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Cactus craze 

May 12, 2017

Digital Reporter

Cover art Samantha Gonzales

Cactus—the horticultural black sheep recently reborn as a flatlay staple—has been pierced by instafame. It’s gotten to a point where a three‑day fair took place last weekend: the Cactus Fiesta Fair held from May 5 to 7 at the Quezon City Circle. It was organized by a 19,415‑strong group called The Cactus and Succulents Society of the Philippines, Inc. (CSSPI), whose membership grew exponentially in the last two years because of a staggering volume of—you guessed it—millennials.

“Cacti are unique, and there’s a lot of variety,” 23‑year old Triah de Vega told SparkUp, while she and her boyfriend looked for more plants to add to their respective collections. She has been raising succulents for two years now. “And they’re not hard to take care of, especially for people from the younger generation, they’re not keen on working hard to raise plants, they don’t want a lot of responsibility. With cacti you have only have to water them around once a week.” Still, she was very happy when she recalled how happy and fulfilled she felt after one of her cacti bloomed after one year of care.

Carlos Estrada, Ms. de Vega’s boyfriend, has also started his own collection. “I learned discipline from it. It taught me how to be responsible,” he told SparkUp. “I find how they look beautiful and how they bloom—it really brings me joy.”

Through drought and storms, it remains strong. I want to be tough like that. People can walk away, but succulents stay still.

—Merel Jo Lugay

Indeed, the quintessential black sheep of the plant world has found a place in the hearts of the young, brought back to popularity by ’80s nostalgia, artsy Instagram photos, social media exposure, and the comfort of having a low‑maintenance companion to the hectic, almost solitary lifestyle of the new generation.

Twenty‑year‑old Merel Jo Lugay reached out to SparkUp in an email after the event, waxing poetic about succulents after she repotted her haul: “I see myself in them,” she wrote. “The cactus symbolizes strength. Through drought and storms, it remains strong. I want to be tough like that. People can walk away, but succulents stay still. I’ve found comfort in them every waking morning—a daily reminder that I’m not alone.”

A cacti collector for approximately a year now, she added: “It’s unique in that behind all those needles is a flower waiting to come out, and if you’re going to be patient about it, it will bloom in its own perfect time.”

Art Samantha Gonzales

“The appeal is the uniqueness of form and sometimes the challenge,” 29‑year‑old Ronald Apostol told SparkUp about the appeal of cacti to millennials. “These plants don’t look like your ordinary leafy plants. Some of them look like flowers, the plants themselves look like flowers, and they have very weird forms. There’s an artistic, sculptural element, so most people will end up being mesmerized or interested upon learning that these are actual living plants and they share very little with how normal leafy plants look like. Especially right now when our sensibilities are more fashion and design centric—we are bombarded with everything pretty, everything unique, everything strange—and succulents share a lot of those characteristics with current trends in what people consider aesthetically pleasing and weird at the same time.”

Mr. Apostol runs The Midnight Hardinero blog on Facebook and Instagram, and shared a booth at the Cactus Fiesta with his friend where he sold cacti propagated from his own “small” collection of 200 to 300 plants. His cheapest kind sold for ₱45 pesos per plant, while his more expensive sold for ₱3,500. The price for renting an entire tent‑space for the duration of the event was ₱2,000, with a 10% discount for CSSPI members. On March 6, he gave a lecture on basic cacti care and troubleshooting to a mixed crowd of young and old alike, after which he went back to his booth and gave demonstrations on grafting—a horticultural technique in which one would grow one kind of cactus on top of another to produce a unique fusion.

Mr. Apostol was born and raised in a farm in Zambales by government employee parents. His mother gave him his first pair of cacti when he was seven years old after he saw them sold for ₱10 a pot in the dry market. This interest could only grow, as his parents gave him more plants as pasalubong whenever they went out of town. He has been collecting and raising cacti and other succulents since, only to briefly take a break during his college years. He restarted his collection three years ago. Currently, he has an office job at an online English tutoring company, and considers cactus selling as his “informal enterprise”. He chose the online handle “The Midnight Hardinero” to reflect his lifestyle, in which he can only check on his plants at night, after a hard day’s work.

“In terms of care, the plants are much more tolerable of neglect. With millennials juggling work, friends, family, having plants that won’t die if you forget to water them for three days or one week is a boon to such a lifestyle,” he added. “It doesn’t mean that the plants are ‘bump‑proof’ or the plants will survive a lot of neglect, it just means that they’re not as dependent on continuous care.”

“Selling plants is fruitful, you can get a big revenue especially if you get to propagate,” Mr. Apostol told SparkUp. “For example you buy a mother plant for ₱500. You can get five smaller propagations from it in a few months of which you can sell at a lower cost from ₱500, say, half of the price at ₱250. So from your initial spending of ₱500, plus the initial costs of pots and soil which are minimal to say the least, subtract those initial costs and that’s your revenue. Plus you still have the mother plant so your revenue is continuous as long as you are able to propagate plants that you think will sell.”

With millennials juggling work, socials and family, having plants that won’t die if you forget to water them for three days or one week is a boon to such a lifestyle.

—Ronald Apostol

“There will always be people who want plants,” he added. He plans to return home to Zambales this year to formally go into the business of selling cacti from his own nursery, to fill up the need of having locally produced cacti in the Philippines as most of them come from either Benguet, or brought in from Bangkok. “Here in the Philippines, you have to deal with the bureaucracy, different regulations that aren’t properly enforced. It’s the same with other industries where usually small‑scale or medium‑scale players have a difficult time pursuing their thing and making it blossom to a large‑scale industry. We’re trying to change that, even in a small or micro scale, there’s significant revenue and returns. There will always be people who want plants, the demand is continuous.”

SparkUp was also able to interview Lino Rom, President of CSSPI, whose booth spans three tent spaces, not to mention an extensive display of different cacti outside his booth space. In the middle of the interview, he sold a cactus worth ₱4,900 to a woman who came all the way from Koronadal, South Cotabato to meet him. One of his cacti, a large clustered round cactus, is estimated to cost around ₱20,000 if he would sell it, which he won’t. It took him seven years of tender loving care to grow it, after all.

A retired school teacher, Mr. Rom first got into the hobby of collecting cacti and succulents in the ’80s, the last time he could recall there being a cactus craze. He owes his interest to his students, who had shown him their plants and asked for his help on how to grow them.

“But the craze today is bigger than back then, because of Facebook,” Mr. Rom said. “We post our nice plants, many people like them, and they become viral. Now I have a larger following worldwide, like from India, even in the United States, and some try to order plants from me but I only have enough for local consumption.” Instead, he buys some of his plants from Bangkok, where he would sometimes meet fellow cactus aficionados from Bangkok, India and Pakistan. The succeeding conversation, he adds, feels like talking to old friends.

Art Samantha Gonzales

“When I started posting my plants on Facebook, I feel like five to seven likes are already plenty, now I can get up to 300 likes,” he said. “This means that the craze has really bloomed.”

“If you look at the societies about plants, we have the Philippine Horti, the Philippine Orchid Society, the Fern Society, many of whose members are the retired or the elderly. Cacti are different, especially now,” he added, when asked about its appeal on the youth. “Cacti has an appeal to the younger generation, because they have different forms, different colors, they are unique.”

Still, plant fads come and go. In the early 2000s there was the euphorbia, a woody, thorny succulent with rounded pink, white or purple flowers. Earlier still in the 1990s were the different kinds of aloes. While the demand for cacti will naturally decline over time, perhaps knowledge on how to properly raise and take care of these unique plants would provide a more sustainable environment for the community, which links old and young alike, giving a brief respite from the demands of work and societal expectations.