy on the greenhouse shelves. 

“There you are,” he declared. “Two sets of three, seven sets of two and the rest of them  are singles.”  

Sydney reckons it takes four or five years for a plant to produce its first baby and around seven years before it’ll flower.

 His cultivation tips are starkly simple. He waters them daily from April to October -  just about a spoonful. I have a pint canister and just trickle it along the rows. He then gives them nothing at all until about the end of March but  protects them during the winter months with polystyrene.

“It’s actually quite fascinating. Absolutely nothing happens during the winter they just sit there but in March things start to move.”

He documents their growth. “I have  41 in bloom at the moment and three in bud. I had 65 last year. Yes 2008 was a very good year.”

There is however one abiding mystery.  “I don’t know why but they always seem to open on a Friday. They invariably come out just in time to enjoy the weekend.”


***


SYDNEY’S TIPS


When re-potting a cactus, use a circle of paper to line the base of the new pot to stop the fine soil running through the drainage holes.

Loosen the cactus in its container. Then use a plastic flowerpot slightly larger than the cactus, as a grab to hold it.  Pick the cactus out of the original pot using the grab to protect your hand and put it carefully into the prepared pot.

If you have several plants, treat them all exactly the same and they will flower at the same time.  The flowers only last for about 36 hours but collectively they make a magnificent display.

During the winter gently wrap the plants to protect them with the coldest nights. 

 

***


BOOKS


The BCSS publishes a comprehensive list of publications of interest to cacti collectors. Here are some suggestions. 

The Complete Illustrated Guide to Growing Cacti and Succulents by  Miles Anderson (Lorenz Books)

The Cactus Family by Edward F. Anderson (Timber Press) 

Cacti and Succulents: An Illustrated Guide to the Plants and Their Cultivation by Graham Charles (The Crowood Press Ltd)

The New Cactus Lexicon. Edited by David Hunt, Nigel Taylor and Graham Charles (dh Books)


****

BCSS WEBSITE

For more information about the British Cactus and Succulent Society go to www.bcss.org.uk


 Syd’s cacti are in bloom you know the weekend must be just around the corner


Words: Jeremy Miles  Picture: Hattie Miles

Ever since the first cacti were brought to these shores from the New World by pioneering voyagers back in the 15th and 16th centuries, these extraordinary plants with their strange shapes and spiny protuberances have proved a source of endless fascination

 Initially studied by professional botanists and occasionally used in exotic displays, they remained a rare sight for the average person.

Named after the Greek word kaktos, which means thistle, they have a glorious history. Legend has it that the Aztecs spied an eagle perched atop a large cactus and promptly founded their capital on that precise spot. To this day the scene is shown on the Mexican flag. 

Cacti have long been used by Native Americans for ceremonial and medicinal reasons, for making fishing barbs, weapons and everything from mats to hats.

They grow in a bewildering variety of species and include extraordinary specimens like the giant saguaro, the tallest cactus in the world, which can grow to 60 odd feet in height, weigh up to six tons and lives for 250 years.

Little wonder then that by the mid 19th century Britain’s amateur gardeners - fascinated by exotic tales – had taken to the joys of cultivating cacti and succulents. They didn’t always get it right though. 

Writing in the journal The Garden in December 1895, the then president of the National Cactus Society of England J.W Singer announced: “The reason that cactaceous plants have not hitherto been grown satisfactorily is due to mistaken ideas as to their cultivation.”

He expressed dismay that, because cactus are found in near desert conditions, it had become widely accepted that “any rubbish, or old mortar mixed with road dirt” was a perfectly acceptable growing medium.  Singer had discovered that plants potted in ordinary compost did a whole lot better than those grown in rubble and scree.  What’s more they were actually quite fond of moisture and sunshine. 


This offers an intriguing glimpse of the long and involved learning curve that has led to cacti collection and cultivation  becoming the widespread hobby and passion it is today.

The present day descendant of the National Cactus Society of England is the British Cactus and Succulent Society - an organisation with dozens of branches nationwide. It has some 3,000 members who hold regular meetings and enjoy exchanging  news, views tips and discussions about their plants. 

According to veteran member Valerie Sawfoot, who edits the BCSS newsletter: “We appeal to all kinds of people from the very scientifically minded to little old ladies who might water their plants with tea-bags or whatever but somehow still manage to produce spectacular results.”

Ironically while cacti collecting is more popular than ever membership of the BCSS is in gradual decline.  “I don’t think it suits the contemporary lifestyle,” says society secretary Eddy Harris. “People work much longer hours these days. They simply don’t want to get involved in going to meetings and listening to talks.”

Mrs Sawfoot agrees: “There’s still a huge amount of interest but people would rather look up information on the internet. It’s a shame because our society has a lot to offer.”

At the moment, she says, cacti are particularly popular among decorators and designers. “They’re very sculptural and offer the kind of form and texture that can look really good set against minimal contemporary designs.”

However cacti have long held a fascination for all kinds of people. Typical perhaps of the slightly unorthodox breed of cactus grower is Sydney Partridge.  


A man of decidedly stout views, who eschews membership of any fixed organisation in favour of doing it is own way, Sydney - who claims he is so old that the Australian city was named after him - is the epitome of the amateur cacti enthusiast. 

