A Family Affair

The California Cactus Center nurtures the botanical wonders of cacti and succulents along with familial bonds.

When the six Thongthiraj children were growing up in Pasadena in the 1970s, going to Disneyland was the high point of their summer break. But before the daughters could get into the car for a pricey day with Mickey and Minnie, they were told they needed to contribute to the family business. “Our father insisted that in order for us to go, we needed to propagate 1,000 flats of plants,” Arree recalls of her childhood with a laugh. “And we always managed to do that before the summer ended. He was very smart that way. That project certainly kept us busy and out of trouble.”

Indeed, keeping busy has long been a family affair at the California Cactus Center, which has been at its original East Pasadena home since it opened in 1976 with a simple setup — just a couple of benches, a gravel floor and a modest selection of home-propagated plants. Today, five of six daughters are actively involved in the day-to-day workings at the nursery known internationally for all things cacti and succulents. With 23 additional acres of propagation facilities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the center specializes in rare and hard-to-find plants with specimens from all over the world.

Away from the buzz of busy Rosemead Boulevard, a steady stream of customers wanders among rows of sculptural exotic plants that are often weird, fuzzy, prickly, knobby and mesmerizing. The center was a natural offshoot of the beloved hobby of Arree’s father, Zhalermwudh, who, along with wife Maleenee, immigrated from Thailand in the 1950s. He had fallen under the spell of desert cacti and succulents in his adopted country so he started to investigate species, perfect propagation techniques and learn everything he could about these plants — long before the Internet made such research easy.

In the 1960s, Zhalermwudh dove deep into his botanical fascination while working as an X-ray technician at Huntington Hospital. Back then, IVs came in plastic bottles, not bags, and Arree recalls her father recycling numerous IV bottles at home. “He’d cut the corners off the bottoms and make tiny little pots,” she says. Through trial and error, he developed his own soil recipe — the same popular mixture the nursery sells today.

Growing up, the sisters carefully studied how their father made cuttings from the plants he bought, positioned them in the tiny plastic IV pots and tended them as they grew and flourished. Plants took over the backyard where the Thongthiraj sisters received their horticultural education — despite the occasional poke, scrape and scratch. The rest of the family caught Zhalermwudh’s cacti and succulent bug, taking frequent trips to local deserts where they expanded their knowledge by seeing these plants in their native habitat. “The Huntington Garden was also our playground,” adds Arree. “We went there practically every weekend, spending hours in their desert garden.”

While Zhalermwudh taught his girls about plant names, propagation techniques and plant care, mother Maleenee “taught us how to pot and arrange them,” says Arree, who continues in that artistic vein, offering design services for customers who want to integrate these drought-tolerant plants into their yards and homes or businesses. “I do a lot of on-spot design, especially for people who have just purchased a house,” she says.

Indeed, the demand for California Cactus Center plants is impressive. You’ll find them at numerous L.A. Department of Water and Power stations, a SoCal Google campus, Huntington Gardens, UC Riverside, Claremont College and even Disneyland. Celebrity clients include Martha Stewart, Paul Weller, Diane Keaton, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, to name just a few.

Yet for some clients, unconvinced at first, Arree needs to nurture their appreciation of cacti. (“People think they are just thorny, but that’s not true.”) She explains why they have become prized garden additions: “They really appreciate that they are low maintenance and can look good all year round. Plus they want the most they can get out of their money; they want longevity, which these plants offer,” she says. “Rather than spending weekly or biweekly on flowers, they know they can get a cactus or succulent and it will last — you don’t have to replace it all the time.”

With a degree in art, Arree encourages clients to consider cacti and succulents as an art form on their own, especially when appropriately paired with others in tasteful containers. “The plant is the art piece and the pot is the frame,” she says, adding that as the plant grows, its changes can be a form of “performance art. No plant is ever going to stay the same size, right?”

There are rows of artful displays of well-curated plants with delightful shapes and textures in stylish bowls and dishes; no wonder these mini-gardens are in high demand as wedding centerpieces, party favors or gifts for birthdays, showers and other celebrations. There is also a selection of local pottery, including a series crafted by a NASA scientist who embeds fossil prints on the sides of his amber-and-rust-colored creations.

As she leads a visitor on a tour, Arree points out selections that are rare and impressive, including two that are more than 100 years old: a Pachypodium succulentum  from South Africa and a desert rose (Adenium obesum) sporting gorgeous pink blooms. There are frilly-shaped crested euphorbias (created by a mutation) and the sea urchin–shaped Euphorbia obesa, commonly known as the baseball cactus (which is special to the family since it was one of the first specimens in Zhalermwudh’s collection).

This slow-growing cactus with no needles requires a delicate procedure to fertilize the female flowers in order to produce seeds — a task the Thongthiraj girls learned at an early age. Arree would use a horsehair brush to gather the pollen on the male flowers and gently deposit the powdery substance onto the female flowers. “We made cones out of window screen material and placed them on top of the female flowers in the summertime,” she says. When the heat caused the seed pods to finally burst open, she adds, there was a “popcorn-like noise all over the place. It was pretty fun and very neat.”

These days, Arree’s sister Sue handles propagation duties at the nursery. She’s often behind her work table, prepping containers, observing the progress on certain youngsters and carefully extracting and cultivating small offspring. Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate; seeds can take up to two years to germinate.

Sue’s hands hold the descendants of her father’s collection. Many plants at the center can be directly traced back to the Thongthiraj home, whether they were propagated via seed dispersal or cuttings. “My father had a personal goal of propagating a million golden barrels from seed,” she says, as she shows a selection of tiny seeds collected from the cactus flowers of Echinocactus grusonii.

Zhalermwudh did not achieve that benchmark during his lifetime; Arree and Sue roughly calculate that he got to about 500,000 before he passed away in 1998. (You can see 550 of Zhalermwudh’s golden barrel descendants at the Getty Center.)

While friction is common in any family business, Arree and her siblings have managed to keep drama down while improving on and expanding their father’s dream. Malinee Romero captains the center’s popular video channel, posting short tutorial videos on all aspects of care of cacti and succulents along with design tips. Sister Molly oversees the business side; and even Took Took, an English professor at Pasadena City College, rolls up her sleeves at the center during school breaks. Along with the oldest sister, Smanjai, the siblings all care for their 87-year-old mother.

To keep the business as a family endeavor, 10-year-old Evanlee, Arree’s nephew and the sisters’ only offspring, has been coming to the nursery to learn the secrets of succulents and cacti. “We’d like very much to continue as a family business, so we are in the process of grooming him,” says Arree with a sparkle in her eye. Like the generation before him, the youngster is learning the art of propagation (mainly from his Aunt Sue) along with all the other horticultural complexities. Fortunately for him, he won’t be required to propagate 1,000 flats as his aunties had to do.

Arree says her father’s presence is still felt every day as she walks past the giant tree aloe from South Africa (Aloe bainseii) that graces the outside of the business along with a Bombax ellipticum, better known as a shaving brush tree. “This is the largest aloe tree you’ll ever see,” she says of the center’s stately unofficial landmark — originally planted by her father. “He wanted to make sure we would be always be taken care of; that’s why he created this business for us.” 


California Cactus Center is located at 216 Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena. Hours are
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday.
Call (626) 795-2788 or visit cactuscenter.com.