A Celebration of Cactus

Gilgandra quietly emerges on either side of the Newell Highway about an hour north west of Dubbo. It’s hot, dusty and flat. The Castlereagh River flows unconvincingly through the centre of town. With a population of around 2500, it’s not a place that feels like a destination. You stop to refuel at the servo, get some food and keep on driving, but like many country towns there is an endearing sense of honesty about the place. What you see is what you get. Or not.

If I didn’t know better, even a plant lover such as myself may not be inclined to stop at Orana Cactusworld on the outskirts of town. It’s unassuming façade gives little away of the treasures hidden behind the tall chain-link fence. Once you step inside, however, it feels like you have just won the meat tray at your local pub. If you like meat, I suppose. What I am trying to say is Lester Meyers’ Orana Cactusworld blew me away.

I received a tip off about Lester’s cacti collection by a keen gardener near Coonamble, even further west. Lester is a retired carpet layer with a penchant for all things spiky, and over the last 50 years or so has developed a collection of over 1000 different cacti and succulent species. It is by far the greatest gathering of cacti I have ever seen, and all housed on a small suburban block on the edge of the Newell Highway. Blink and you’ll miss it.

The moment I met Lester I decided I needed to talk to him about his passion for plants. I wasn’t sure he would be as excited about the proposition as I was, but thankfully, he was very obliging. I made another trip out west to talk to Lester. This is how it went…

Georgina: Tell me about your passion for cacti?
Lester: I don’t know whether it’s a passion or addiction. I started with one or two plants and it just grew from there. After a while one becomes picky about what one’s going to collect. Most collections only have potted plants, you really have no idea of what a plant will grow like if its in a pot. You have to put it in the ground and let it do its own thing. So that’s what I have done.

I started collecting cacti when I was in primary school, way back in 1948. I used to go to work before school every morning and a couple of lovely old ladies I delivered milk to had cacti collections. They caught my eye and I asked if they had any spare pieces – they were only too willing to offload plants onto me.

For many years I didn’t have a big collection. Cacti were quite hard to get in the early days. One local lady started importing seed in the 1950’s from Mexico. I still have a couple of the plants she imported way back then. One is a Mammillaria hahniana, which can live for hundreds of years. I also have an Astrophytum ornatum from her. It’s about 1.5m high. That’s as big as it gets.

Georgina: When did your collection morph into an obsession? Was there a turning point?
Lester: Yes there was; at the end of 1969 I went overseas working and I left my collection with my mother whilst I was gone. When I came back I bought this property for my cacti with a vision of doing exactly what I have done, but not as big! It was originally going to be a 50-foot glasshouse and that was going to be that. It quickly grew into a 90ft glasshouse with a lean-to along the side. If I had another 50 years left I would put another extension on too. There are many hundreds of species I don’t have yet.

Georgina: How many plant species have you got?
Lester: I don’t really know exactly but probably around 1000 different types. All the plants I have collected are the ones that I like. They come from the northern parts of the USA, right down to Mexico and southern Chile.

Georgina: Do you like the challenge of trying to find interesting species?
Lester: Yes, I suppose I do. They continually fascinate me, and there are so many plants I still haven’t got that I would like to get but probably never will. These will probably keep me collecting for the rest of my life I should think.

In my younger days I used to not only have cacti, but also ferns, a flower garden and a vegetable patch. I’ve been very keen on gardening my whole life but cacti have sort of pushed out the other plants. It’s always been my number one plant.

Georgina: When you came back from overseas and bought this property, was it as a business or pleasure venture? Were you inspired by what you had seen overseas?
Lester: Yes, I visited many botanic gardens in Europe and was amazed at how well the cacti grew under such cold conditions. I knew I had plants that don’t tolerate frost well and thought ‘If they can do it, so can I’. It was never done as a business.

Georgina: So it’s a labour of love?
Lester: Yes. I was a carpet layer all my life and this was something I would do on Sundays only. I used to work six days a week carpet laying. I always looked forward to summer for the long days as I had a few extra hours after work to spend with the plants.

People who love plants like this place. I see a lot of people turning their noses up, they think cacti are just a bunch of prickly weeds. Most people are very happy to come in and have a look.

Georgina: Have you got a favourite plant?
Lester: No. I have no favourites. There are a few temperamentals. Tempera mentality seems to come in all walks of life, in both plants and people.   The temperamentals demand the most attention.

Georgina: What are your thoughts on the connection between people and plants?
Lester: To grow plants well you have to have passion, you have to have a love for them. You need to be there to put seed in, to see them come up, and watch them grow. Cacti seed are like little blobs. They pop up and are very susceptible to fungus disease so you have to tend them every day. They are like kids. I don’t grow my seed here, I grow it at home so that I can be there for them.

With plants you can go on looking forever and be amazed at them. If you think you know everything about them you have your head in the clouds. I’ll go on learning until the day I die. That’s what life is about.

Georgina: Have you got a garden at your home?
Lester: No, this is it. I have no cacti growing at home. I have a few succulents there but that’s about it.

Georgina: Thanks for talking with me Lester! What are you doing with your Sunday afternoon?
Lester: I’m going to go home, lie under the air-conditioner and have a midday siesta!