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It’s almost like its own energy vortex when you come in here, it becomes its own world.

Nicole Holland

Cactus Mart, Yucca Valley, CA

My history is in the low desert. I was raised between the high desert and the low desert; my grandpa lived in Landers and that was our homestead up there. He was up there since the 1960s via Detroit. We travelled, so we would be between the high and the low most of my childhood. I love the two separate balances; it’s completely different in the low desert than it is in the high desert in every aspect: people, culture, artistry. The low desert is more city desert and this is more vacant desert up here.

In my 20s I started working for a landscape company just by chance of getting hired on. I always loved flowers anyway, anything that would bloom. I had a big interest in cactus and how they can thrive and their adaptability to harsh climates. There’s a plaque in the little Morongo Café here in town and I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but it says that the average temperature here in Morongo Valley is 75 degrees, which sounds really fancy. 75 is what we put in our brain, but no. It’s 110 down to like 40s and 30s in the winter. It’s this giant extreme of temperature and flux. For a plant to be able to go through that, it’s huge and it needs its respect. That’s my mission overall now as I get older, as I start to appreciate it better, watching all this plant life thrive.

By the time I got to that stage in my life to purchase Cactus Mart, I was already in my late 30s and I was working in the low desert, living here in town. I was in landscape because that was the career path that I was doing at that point. Like any person who loves gardening and plants, you’re coming here. Over the years, I would come in and it’s always changing just like anything; there’s always something new to find, you find new discoveries when you travel, you find new growth, new seed.


Ed started it somewhere in the mid-70s. Before that, it was a bar, that was in the 50s. When you go out back, there’s usually broken beer bottles, pieces everywhere that you kick up. We did do some research a long time ago and the old Desert Sun magazine had run articles about their corned beef specials on Wednesdays. You can find it still, their old little ads. It’s so cute. I know people say it was a bar still in the early 70s, but I don’t have a complete history of it.

Ed had it just cactus, any type of really interesting cactus, stuff that you don’t see anymore. I regret not keeping more of his collection over the years because they do become rare seeds. The couple who owned it after Ed did do some upgrades to the building structure, it was rickety-rackety. He was an old desert dude and he wasn’t going to fix anything. They started the foundation of what it is today. The wife, what she brought in and we continued is native plants. She was a native plant junkie. That vision really helped with completing what’s going on here. At the time when she and her husband had it, there weren’t a lot of options. Now there’s more options, there are more native growers, more people are catching on to the concept. For our region – Mojave desert, Colorado desert – each desert region has their own native plants. It was really big what she brought to the table; it helped us evolve and move into that direction. Not everyone wants cactus, they have animals, dogs in the backyard, they don’t want the cactus stuff. It’s a really good marriage of everyone’s ideas. Everybody had this idea and everybody was doing it for the right intentions, not doing it for anything else other than to create a better place. That’s why it’s still here.

Ed was really a true desert person. His love and knowledge was for cactus and interesting desert trees and plants. He was really smart. He gave me a tree years ago when I used to visit here, an old Queensland bottle tree and he tells the story of how it comes over from Australia on the ship and it’s bare rooted for so many months but you can put it into the ground, and it’s a giant tree. It goes without water for long periods of time. There’s such an interesting world of plants. But you draw them in with the metal art and the dig your own cactus and they get sucked in!


The majority of people come in because they see the “Dig Your Own” sign that Ed put up years ago. It was a great tool for tourism, I love it. The dig your own cactus has changed – I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the original concept because I was too young. I think my mother used to do it. But I believe it was a different kind of format with an actual little shovel thing. But, we’ve made changes involving children and making sure that no one gets poked. So now it’s a safety thing where you take kitchen tongs and dig them out and it’s this tiny little cactus that you can put into a tiny little pot. It becomes more of a kitschy concept. But it still draws them in. That sign has been incredible, it was such a genius decision for him to do and he did it so long ago. Everybody loves it. There was a band called The Dig Your Own Cactus Band in the 80s. So I kept it.

They come in for the fun aspect of it, but as soon as they walk in, “Oh my god,” and they have a million questions trying to understand. It’s overwhelming. It opens their mind up; they’re going, “What is this?” And that’s really fun, that’s what I love. Because then they see the whole ecosystem, we have the desert tortoise that eats the native mallows, willows… people will come in and ask, “What does your tortoise eat?” Well, it eats what’s in the desert. “What do you feed it?” The willows and the mallows. And in the winter, he goes into hibernation. When everything is asleep, he goes to sleep and then we don’t have to feed him until springtime. It works for a reason! My boys had to learn that, they would say “We got lettuce for Lunar!” He eats the desert! He’s a desert native. And people are throwing lettuce our their windows when they see a tortoise. That’s a block for people. Our chickens, they know when those plants have insects and they are all over it. Our goats – those are Tennessee goats, they’re not native goats – the goats’ excrement is a natural fertilizer for our soils. If you get it rolling, it’s easy to maintain. And if you stick with the native plants, then you really have an easy time maintaining because it’s already adapted.

