Cacti - the Abbey Brook story

Life with my succulent plants


Brian Fearn


The start of it all

"I have devoted most of my life to cacti and other succulent plants. I stared with six cactus plants at my home in Sheffield when I was 9 years old. These were acquired from a greengrocer called Quartons while I was on holiday with my parents in Scarborough – apparently I was so fascinated that I spent almost the whole week gazing into the shop window which was full of cacti and spent most of my holiday pocket money on my new collections of plants.


My interest was further fuelled when I saw a display of cacti at a show of the local Chrysanthemum Society (chrysants were a big thing in Sheffield then, and my dad was a keen grower of late-flowering chrysants and the annual show was always the highlight of the year). I was enthralled by the cactus plants and in 1947 persuaded my parents to let me join the Sheffield branch of the local cactus society. At the time there wasn’t a junior section, but the society created one when several other schoolboys also wanted to join.


Sixty-three years later I am still a member and in contact with two of these other ‘junior’ members: Derek Glossop in Sheffield and Dr Philip Downs in New Zealand. The Yorkshire Cactus Society was founded in Bradford in 1946, but by the following year it had become the National Cactus and Succulent Society, and was eventually renamed the British Cactus and Succulent Society in 1983.


Early entrepreneurship

I soon built up a deep knowledge of these plants and my collection rapidly increased mainly due to the generosity of Sheffield branch members, who gave me spares and offset from their collections. Even as a schoolboy I was growing, propagating and selling cacti and succulents. I approached a number of greengrocers in Sheffield who agreed to take trays of mixed plants. I delivered them by travelling on the Sheffield tramway system!


I founded Abbey Brook Cactus Nursery in 1956 while I was still an undergraduate reading Botany at Sheffield University. I learnt to drive and bought a small second hand Ford van. In the vacations I started exhibiting in the Trade Horticultural marquee at agricultural shows in July and August. My very first show was in Sheffield at my local Oaks Park Agricultural show, probably in 1957. In subsequent years I added other local shows including Bakewell, Ashover and Southport. I graduated in 1959 and went into the nursery business full time. My mother started to help in the business and the show season really expanded. At the time, we were unknown as a business, and so shows became our shop window.


Exhibiting nationwide and first Gold Medal

By the early 1960s we were exhibiting at over 30 shows nationwide, including the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh and the Royal Show at Stoneleigh. At some shows, such as Chelsea Flower Show in London, customers could only order plants to be delivered later, although there was a sell-off at the end of the show, which could be pretty chaotic. We gradually got better at winning medals and the highpoint was when we won our first RHS Gold Medal at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 1993.


First steps in mail order

Much of our early business was mail order. We had a steep learning curve and produced our very first 16-page catalogue in 1960. It measured 5” by 4” and listed an incredible 489 species. Other cactus nurseries at the time were content to produce duplicated lists of plants of sale, which was not what I wanted, so I taught myself to print using an Adana hand printing machine with proper lead type. This first effort even had colour illustrations, albeit glued in. I still have a copy of this early catalogue which lists Lithops plants at 18 old pence each!


Innovation and expansion

By 1976 Abbey Brook had outgrown my Mum’s back garden and was moved from Sheffield to a new 4 acre site in Matlock, Derbyshire. By then, I had married my wife Gill (fortunately also interested in plants) and had a young family. We were innovative in that we were one of the first nurseries to be using growing-room technology to raise millions of young plants from seed collected from our own hand-pollinated plants, and we were the first cactus nursery to use computer-printed descriptive plant labels. Glossy 50 page colour illustrated catalogues were produced every year, and by the middle of the 1980s we were exporting plants world-wide to 42 countries – we even sold cacti to Americans living in Texas!


CITES halts our international trade

However when the onerous CITES legislation came in, it became impracticable to run an international mail order business any more. Having seen at first hand piles of rotting illegally-collected rare cacti in Mexico and the USA, we strongly support CITES which was designed to prevent illegal international trade in endangered species (including the majority of cacti and succulents), but implementation of the regulations in the UK in our view has been poorly managed, and has resulted in the almost complete cessation of legal as well as illegal trade.


