August 29, 2016

Photo Essay: A Roadside Cactus Ranch in Reseda

[Last updated 1/12/19 PM PT]

The first thing you notice when you drive by the Cactus Ranch—also known as "California Nursery Specialties"— is the roadside dinosaurs.

Photo: California Nursery Specialties

Now, those aren't an unusual sight out in the desert or even the Inland Empire, but you may not expect to see them on a residential street in Los Angeles.

Of course, this one and a half-acre site isn't in a part of LA that most people know.

This is Reseda, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley famously name-checked in the Tom Petty song, "Free Fallin'" and in the movie The Karate Kid.

Even though it's considered the first suburb in the Valley, Reseda was known in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s for its agricultural endeavors—particularly lettuce, lima beans, and walnuts.

You can still find a few signs of Reseda's agricultural past, if you know where to look.

The California Cactus Ranch isn't the only nursery in Reseda, but it's probably the wildest.

And that's largely in thanks to "Bob's Town," a mini ghost town created by landscape designer Bob Swearingen, a friend of the nursery's owner, David Bernstein.

According to a sign posted at the entrance of Bob's Town and written by Bob's son Geoff, David had been looking for ways to draw more customers to his cactus nursery.

So, together, he and David began assembling some building materials they had lying around from old structures up north.

circa 2019

Apparently, Bob was inspired by the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a TV show that was at its peak at the time of his project, around 1995-6. 

circa 2019

The result includes a saloon, mercantile, a U.S. Marshal's office, and the "Kactus Kitchen" restaurant—all fictional, as far as I can tell.

Bob passed away the following year, making this his last project—and he ended on a high note, because as the sign says, it's a "rousing success."

You might say that it's a little bit of God's country smack dab in the middle of LA, but it's weirder than that.

And its owner, David, has had plenty of time to diversify and exoticize his collection—having started 40 years ago when he was in high school.

In fact, there are over 100,000 plants at the nursery—some bearing edible fruit and paddles, and some sprouting beautiful flowers.

Some of the spinier and spikier cacti are sought-after as plantings that will provide protection around the perimeter of a property.

And still others have healing powers.

The ranch is full of oddities and exotic plants—so much so that production designers come here looking to dress their sets for films taking place in South America, Mexico, or Africa.

Many of the desert plants here actually come from countries around the world, like Peru or South Africa.

While the proprietor encourages you to come with a camera and stay for an hour or more, this is a store...

...and nearly everything is for sale.

You could drop a couple of bucks on a tiny cutting for a houseplant...

...or you could invest a couple of grand on a really big cactus to scare off intruders...

...or on an entirely new garden devoted to succulents and cactus flowers.

They've got cacti that look like everything from brains to the jaws of an animal and the toes of a baby.

In their greenhouse "gallery," they've got jade and other ornamental garden plants...

...some hybrids, and some having grown from seed (but never dug up from their native roadside ecosystems).

And after you've worked up a thirst surrounded by all of those water-hoarding blooms, you can grab a Cactus Cooler soda to sip on (or a Pepsi).

They say that you can visit the Cactus Ranch any time of the year, and you'll see something different.

Too bad it's only open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, and only 'til 5 or 6 p.m.—because surely that's too early to catch a whiff of the fragrant Night-Blooming Cereus, also known as "Queen of the Night."

For more photos, especially of the "ghost town," click here. You can also check out the Photo Gallery on the official site of the Cactus Ranch.

For my "5 Great Ways to Get Your Succulent On" for KCET, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs
Photo Essay: A Treasure Trove of Roadside Dinosaurs
Photo Essay: A Metal Menagerie of Wild Animals
Photo Essay: A Walk Among the Orchids (and Chrysanthemums and Daisies)
Window Shopping

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