A man's passion for Cacti

Penny Nakamura / For The Bulletin /


Published Oct 21, 2008 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Plants Gone Wild nursery owner David Stetson sometimes calls himself the Johnny Appleseed of plants because when he’s out and about, he’s always on the lookout for great native plants that can grow in his backyard, or your backyard.

“I may be on a hike, or even driving around, and I’ll try to get a clipping or I’ll collect some seeds of plants that I see. I’m fascinated by the whole thing — a little seed that looks like a dead speck and then it grows. It’s a miracle of nature,” said Stetson, who has five very different gardens on his acre on O.B. Riley Road in Bend.

But it’s his latest passion for cacti that seems to excite Stetson the most these days. He has 100 cacti of more than 40 varieties.

“There are native cacti within a 150 miles of Bend, over by Mitchell and John Day,” explained Stetson, who in the past couple of years has planted seven cactus gardens throughout his property. “I was driving by in Mitchell, and I saw this ranch, and on the ground it was covered with all these beautiful fuchsia-colored flowers about 1 inch in diameter. I stopped the car and asked the rancher if I could take some of these cacti plants, and he didn’t care, he wanted to get rid of them.”

Stetson says the spiky, prickly succulents inspire him, but he cautions their blooms are always fleeting.

“You can’t believe how beautiful the flowers are on these cacti. They are hot pinks, bright yellows, oranges and purples — such intense colors,” explained Stetson. “But it may last only one day, sometimes, if you’re lucky, three days.”

A cactus collection

The High Desert might seem like a natural home for cacti, but Bend can be hard on the succulents.

“In Colorado or Utah or the higher elevations of Arizona and New Mexico where there are cacti, they do better because when it snows that snow provides a protective cover. But here you can get zero degrees on the ground and the freeze is so deep, and there may be no snow blanket,” explained Stetson, who says he was pleasantly surprised that 90 percent of his cacti survived last winter’s cold.

As the cacti get ready for the winter months, Stetson says they’ll deflate, shrink and look withered, and the last thing you should do is water them, because the water needs to drain from the cacti pads so they won’t freeze.

Stetson is fascinated by the hardy nature of the cacti, and how well they can survive without much water.

“They have such an adaptive mechanism,” said Stetson who finds a small cactus pad has fallen off a plant. “See this pad, if you dry it out for five days and then plant it again, it will root and create another cactus.”

Stetson explains that when you order a cactus plant, it will be delivered by mail as just a dry ball of cactus. This is the fastest way to grow a cactus, because planting a cactus by seed often takes seven to eight years.

“See this one here,” said Stetson, pointing to a Corynopuntia clavata, which is a mat-forming or low-growing cactus. “It started off from one pad, and now look at it — it has seven pads of its own.”

Stetson explains that the large saguaro cacti you typically see dotting the landscape in Arizona can’t grow in our desert, but he’s found plenty of varieties that can thrive.

“This is called a fish hook cactus, because the spines curve under. You should see the big pink and purple flowers,” said Stetson, pointing out the varieties of cacti in his main succulent garden. “The Opuntia cylindrica has these spines that look like little hairs, but if you were to touch it, you’d get 50 microscopic spines in your finger, and they stay in forever. They’re hard to pull out.”

It’s not surprising that cacti have developed infamous nicknames: “hat pins,” “crowns of thorns,” “hedgehogs” and other monikers that let you know to keep your hands off.

But Stetson loves the self-sufficient plants that require no pruning or weeding and are mostly insect-free. Deer don’t dare eat them either.

And as he’s apt to do, Stetson has found many of his cacti while he’s on the road.

“This one came from a gas station in Roseburg. They had this huge cactus growing there, and I asked if I could take a pad — it’s so easy,” said Stetson. “I also got a couple of pads from a friend in North Carolina, and I said to him, ‘what in the hell is a cactus doing in North Carolina?’”

Even on 10th Street in Bend, Stetson said he saw a cactus growing in the front of someone’s house and so naturally, he knocked and asked for a cutting.

His Johnny Appleseed ways have led him to an amazing cactus collection artfully arranged and interspersed between his other five gardens, which range from shade plants to fruit and vegetable plants, and which require much more work.

Beyond succulents

When Stetson first moved to his property 14 years ago, he found only bitterbrush and lots of volcanic rock, so to give his property some color, he originally started his wildflower garden, which is now well established and self-seeding, as evidenced by the 6-foot-tall asters, which Stetson says are aggressively spreading.

There aren’t many plants that Stetson doesn’t love, even if some of them may be showy weeds.

Stetson says he and his former wife started a “greens garden” with a necessary deer deterrent fence in the early years. They planted raspberries, blueberries, asparagus and various herbs.

For several years, Stetson says they focused on creating a new and different garden each year.

On his property, Stetson has a very large juniper tree that provides ample shade, and he dismisses the myth that you can’t grow anything around a juniper.

“The juniper will shed its needles, and you shouldn’t let it collect. Otherwise, it could build up and trickle into the root of the other plants. But I’ve found these plants do very well under the shade of this tree,” said Stetson, who has managed to create a very lush garden, planting shade-loving plants not normally seen in the High Desert. “That’s a hellebore, which usually is found in the wet valley area. It blooms in April. And this is sweet woodruff, and it blossoms in June with a white flower. You see this in the forest of the Cascades.

Stetson’s favorite blossom comes from a plant called Lewisia, which was named after Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“The Lewisia grows wild in Wenatchee (Wash.) — it has these beautiful 4-inch blooms in an apricot color,” explained Stetson, who culls his own seeds for this stunning northwest plant. “It’s one of the most expensive plants I sell, because only five out of 100 will germinate.”

Stetson points to the wild native ginger he grows and the native golden currants, which have been robbed by the birds.

“That’s a Daphne, and it has an outstanding fragrance. It grows wild in the Three Creeks Lake area, and the seeds are micro- scopic,” said Stetson, who has hiked near and far to collect native seeds.

By his own admission, Stetson is always on the prowl for a new plant to test in his own backyard and greenhouse.

What he loves about finding wild native plants is they’re already adapted to the High Desert. So, whether it’s a forest plant or a sun-loving desert cactus, it can flourish and propagate.

It also helps to have a local Johnny Appleseed who wants to spread and share the beauty of plants he finds in the wild.