I was summoned to his greenhouse one sunny Sunday morning earlier this summer. A phone call on Friday afternoon had informed me, with absolute assurance, that “the first flowers will be coming out at seven o’clock this evening and will die at four on Sunday afternoon. They’ll certainly be over by Monday.”

Sydney - who is actually 87-years- old and therefore not quite as old as the city which bears his name - decided that the optimum time to examine his flowers in full bloom would be 11am on Sunday. Needless to say he wasn’t wrong. 

That such fine-timing can be involved in the life-cycle of a plant grown thousands of miles from its natural habitat in South America, is extraordinary. 

That Sydney, with no formal horticultural training and initially little more than a passing interest in his subject, should become so knowledgeable about his plants is also intriguing. 

The  Echinopsis Eyriesii  that he grows and year after year and produce beautiful, if fleeting, collections of blooms are by no means uncommon. But even the experts from the BCSS are impressed that Sydney can be quite so precise about their brief floral displays. 

Over the years he has formulated his own methods of cultivation, professes little time for expert views and adopts a healthy disdain for fancy treatments.

Within minutes of arriving at his home, he was waving a book at me. A 25-year-old publication by a cacti and succulent expert purporting to give chapter and  verse on the cultivation of, among other things, Echinopsis Eyriesii.

 Turning to the appropriate page he stabbed a finger at the text.  “There are one of two things in here that are quite useful but I’m afraid that, in my opinion, a lot of it’s just complete rubbish.” 

He chuckled happily and steaming ahead on his walking stick led the way down his garden to the greenhouse that contains the remarkable crop of cacti that he has grown on and off since he was a boy.

For Sydney the pleasure of seeing the plants that he tends through each summer burst into flower for a few short hours is intense. He achieves it with nothing more than a pot of earth from his garden and, during the growing season, a spoonful of water each day. 

His argument is simple. “The things grow quite happily in a near desert so I’m sure I don’t have to do too much to make them grow here.” Many a cacti expert would disagree but he  has a point! Surveying the south coast garden that has been his pride and joy for the past 30 years, he admits that the soil is poor but when it comes to Echinopsis  Eyriesii it clearly has what it takes.

There are no set rules, simply recommended methods, and Sydney, while adopting a slightly individual approach, clearly knows how too nurture his crop.

A one time accountant, he retired to the Bournemouth suburb of Southbourne in 1979 and threw himself into gardening with gusto, taking particular interest in rediscovering a childhood interest in cacti.

It was originally in the early 1930s that the then 12-year-old was given a plant by the father of a friend. He potted it, looked at it, inspected it every so often and then basically forgot about it until one day in 1944, while serving in the Middle East with the RAF, he received a letter from home. Penned by his father, it contained lots of family news and an intriguing postscript that simply said: “By the way your cactus has come into flower.”  Sydney may not have realised it at the time but he was hooked.

Although physically frail, he is remarkably nimble: “I basically died a couple of years ago,” he told me, pointing at his stick...“Duodenal ulcer,” he added. “They didn’t think I was going to make it but somehow they bought me back. Anyway now they tell me I have an S-shaped spine.” He paused and gave a brief snort of derision at this annoyance before waving a hand towards his pride and joy on the greenhouse shelves. 

“There you are,” he declared. “Two sets of three, seven sets of two and the rest of them  are singles.”  

Sydney reckons it takes four or five years for a plant to produce its first baby and around seven years before it’ll flower.

 His cultivation tips are starkly simple. He waters them daily from April to October -  just about a spoonful. I have a pint canister and just trickle it along the rows. He then gives them nothing at all until about the end of March but  protects them during the winter months with polystyrene.

“It’s actually quite fascinating. Absolutely nothing happens during the winter they just sit there but in March things start to move.”

He documents their growth. “I have  41 in bloom at the moment and three in bud. I had 65 last year. Yes 2008 was a very good year.”

There is however one abiding mystery.  “I don’t know why but they always seem to open on a Friday. They invariably come out just in time to enjoy the weekend.”


***


SYDNEY’S TIPS


When re-potting a cactus, use a circle of paper to line the base of the new pot to stop the fine soil running through the drainage holes.


Loosen the cactus in its container. Then use a plastic flowerpot slightly larger than the cactus, as a grab to hold it.  Pick the cactus out of the original pot using the grab to protect your hand and put it carefully into the prepared pot.


If you have several plants, treat them all exactly the same and they will flower at the same time.  The flowers only last for about 36 hours but collectively they make a magnificent display.


During the winter gently wrap the plants to protect them with the coldest nights. 

 

***


BOOKS


The BCSS publishes a comprehensive list of publications of interest to cacti collectors. Here are some suggestions. 


The Complete Illustrated Guide to Growing Cacti and Succulents by  Miles Anderson (Lorenz Books)



The Cactus Family by Edward F. Anderson (Timber Press) 


Cacti and Succulents: An Illustrated Guide to the Plants and Their Cultivation by Graham Charles (The Crowood Press Ltd)


The New Cactus Lexicon. Edited by David Hunt, Nigel Taylor and Graham Charles (dh Books)


****

BCSS WEBSITE


For more information about the British Cactus and Succulent Society go to www.bcss.org.uk


ly© Jeremy Miles 2017