Once upon a time, the cactus was a novelty item passed around at Christmas. “Oh look, it has a little Santa’s hat on,” you would groan. It had fallen hard from its 1970s hey-day and was consigned to the bargain bin by the trendsetters along with vinyl, MINI cars, and the bushy beard. But guess who’s having the last laugh – cacti are not just back, they’re having a bit of a moment.
Prada has taken the cactus and made it their unofficial logo, plastering it on purses, men’s suit shirts, and sashaying catwalk dresses. Associations with the painfully hip US festivals Coachella and Burning Man mean millennials see it as symbolic of endless summers and good times. The four-story Topshop store in Oxford Street has its own cactus shop. Urban Outfitters sell their own ‘grow your own’ cactus mix. The ‘shelfie’ craze on Instagram is dominated by people taking photos of cacti and house plants studding their shelves.
A lot of older men especially are coming in and restarting their collection purely because there is now a means to get them - it's nostalgic
And although not a trendsetter in any other world than horticulture, Monty Don recently revealed himself to be a “sucker for succulents” – the general name for drought resistant plants which store water in their fleshy leaves. (Note: all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.) Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – shops that wouldn’t even have known what a succulent was ten years ago have now all jumped on the spiky bandwagon with small in-store offerings (mostly the artificial kind).
At the forefront of this push to make owning a cactus fashionable again is Gynelle Leon, who opened her cactus and succulents shop, Prick, last year in hipster’s paradise Dalston, east London, and has just released a new book dedicated to the prickly characters. And while Leon admits that younger generations are behind the boom, she dismisses any notion that it is only millennials getting in on the act.
“We have a lot of people come in and tell us about how they used to collect cacti when they were younger,” reveals Leon, “and a lot of older men especially are coming in and restarting their collection purely because there is now a means to get them. I guess people gave up their collections because they thought it was a bit out-dated. So it’s nostalgic for a lot of people. They remind them of their parents that used to collect them.”
Ian Thwaites, who has been a member of the British Cactus and Succulents Society since the cactus’ Seventies zenith, agrees: “My love started in childhood. My mother always had a few on the windowsill, and I occasionally bought a few down at Woolworths with my half-crown. I don’t think it’s ever been a really cool thing to grow plants, but they were certainly very popular in the 1970s and there were lots of big shows and exhibitions. I think it slowly dropped off and now we’re seeing a resurgence.”
My love started in childhood. My mother always had a few on the windowsill, and I occasionally bought a few down at Woolworths with my half-crown
But there’s more to the boom than the fact they look quite funky and remind people of their mothers. The real beauty of succulents is that they require next to no care, and are almost impossible to kill (meaning artificial supermarket specimens completely miss the point). With over four million Brits now working over 48-hour weeks, they’re tMe perfect plants for modern times.
“You can neglect them somewhat,” Leon concedes. “and they are low maintenance compared to other house plants, but if you do pay them attention then you notice the results.”
Some rookie mistakes to avoid are not giving them enough sunlight. Ideally, place them on a windowsill. They may look oh-so-cute on the mantelpiece but a dead cactus isn’t very adorable at all.
Expect to water your plant every seven to ten days in the summer and around every three weeks in the winter. You can tell if they need watering by using a wooden skewer from the kitchen. Poke the soil and if the tip remains dry then give it some water. The larger the pot, the longer it takes for your plant to dry out.
The process of looking after something and watching it prosper gets quite addictive. “With some people, I’m like, okay, I need to stop you from buying plants for a while,” says Leon with a chuckle. “But I think it’s a healthy addiction. It could be alcohol or cigarettes. People send me pictures and they’ve got a mini version of my shop. I don’t even notice how often they’ve been buying them from me. I think they must be buying from other places.” Traitors!
Perhaps they’re skipping on over to Camden Garden Centre, where cacti business is also booming. They even held a two-week cactus festival in July, with a cactus-themed cafe menu selling enchiladas, but sadly no mojitos – drinking is still frowned upon in garden centres.
They sell around 400 succulents starting at £3.99 for those the size of an egg-cup, up to a shocking £1,200. “That’s a whopper,” says Toby Davies, the centre’s plant area manager. “For a relatively big one, you’d easily part with £100.”
All his succulents are sourced from a British supplier who grows them on his nursery, while Leon travels in her car to Europe to source them for her shop. But as with anything that rapidly increases in popularity, some cheap carbon copies have come onto the mass market.
“One of the things I’ve noticed since the proliferation of cacti is some of the quality of stock is poor,” says Davies. “Small plants looking a bit sad in a dry pot somewhere.”
A succulent purist, Leon agrees, “I do not do that whole sticking the fake flower on top of the cactus deal, which seems to be everywhere. Plus people seem to think they’re real. People show me pictures and say do you have them like this. Of course, we don’t because they’re not real.”
You’d imagine the 3,000-strong British Cactus and Succulent Society members would be with the purists on this one, but Thwaites, who estimates his collection stands at around 1,000, is of the more-the-merrier opinion. “My view is that if there’s a nice plant in the garden centre or the supermarket, then it’s good for the hobby. If they enjoy it then they’ll look out for some more.”
Leon recommends them as a good present – Christmas is coming up after all – especially for men who can be tricky to buy for. It’ll make a change from the usual Ted Baker pair of socks, at least. A pro-tip, though: steer clear of the Santa’s hat and be careful you don’t pick up a plastic one.
• Prick: Cacti and Succulents by Gynelle Leon is published by Octopus (£15). To order your copy for £12.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk