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Prickly pear pro helps put on a stickly show with Carmichael cactus and succulent sale

Dr. Norm Klein stands among the many cacti in his front yard in Rancho Cordova. Klein has the largest local collection of cacti in the area. Tuesday, May 11, 2009.
Dr. Norm Klein stands among the many cacti in his front yard in Rancho Cordova. Klein has the largest local collection of cacti in the area. Tuesday, May 11, 2009. lsterling@sacbee.com

Norm Klein may have been the most disappointed man in California when the rains came this winter.

See, extensive rains can damage cacti, and Klein has more than 1,500 in his collection, which fills his front and back yards at his home in Rancho Cordova.

Hail left pock marks and scars on his agave plants, which at least number in the dozens. But since cacti survive in the desert through cycles of intense, dry heat and brief, torrential rains, the plants will be okay; after all, Klein has been collecting cacti for more than 30 years. He knows what he’s doing.

Klein is a member of the Carmichael Cactus & Succulent Society, and chair of their annual Cactus and Succulent Show and Sale, now in its 43rd year. The 2019 show will take place Saturday and Sunday at the Carmichael Park clubhouse, beginning at 9 a.m. each day.

Some of the plants for the show are grown by the 150 members of the society, and they’re so numerous that free plants are given away each day to the first 100 visitors. The rest of the show’s stock is supplied by professional nurseries and vendors.

Admission is free, but there’s no guarantee that you won’t spend a little money on a new cactus or two for your garden – or a lot, if you want your yard to look like Klein’s.

His garden is a sight to behold, with prickly pears taller than his house lining the fences. There is barely enough room to step between the landscaping and the endless terracotta pots, which Klein claims aren’t as numerous as they appear.

“I don’t have that many,” Klein said. “Maybe 400 or so.”

His favorite are the golden barrels, massive spherical cacti with beautiful interlaced spines. A ring of flowers forms on top of the golden barrels, and Klein’s are beginning to bloom, filling the yard with yellow and pink blossoms. They’re endangered in the wild, but certainly not in Klein’s collection, where they grow massive by the dozen.

As he carefully makes his way through the yard – “Don’t look and walk at the same time,” Klein said – he tells stories about the cacti, where he got them and all the times he’s fallen down onto their spines. Once, a neighbor needed to get rid of a cactus and asked Klein if he wanted it.

Klein thought the answer was obvious. “You don’t ask an addict if he wants a fix, do you?” Klein said. Twenty years later, that cactus still stands in his front yard.

Klein has put literal blood, sweat and tears into his garden, but he’s never been discouraged by the occasional spine or two in his skin. In one case, he fell on a cactus that grows tiny spines in clusters, and had to get thousands of spines out of his chest, abdomen and chin.

They were too small for tweezers to grab, so he tried sandpaper and duct tape, then scrubbed himself down in scalding water and poured alcohol on the skin afterward to sterilize it. Another time, he had to walk to a neighbor’s house to ask her to pull spines out of his rear end.

None of these experiences turned Klein off from his cacti. He told the stories like a standup routine, where cringing replaces laughter at the punchline, as a funny eventuality of cactus propagation rather than a painful accident.

He’s also a big proponent of using the dirt you’ve got to grow cacti. He doesn’t need anything fancy and his garden grows in the natural hardpan of his yard. His potted cacti grow in a basic dirt mix he buys in bulk. Once, he planted an opuntia cactus in cornmeal just to see if he could. It took root.

The ease of caring for cacti is part of the reason they’re so popular, in addition to being drought-friendly and generally trendy. It’s also why the annual show is so popular in Sacramento.

The money raised at the annual show pays for the society’s expenses, and they donate excess funds every year, according to Pat Allen, a member of the society. Allen said they’ve donated about $12,000 in just two years to the University of California and charities to help preserve bee and bat populations.

And if you enjoy the show, join the society; they have a miniature show at every meeting.

If you go

What: The Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Society’s 43rd annual Show and Sale

When:Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Where: Carmichael Park Clubhouse, 5750 Grant Avenue, Carmichael

Tickets: Admission is free and the first 100 visitors of the day will receive a small free plant.

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