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The Cactus Couple

Aloha business has one of Pacific Northwest's biggest collections of water-storing plants.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Deborah Thompson Elfberg and her husband, James Elfberg, operate their business, NW Cactus and Succulents, in Aloha and sell their plants at the Beaverton Farmers Market.

During a brief tour, James Elfberg stopped mid-sentence while his brain searched for the name of the cactus towering in front of him.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Yellow Sunset Jade“Cereus peruvianus monstrose major,” said his wife, Deborah Thompson Elfberg.

“Between the two of us, we do pretty good,” she said, turning to one of her visitors.

“Pretty good” being an understatement.

As a team, the Elfbergs have an almost encyclopedic memory of the scientific names, watering requirements and the source of the hundreds of cactus and other succulent plant varieties they tend at their house in a quiet Aloha cul-de-sac.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - MyrtillocactusTheir greenhouses and backyard are filled with big plants and small plants. Brightly colored plants and translucent plants. Prickly plants and smooth plants and fuzzy plants.

“We have one of the finest collections in the Pacific Northwest,” Thompson Elfberg said.

She points to a decades-old Oreocereus, which grows a fur coat to endure the harsh winters of its native South America.

“Last month I saw a bird plucking the fur out for its nest,” she said in late July.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - MelocactusHer husband calls attention to a Monvillea spegazzinii.

“It blooms only between two and four in the morning (on a single day),” James Elfberg said. “It’s only good for a few hours a day and then it goes away.”

A large potted jade plant, now in the warm yard, gets hauled into the house every December to serve as their Christmas tree.

This isn’t just a hobby gone big for the Elfbergs. It’s a full-blown business called NW Cactus and Succulents.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ladybugs are used to protect the plants in the greenhouse at NW Cactus and Succulents.The Elfbergs bring some of their stock to sell at the Beaverton Farmers Market on Saturdays and Portland’s Irvington Farmers Market on Sundays. They also are fixtures at special plant sales and shows every year.

And for whatever reason – possibly helped along by several recent magazine articles – cacti and other succulent plants are suddenly in vogue.

“It’s just exploded,” Thompson Elfberg said, looking around at blank spaces in the greenhouse where she would typically have potted plants. “Our business doubled this year.”

The business owners take pride in not just selling the best plants but also teaching the new owners how to keep them happy.

For many cacti and succulents, a key is to water appropriately. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - MyrtillocactusFor certain plants that need the soil to dry completely between watering, for instance, they send buyers home with wooden chopsticks to stick into the soil. If the dirt sticks, it doesn’t need water.

“It’s like checking a cake with a toothpick,” she said.

They offer more growing tips on the company website.

“It’s really important to us that our customers are successful,” even if they buy a cactus selling for as little as $2.50, she said.

Thompson Elfberg, 63, was among the earliest women working as union pipefitters in Portland, where James also had worked, but she comes from a long line of people who worked in different aspects of horticulture. But she really got stuck on her love of water-hording plants known as succulents decades ago, thanks to her mother.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Succulents and cacti are grown in the greenhouse at NW Cactus and Succulents.

Rowena Thompson traveled the world beginning in the 1970s, looking for unique plants, and then she gave much of her collection to her daughter.

“My mom and her friends were going out and collecting the seeds of this stuff,” Thompson Elfberg said of her mother, who at 83 lives next door but is no longer able to tend to plants.

“Some of these plants go from generation to generation,” said Thompson Elfberg, who pulled her husband into the family passion. “Some of the plants are hundreds of years old.”

Besides her mother’s collection, the Elfbergs also buy unique plants from other growers or obtain them as gifts. Those plants often become the parents for many of the smaller specimens they sell, while some of their sales stock also comes from wholesale sources her family has known for generations of working in horticulture.

“It took several generations to get to where we are,” she said. “We’re the cumulation of generations of getting the best stuff for our customers.”

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Succulents and cacti are grown in the greenhouse at NW Cactus and Succulents.

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