Transporting a cactus can be prickly enterprise—especially when it involves 1,000 ultra-rare specimens and a 2,500-mile cross-country road trip. But the co-owners of Los Angeles’s storied cacti emporium, known simply as the Cactus Store, pulled off the delicate task and will launch their first New York pop-up tomorrow, just in time for summer.
“This is not a nursery where there are fifteen flats of the same plant—these are hand-selected,” says Carlos Morera, who established the Cactus Store in Echo Park with partners Jeff Kaplon and Max Martin in 2014. “They come from so many different parts of the world, so why not bring them to New York?”
The group teamed up with DLJ, a local developer, to build a temporary greenhouse and store on an empty Lower East Side lot sandwiched between two buildings. Kaplon, who is trained as an architect, designed the sloping, aluminum-framed tent to keep both the plants and customers happy. Inside, the cacti—all selected specifically for the pop-up—are arranged on a table like otherworldly art objects.
These are not your garden-variety plants. The owners scour personal collections and backyards for the rarest and most unusual examples. Many of the Cactus Store’s specimens come with pedigrees. And the stories behind each plant (the owners have assembled many of them in a new book) are equally mythic: cactus fanatics have gone to the ends of the earth to find them, braving extreme heat, landmines, the law, and, on occasion, Somali pirates.
Take, haageocereus tenuis—a spiky oblong plant that, according to the owners, can only be tracked down off a freeway in Peru with aid from GPS. Or the twisting welwitschia mirabilis, a tendril-like plant so singular that when it was discovered in Namib desert, the botanist feared he was hallucinating.
Prices begin at $30, but can balloon quickly depending on rarity and provenance; a forked plant approximating the height of a Christmas tree, for instance, goes for $6,000. “In the cactus-collecting world the more genetic mutations the better—unlike [in] the human world,” Morera says.
Then there’s the “very not for sale” stock: Aztekium ritteri, a squat, limestone-loving specimen, is one of the world’s slowest growing plants, according to Morera. He holds up a plastic box containing one that, at six years old, is no bigger than a nickel.
But the prized find just might becopiapoa cinerea, a globular varietal native to Chile that receives its only moisture from a coastal fog. “These haven’t produced seed since the time of Columbus,” says Morera. The plant only grows in a super-arid portion of the Atacama Desert—a region so inhospitable that NASA uses it to mimic conditions on Mars. But obsessives needn’t go that far to find it—the Cactus Store popup at 5 Essex Street will be open until November.