If you’ve been to the Huntington Gardens or The Arboretum, you’ve likely seen some pretty impressive cacti and succulents. But if you’re a true fan of these amazing plants, you should not miss a visit to the Cactus Center, just minutes away at the corner of Rosemead and Colorado Boulevard, where the children of Zhalermwudh and Maleenee Thongthiraj, Thai immigrants who came to America in 1950, keep their father’s passion for these intriguing plants alive. Nearly all cacti are succulents, and though not all succulents are cactus, they all share an affinity for water conservation and retention critical to life in an environment where the liquid of life is scarce. Scarcity of course breeds creativity, and the evolutionary paths taken by these amazing plants are as varied as they are beautiful and sometimes bizarre.
Arree, one of six sisters involved in the business of the Cactus Center (there were no brothers) walks me through the rows of sometimes dangerously pointed, sometimes furry, sometimes fleshy product of her father’s passion. Not a trained botanist, Thongthiraj was nevertheless a committed collector of examples from around the world. As Arree explains, many of the plants now on display are the “children” of her father’s original collection (representing a continuous line of propagation from those original plants) or even simply long-time residents like the 50-year-old Madagascar Elephant Tree, with its bubbled trunk that she proudly calls to my attention.
Thongthiraj opened Cactus Center, as countless American immigrants have done, because he wanted to establish a business that would continue to support his children in their new home, and the sisters have more than honored his legacy. Arree explains that her sister Molly manages the business, Sue is in charge of propagation, while she does the design work for their diverse clientele. In addition to the general public, The Cactus Center provides plants for a number of celebrities, corporations like The Walt Disney Company and Google, as well as many nearby hotels and businesses. Like the cacti they nurture and sell, the sisters have continued to thrive in the Southern California environment for more than 40 years.
California Cactus Center
216 S Rosemead Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91107
Images by Paul Mowry