In the pages of Max Martin and Carlos Morera's book Xerophile (Hat & Beard Press, $65) are images of cactuses that look like overstuffed cushions with patterns as beautiful as any upholstery. Some of the cactuses tower over grown men who've scaled ladders to examine them more closely. One species grows in massive patches covered in what looks like downy white fur you'd probably be ill-advised to touch, appealing as it might seem.
The photos of the specimens are beautiful in their own right — they're super saturated and vibrant in that Technicolor way only vintage photos seem to be — but what really interested Martin and Morera in collecting and compiling the images were the stories and the people behind them: the English cancer researcher who made yearly pilgrimages to Bolivia to go cactus hunting; the botanists and hobbyists who traveled to Peru's most remote reaches just to take a photograph and document the existence of a particular species. (Note: Xerophiles are organisms that can thrive where water is scarce, which I suppose you could say applies to both cactuses and cactus enthusiasts.)
"The book is about the plants and the photographs, but it's really about the people and the world [of cactus obsessives], the adventurers and explorers," Martin says. "There's a certain kind of personality and they get completely obsessed. They start out collecting [cactuses] and having a greenhouse, and then they go [exploring] once and get hooked."
Martin and Morera are the guys behind the Cactus Store in Echo Park. When I spoke with them earlier this summer, they'd just completed a cross-country trek to open a cactus pop-up in New York City's Chinatown, which meant transporting hundreds of super-rare cactuses in a 20-foot, manually climate-controlled truck all the way from L.A. How'd they do it? Carefully. The store is up and running on Essex Street and will be open through November. "It was a little nerve-racking," Martin admits of a journey that involved obsessively checking the precious cargo at every truck stop along the way.
They opened their Echo Park outpost in 2014 to sell potted cactuses and succulents for new-school home decor and landscaping, and inadvertently became interested in an old-school cactus collecting culture. As they explain in the book's intro: "Since the 1930s, Southern California has been home to a rich network of cactus and succulent clubs, societies and shows. Evidence of this history is stored away all over the Southland — go to a longtime cactus collector’s garage, and you’ll likely find shoe boxes stuffed full of old succulent newsletters and magazines, stacked up next to the Christmas decorations and boogie boards."
They hooked up with people who'd been associated with cactus clubs and were given free rein to dig through people's personal archives of magazines and photographs. They became closely acquainted with aging men who were eager to share the stories of their cactus pursuits. Besides the collection of images, the book features a series of oral histories from the lips of people who devoted themselves to the pursuit of cactuses.
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"[We met a] guy from Portugal who's 90-something years old," Morera says. "He’s in good shape, but ... these interviews might be his last reflection on his life and plants."
In conducting the interviews, Martin and Morera always asked their subjects what it was about cactuses that they found so engrossing. Consistently, the subjects couldn't really explain their affinity. "No one had an answer," Morera recalls. "They were all so articulate and expressive — and at the end, I’d be like, 'What is it?' All of them were dumbfounded."
Still, Martin thinks he gets it. "It’s a myth, a perfect thing to get obsessed with," he says. "People get obsessed because a lot of [cactuses] are very hard to find. It's a treasure hunt almost. Often it’ll be they have a plant one guy found and no one’s ever been back — these mythic ones, these quests for people to find these plants."
Xerophile is available for pre-order at Hat & Beard Press, hatandbeard.com/product/xerophile.