A Prickly Love Affair

'Lashes To Die For by Karen Zimmerman

What’s your profession? Please describe it.

They call me a Succulent Plant Propagator. My job includes caring for and propagating our huge potted collection of cactus and succulents under the direction of the Curator of Desert Collections, John Trager.
Fortunately, we don’t do this alone. We couldn’t manage the endless work involved without the terrific family of volunteers who come in every week. I have the privilege of working with these devoted gardeners, collectors and plant enthusiasts, and have the pleasure of calling them my friends.

Where do you do this?

Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA. With the exception of the Desert Conservatory in the upper Desert Garden, the Collection nurseries are behind the scenes, and not in the public areas. It is made up entirely of potted plants; tens of thousands of rare and interesting succulent plants from around the world.

Do you enjoy what you do?

I love it! I started out as a volunteer myself. I was self-employed working full time at my pet grooming shop, using one of my days off to work a full day at the Huntington. I finally figured out that if I loved working there for free, I would really love working there full time for wages! When the position opened up, I was ready to make the switch. I’m embarrassed to say that the first few checks they cut for me remained forgotten in my mailbox for days on end. That’s love.

When you were young, what did you want to “be” when you grew up?

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until I was in my 40s, but when I was a child, my dreams were usually about becoming a park ranger or a firefighter. However, for as long as I can remember, my grandparents had instilled a deep love of plants and gardening in me. By high school, I considered botany but wasn’t interested in the clinical aspect of plants. At the time, I mistakenly thought horticulture only focused on the florist trade, so I rejected that, too.
After a few years, I fell into what was also a love of mine involving animals. I co-owned a small but successful pet grooming business for 12 years.

Do you feel stuck doing what you are doing?

Oh yes, constantly; with cactus spines, of course. Actually, I feel incredibly lucky and happy to be outside every day caring for so many rare plants. It is a real joy to work with so many incredible and knowledgeable people on staff, too.

What are the most and least satisfying parts of your job?

The most satisfying is sowing seeds and watching them grow.
This is especially fun for me in my aloe hybridizing. There are over 300 species of aloes; from tiny stemless rosettes to massive trees, and there are very interesting and beautiful hybrids you can create between them. Fortunately, there are already many wonderful hybrid aloes to play with, such as my friend Kelly Griffin’s hybrids, which I started with. I pollinate two aloes that have different characteristics that I like; for example, nice red teeth along the leaf margins, or their miniature size, or a flower shape or color. Then I raise the seedlings from that cross, and may only keep a few clones, or seedlings, that have the look that I think is worth using for hybridizing further generations. My latest hybrids are getting complicated family trees by now!
Three of my hybrids will be available this year through the International Succulent Introductions. This program distributes rare succulents, striving to conserve wild populations from extinction and exploitation by making them available to collectors, and botanical institutions.
The least satisfying is how I feel when a plant dies. It is unavoidable, but I don’t have to like it!

How do you combine photography with your job?

Oh, this is the really great part. My supervisor, John, is a very accomplished photographer. His images can be found in many world renown books on succulents, including the Cactus and Succulent Society of America Journal. His encouragement and mentoring of my efforts have been amazing, and I feel very fortunate to work with him. I am proud to say that last year I was fortunate enough to have one of my own images used on the cover of the journal. My first publication! Another has just been published this month inside the journal profiling one of the plants on our current ISI listing, which is published every spring.
You know, with so many unusual plants in the gardens to enjoy, there is never any shortage of photo subjects where I work. Add the array of insects, reptiles, mammals and birds that live on the property, and you’ve got a photographer’s paradise!

Anything else you’d like to add?

I encourage all of my jpg friends to visit the Huntington. It is a fantastic place to explore any time of year and is worth a visit whether you’ve been here before or not. Look at me, I’ve worked here almost ten years, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. Give me a shout, I’d love to meet you.