People will say, when they plant a native plant, “Should I amend the soil?” You shouldn’t have to because that’s a native plant going into a native spot. I know sometimes there’s bad soil because there’s been construction and you have to supplement the soil because it’s in a construction zone. But not typically. Usually, it’s a desert-adapted desert native and it’s so important for so many reasons for people to understand that and not go, “Well, I want lush.” And you can do lush. For every question I get about non-natives or invasive plants, we have a sheet that is its opposite that is native. When they’re looking for the hedging like the oleanders or the fichus hedge, we have sugarbushes, we have olive trees, you have other options. Your brain is like, “That’s not what I was thinking of,” but it does the same exact thing that you’re trying to get to.

The majority of natives are edible. Sugarbush: when that goes not bloom, you can pluck it off, you can throw it in and you have a pot of tea. It’s lemonade, it becomes lemonade. You’ve heard of buckwheat – buckwheat tea, honey. We have a million different sages and sages have different uses, so you have this great tool to utilize your land and go into a better environment and have food and shelter uses. It’s really important to know where your food is coming from. Even our mesquites, we have native mesquite trees out here and you take those pods and grind them up and you have flour. You can make them into mesquite cakes. You can do a lot of things with it.

It’s a natural ecosystem for our wildlife, our birds, and it is easy to take care of. I see a lot of people try to manipulate and change their landscape and put in grass. The high desert doesn’t do that, but the low desert does the grass and all the water-sucking plants and I’m like, “What are you doing?” You could make this amazing cactus sanctuary that looks like a tropical paradise or looks like a Mediterranean garden; there’s so many ways to work with your plants and your cactus because of the way that they can adapt. And then you can bring in desert-adaptive plants like the madagascars, the pachypodiums, the ponytails, and other African plants that are adapted to our climate. Easy. Trees, same thing. You can get Pakistan mulberries, you can get Mediterranean olive trees that are evergreen. There is a huge palette for people to explore that are beneficial plants in their environment and less water use, too. And less maintenance. And less rodents.

The succulents that you see in the greenhouse, those are fun and those are cute for gifts, they’re not something that you put out into the desert yard and think that’s something that’s going to grow. The rodents love them, because they’re succulent, they’re full of water. That’s what we combat. Once a native plant gets adapted into the soil, it’s like a child building its immune system. Now it can fight off disease, now it doesn’t taste so good to the rabbits. It becomes in sync with the soil and it has resistance to natural diseases and pests. But if you bring in something that’s not native, you’re fighting it.


Everything flows here, been very easy – it’s hard work but it’s rewarding work and people want to help. Everybody in this little circle helps each other and I think that’s what thrives in this business. My staff has been here going on 10 years with me. The same guys. We all come in, we work together, we fight just like everybody else but we get through everything. It’s almost like its own little energy vortex when you come in here, it becomes its own little world.

Your outside world is doing all this techy stuff and we’re still running it off of a ten-key register. If the power goes down we have all these little inverter boxes that we plug into our generator and we start running again. Everything’s hand-written… but it works and that’s why I don’t want to change it, we’ve been doing it for so long. People do come in to try to upgrade us to the POS systems and all that, but that would change our dynamic here and make us like a grocery store and I don’t want that. There’s a reason the floors are messy and cracked up and the old paintings on all the buildings… that’s old stuff, you don’t see that anymore. It gets sterile and that’s where you lose the connection.

At some point it hit me: what is the desert? It really does thrive in all these different conditions and we’re going to keep it very old school and authentic. We do have to do our maintenance and do certain things, but I’m not painting the place white. What do you see when you go to any original old style desert home? You see Talavera, the Mexican pottery, the Mexican art, the cactus… Where do you get that? You can’t get that vibe at a Home Depot. We try to keep everything traditional and true and authentic and keep it going in that direction. It’s everything desert – what draws people to the desert is its uniqueness. It’s not the grocery store.


At this stage of my life, the word is to spread awareness and education, to help keep the integrity of the desert. The blessing is that you see people get excited about how beautiful it is when they see all the plants. There’s plenty of people up here, too, on that same path; they have the guidebooks, they have the plant palettes, they put in that work. I produce the plants for them, I work with the native plant specialists because that’s what I do, so they come to me for the plant material. They’ve come up with these books, like, “If you want this style of landscaping, if you feel you need an English garden in the desert, here’s how to do it with native plants. If you want a tropical paradise…” That’s what they do. And we all work together. So they’ll hand me it, and I’ll go, “Ok, here’s A, B, and C off this plant list.” We’re the conduit for people who really do study these plants and go, “Here’s what this will do, here’s when these will be in bloom, if you want something that’s blooming in the fall, you’ll do these plants…” So you can have something blooming all year round. It’s a whole system family. It’s really cool.

This is working, and there’s a million more people interested in educating themselves on native plants than when I first took over. I knew her struggle, the previous owner, it was hard. And she didn’t have a lot to present. Now we have it. It’s keeping it going and getting people more awareness and in the right format. Another native plant specialist talks about the importance of the soils, and what you’re doing when you plant a native plant into our soil is basically saving the earth. You’re replenishing. We’re just the outlet for it. It’s a good rhythm, our own little cycle and rhythm.

Thank you universe, and everybody for making this happen, because it wasn’t just me. It was everybody, everybody had good intentions, and that’s what manifests.

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