June Timberman strokes the thick, interlacing spines of a chubby cactus with a toothbrush. As she waits for the next customer to drop by her booth at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, she will stay busy by keeping her prickly product neat and clean.
Moments ago, she sold a cactus each to a mom and her two sons, sending them away with this simple instruction: "Water them every two or three weeks."
She and her husband, Chuck Timberman, have been bringing their cacti and other succulents to the market for about 10 years, setting up beneath their Timbermanor Nursery banner. Although they are a familiar sight, their booth doesn't attract the crowds that swarm around some of the other vendors — those selling starter plants for the garden, fresh produce and flowers.
Call Timbermanor Nursery a business, if you wish. The Timbermans look at it as "a hobby that pays for itself."
Selling desert plants in pine tree country is no formula for getting rich. The Timbermans are happy, then, just to break even. Besides, dealing with the public gives them the opportunity to practice those scientific names, which roll easily off their tongues.
To the layman, that skinny cactus covered with white hair is an old man. To them, it's an Espostoa lanata.
Who is the bigger cactus fanatic, Mr. or Mrs. Timberman?
"I caught the bug from him," she says.
Folks who stop at the Timbermanor booth are treated to a wide assortment of cacti native to the Americas and Africa. The plants come in more shapes than chess pieces, their common names reflecting what they resemble: pincushions, wooly torches, brains. The Timbermans set out agave, jade and aloe plants, as well — all members of the succulent family to which cacti belong.
The bulk of the selection — $2 and $4 starter plants — is priced just right for impulse buyers. For people who don't want to wait a decade or more for their Mexican golden barrel cactus — Echinocactus grusonii to the Timbermans — to grow to 18 inches in diameter, they can buy one from Timbermanor Nursery for $35.
The Timbermans always bring a few big plants such as the barrel cactus along, which they display right up front as attention getters. Deciding which ones to pack depends on which ones "look special" to them on any given day, he says.
"I've got so many," he adds, noting that he grows several hundred varieties at his greenhouse in Central Point. His total inventory: somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 plants, he says.
As he talks at his worktable, he snaps off a small side growth, or pup, from a parent plant. Placed into its own pot, this pup will grow into a mature plant.
Timberman doesn't even wear gloves for the procedure. He has grown some tough skin over years of contact with the needles of these desert denizens.
It being spring, many of the cacti at the Timbermanor booth are blooming. The contrast of delicate flowers and gnarly spines is startling. How could something so soft and beautiful emerge from something so severe?
Asking yourself such a question is symptomatic: you are catching the cactus bug.
It was 1968 when Chuck Timberman first came down with the bug.
Working for the Forest Service in Oregon, he couldn't take his vacation in summer, during fire season. Given time off in winter, he packed his family in the car and hit the road for some place warm, namely the desert Southwest.
While there, he found his life-long hobby.
"Desert vegetation was so different (than that of the Northwest) that it became my goal to find out more about it," he says.
By the 1980s, his hobby had grown into the entity called Timbermanor Nursery. Timberman sold cacti wholesale at first, and then to the public at flea markets.
These days, he and his wife pretty much go where the cacti take them.
During spring and summer, that means setting up at the Growers Market — in Ashland on Tuesdays and in Medford on Thursdays — as well as at shows and festivals throughout the region.
In fall, they set the cacti down for a lengthy dormant period, spending hours toting them into their greenhouse and stacking them on shelves. For cacti to become hearty enough to bloom, they must take a break after their growing season. Cool temperatures and little if any water are the keys.
"They thrive on neglect," Timberman says.
While their cacti sleep, the Timbermans travel. They go south, hitting large commercial nurseries in San Diego and Tucson to buy more and more plants.
Timberman squeezes in about 10 presentations a year to gardening clubs and other groups. And so the bug gets passed on and on.
When asked to put his fascination into words, he says that it's "the weirdness of desert plants" that appeals to him most.
As if on cue, a young woman passing the Timbermanor booth points at a cactus that looks twisted and deformed but is actually a robust example of Euphorbia grandicornis, known commonly as a crested cow's horn.
"That's cool," she says to her companion. They stop to inspect
June Timberman puts down her toothbrush. It looks like she has a customer.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.