Getting hooked on cactus growing in Sheffield

Sheffield Branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society annual show: David Hughes with one of his show entries
Sheffield Branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society annual show: David Hughes with one of his show entries

PAUL Richardson now owns a collection of around 3,000 cacti, not unusual for a lifelong cactus collector.

For him, it all started with boyhood visits to his aunt, who was also a keen cactophile.

“My auntie would always say. ‘Don’t touch’, so of course I touched them and learned they were painful. Those plants gave me a challenge and they hooked me, literally and metaphorically.”

The annual show of the Sheffield Branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society was held last weekend at the Botanical Gardens.

As the judging panel compared notes, rows and rows of spiked, ridged, tall, squat and hairy plants waited patiently in the sun, many gratefully bursting with red, pink and orange flowers after the year’s grey clouds finally parted.

(Cacti never flower blue was one of the Cactus FAQs on display. Another is that cactus all originate in the New World. If you see a cactus in Mediterranean soil, it’s been planted there, said the Sheffield cactophiles).

The Sheffield branch of the society started in 1946 and this was the 57th annual branch show. There were ten entrants from the Sheffield area and Lincolnshire, with a huge array of cacti and succulents, some to view reverently and some simpler versions to buy and take home.

“Small pocket money pots containing a single strange plant are very popular with children,” said Paul, adding that the problem for the society is keeping that interest into adulthood.

The local branch is keen to attract new members of all ages and offers lots of practical help, demonstrations and talks by experts in its monthly programme of meetings.

Like Paul, Sheffield branch chairman David Hughes also started his hobby as a boy.

“I was about 14 and had some pocket money and I saw a packet of seeds in Woolworth’s. I remember thinking, what are these weird-looking round plants with spikes and flowers? They look different.

“So I took them home and planted them and they came up in a couple of weeks and looked like tiny blobs. And then they sit there and sit there. They don’t grow you out of house and home quickly.”

Patience for cactus growers is key. Some of David and Paul’s show plants have been working towards their exalted status for 20 years or more. One of the show’s Astrophytums was over 100 years old, it was whispered.

“There is a lot of interest in these plants,” said Paul. “But the initial interest does suffer from the idea that everything has to be instant these days and these plants are not instant.

“People like sweet peas or tomatoes, where you can see the growth very quickly, but our plants are not like that. They probably don’t appeal to those who want instant success.”

After his initial Woolworth’s seeds, David Hughes spread his cactus-hunting net a bit wider.

“I‘d keep my eyes open in foreign countries, and stuff them in my toilet bag,” he said. “For reminders of holidays some people bring home stuffed donkeys, and some bring cacti.”

He pointed out that he wasn’t actually storing the whole desert cactus in his toilet bag but ‘bits’ he could then start as cuttings.

More experienced growers with ‘bits’ to hand are a good way to add to your collection.

David and Paul noted that unfortunately the climate is not great for outdoor growing in the UK, due to the cold and wet winters, although wild cacti and succulents do cope with climates from the Canadian snowbelt to the Patagonian desert.

Paul said that there is an interest in cacti and other succulents, judging by the number you see in Sheffield windows as you go past, but there is a bit of a “chasm”, he said, “between those people and the likes of us, filling our greenhouses.”

It isn’t really that difficult to take care of a few cacti.

“You can just scrounge a few bits off other people and if you have a windowsill you can just get going.”