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Spines and splendor in 'little gems'

Versatile, hardy cactuses ask only for drainage and sun

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BURLY BOLIVIAN: This golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) hails from Bolivia and grows up to three feet tall. Its pink flowers are followed by green fruit.

Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/AP

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It started out as an innocent hobby. Ken and Deena Altman were fresh out of graduate school: Ken with a PhD in psychology and Deena with a degree in human development. The two had been growing cactuses in their backyard and found they had more plants than they had garden.

So they began selling their overstock to local nurseries. Then they entered the mail-order plant business. That was 25 years ago. In a true story of avocation becoming vocation, the couple now runs Altman Plants, a large plant supply and distribution business with several hundred acres of greenhouses and growing grounds in several states.

The Altmans supply roughly 50 percent of the retail cactus market in the US.

Though their plant repertoire now includes perennials, vegetables, herbs, and other plants, cactuses remain one of their main product lines.

"I love cacti," says Mrs. Altman. "Their structure, the geometry of the plants.... I really enjoy their bloom in the spring. To me, they are like living treasures. Each plant is a little living gem."

What makes a cactus a cactus? A botanist will tell you that cactuses are a special group of succulents native to the Americas. They have spines that emerge from special tiny round organs known as areoles. Cactus flowers are large and either white or fluorescent shades of yellow, orange, and pink.

Spines, of course, are a cactus's most distinctive, though most variable, feature. Spines can be small and silvery - or large and tough enough to be used as fishing hooks and sewing needles.

Interestingly, cactus spines are actually modified leaves. Why do these plants have spines? Experts think that spines protect them from hungry predators and shade them from intense sun. Spines also create buffer zones around the bases of the plants, reducing evaporation and directing precious dew toward the roots - an important function in hot, arid deserts.

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