Moorten Botanical Garden: A Family Affair

For most of Clark Moorten’s early years he thought that cactus were the only plants on earth. He’s since realized this is not entirely true, but has stayed loyal to the spiky stuff all his life.

Clark owns Moorten Botanical Garden, a one-acre private botanic garden in Palm Springs, California. The garden was established in 1938 by Clark’s parents Chester ‘Cactus Slim’ and Patricia Moorten. Chester moved from Los Angeles to Palm Springs for heath reasons and soon fell in love with desert plants. He began collecting and cultivating them and in 1955 had to move from the centre of the city to the suburbs to house his growing cactus collection. Hence, Clark grew up immersed in the world of cacti, spending all his spare time working in the garden with his family. ‘I was born into the cactus business. Chores in the garden were part of my daily life’, he says.

After his father passed away in 1980, Clark took over the running of the garden. Since then he has focused on building the diversity and size of the collection – it’s grown so much over the last 35 years he’s not entirely sure how many species it now contains but estimates its around 3000.

The garden is designed with plants grouped in habitats, with a walking trail winding through the extensive collection. There’s also a cactarium – a word coined by the Moortens to describe their special collection of rare cactuses housed in a large glasshouse.

Resilience is what draws Clark to cacti, ‘They’re true survivors’, he says. ‘They can withstand the harshest conditions and continue to thrive.’ He’s most certainly right about that! Cacti have a series of adaptations to ensure their survival in the some of the toughest environments in the world. Instead of leaves they have spines, which have dual functions of reducing transpiration and protecting their trunk from being eaten by animals. The trunk, of course, is a brilliant water storage unit, fed by a very shallow root system able to access the most meagre amount of rain falling on the ground. They’re the perfect plant for dry, desert climates.

Clark works in the garden every day, and every day falls in love with a different plant.

Each morning when I take my first walk through the garden and I see a particular plant in bloom, or catch the sun back-lighting a plant it becomes my favourite for the day,’ he says. ‘I could never pick just one’.

What Clark loves most about working in the garden (as well as the plants) is the interactions with visitors. ‘I have met people from all over the world’, Clark says. ‘We have a lot of plant lovers who visit us, and they’re all so happy to be here. They tell me it’s a peaceful haven in the middle of a bustling city.’

The Moortens have big plans for the garden – ‘We’re constantly trying to improve the garden, and expand the public’s awareness of desert plants’, Clark says. ‘My dream for it is that it continues to thrive for years to come.’

The Moorten Botanical Garden is a green jewel hidden amongst the bustle of Palm Springs. With a long family legacy of passion and care, and with Clark’s son now working with him in the garden, the future of Moorten Botanic Gardens is bright indeed.

This story was originally published in issue 47 of Green Magazine