LOVE strikes at unexpected moments and passions are often born when least expected. For George McNab, the coup de foudre struck unexpectedly 40 years ago a short distance from a Glasgow railway station. And the object of his passion? Cacti.
George explains: “My wife, June, and I travelled by train to Glasgow from our then home at Mallaig. On arrival I caught sight of a shop called Flowers of the Desert.”
He was immediately captivated by the display of cacti and bought two. Nurturing these plants that require such different conditions from those around him George, a professional gardener, acquired a passion that has remained with him ever since. He says part of the excitement is being introduced to this wide range of plants and their varied geographical backgrounds.
And cacti, he soon found, produced unexpected surprises. “As a child I recall having a couple of cacti on my windowsill and wondering if they were grown where cowboys and Indians came from,” he recalls. He found there was more to these prickly plants than expected. The charm was in the detail: the scarlet flowers of Crown of Thorns, Euphorbia milii or the silvery, flossy threads that cover Cephalocereus senilis in a fluffy cloud.
“I kept on buying them,” he says. However, he found that living on the west coast – the couple later moved to their current home at East Ardhatten near Oban – he was unable to share his passion. “I thought I was the only cacti freak in the whole of Scotland.”
This changed when he joined the Glasgow Branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society, where a recent talk on ‘Sex in the Greenhouse’ by Dunochter-based grower and photographer Brian McDonough suggests a lively membership. Currently there are between 200 and 300 collections in Scotland.
George and June – equally smitten with cacti – met many like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world. Visits to collections in Holland and Germany followed, and thanks to the generosity of fellow members and regular plant swapping the McNab collection expanded. “Often all you need to do is chop the root off a cactus to make another plant,” George says. The couple also travelled to Arizona and the Canary Islands to see cacti growing in their native habitats.
Showing the collection has produced prize-winning results. George’s spectacular trio of golden-needled Echinocactus grusonii was recently judged Supreme Scottish Champion.
At its peak the collection was housed in a glasshouse and poly tunnel. Plants native to Banff, the entire American continent and Tierra del Fuego were represented. More recently the collection has been edited down to around 150 varieties, which fit happily into a more compact glasshouse.
It’s a spectacular sight, especially during the growing season, which starts slowly in March and gathers pace in April before drawing to a close in October. “If the plants don’t get a long rest period they won’t flower,” George says.
Walk into the glasshouse on a wet, blustery spring day and you step into a different world. The colour, a riot of pinks, reds and yellow, is as unexpected as it is dramatic. Nothing could be further from the stereotype of green, prickly specimens.
On both sides of the narrow aisle different cacti and succulents jostle for position, creating a textured tapestry punctuated with different shapes and all kinds of needles and prickles. Small, rounded plants nestle close to tall, slender columns and compact varieties in a range of sizes. “I collect and breed hybrids,” George explains.
Relatively modern plants in terms of evolution, cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. And, surprisingly, they need a lot of water during the growing season, but the roots need to be as dry as possible during winter. “Plenty of cacti are lost to over watering,” George explains. Heat needs to be carefully monitored in the winter months. Cacti, George adds, respond well to feeding and he recommends doses of a tomato feed at half strength.
An easy cactus for a beginner, he suggests, might be a Mammillaria of which there are 200 different varieties – George grows the ravishing Mammillaria bombysina, with short red wands emerging from a delicate covering of what looks like candy floss. “They grow and flower easily,” he says. “Pot them on every three or four years.” Contrary to popular belief, cacti don’t thrive on neglect. “They don’t enjoy sitting in a lump of concrete; tease out the roots and replant them.”
He doesn’t have a favourite, although enjoys the history and anecdotes behind the naming of the plants. As an example he cites the surprisingly tactile white, fluffy, Old Man Cactus, Cephalocereus senilis. “The story goes that the Spanish soldiers in Mexico thought they looked like old men looking down on them from the top of the hill.” It is exactly this combination of horticulture and romance that has kept this couple captivated for more than four decades.
For further details contact June McNab (01631 750 007, [email protected])
Glasgow Branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society (www.bcssglasgow.org)