Wholesale and garden centre

So, instead, we started to supply plants on a wholesale basis to garden centres. By the mid 1990s we were employing 10 people supplying over 200 garden centres and supermarkets across the UK and Ireland. We also built our own garden centre on site which was run successfully by Gill before selling it on as a going concern.


Now in my 70s, I am starting to wind down my business activities a little, and to focus more on researching and writing about my plants. At the nursery we have 7 Plant Heritage National Collections:

Mammilari; Gymnocalycium; Haworthia; Lithops; Conophytum; and Echinopsis hybrids; and we are also housing the Ron Evans National Collection of Echeveria and related genera.



My particular interest in Lithops began in about 1955 – I had never seen anything like them before – and in 1960 I started to correspond with Dr. Hindrik de Boer in Holland who was then the world expert. He started to send me seed and small seedling plants. For several years in the 1960s I visited him regularly. On my first visit I stayed in a modest hotel near Amsterdam railway station and then travelled across Holland by train. Dr. De Boer lived at Haren near Groningen in north Holland and he met me at the station carrying a copy of the Succulenta Journal to identify himself. On subsequent visits I was invited to stay at the home of Dr. de Boer and his wife Gesine and I have very pleasant memories of just talking for hours on his verandah about Lithops. His interest started in the 1930s and he corresponded with many collectors in South Africa who started sending him plants – a practice which is definitely not allowed today.


Much of the material he received was new to science and he started writing about the plants and naming them. In the 1960s he was sent newly-discovered plants from South Africa by Desmond Cole. Sadly, towards the end of the decade he became increasingly frail and he died on 14th March 1970 aged 85. When I last saw him he specifically asked me to continue his work on the genus. He always regretted not being able to go to South Africa to see these plants in the wild.


Research published

For some time I had been writing up my own research into the taxonomy and phytogeography of Lithops for a M.Sc. thesis which was awarded by Sheffield University in 1968. Interestingly, when Professor Clapham from the University was looking for a suitable external examiner, without naming the person to be examined, he approached the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for suggestions. The letter came back, saying there’s a chap called Brian Fearn who seems to be the UK expert! I was able to send Dr. de Boer a copy of my thesis before he died, and copies are now in the University libraries of Sheffield, Wageningen and Pretoria. Now, 40 years on, I am among a dwindling number of Lithops researchers who actually knew Dr. de Boer personally. My thesis contains his type colour photographs that I took of most of his plants and more importantly, his type material, which is a very important scientific resource because all the illustrations accompanying his type description are in monochrome.


I am at last coming out of hibernation with regard to writing about Lithops. I have published 22 articles about Lithops, the last of these in 1983. In the subsequent 20 years I was unable to do very much writing because of the time involved in running the business, although my research and experimental hybridization programme continued throughout this period.


Field visit – Lithops habitats under threat

I have recently started to write some new articles and in 2006 I presented a paper at the Succulenta Botanical Congress in South Africa entitled ‘A review of 45 years’ work on the genus Lithops. This visit enabled Gill and me to spend about 6 weeks in the field, when we visited over 120 rare plant sites in Namibia and South Africa, including 10 different Lithops localities, where we were able to study the plants in their natural habitats, many of which are threatened.


Future plans

After the recent success of my Plant Heritage booklet of Echinopsis Hybrids I am now hoping to publish a similar booklet on Lithops. I am also planning to start work on a new monograph of the genus which will include a complete review of the current taxonomy. As part of this I am hoping to include a DNA analysis of the genus. I have earmarked 6 years for this work by which time I will be nearly 80. This work will be helped by my own collection of Lithops plants, some of which are over 60 years old, and which now includes nearly 5,000 plants in 800 pots.


Brickell Award 2010

My collection has had Plant Heritage Scientific status since 1999 and was augmented recently by the addition of Ron Evans’s fine collection from Nottingham. Steve Thompson, who helped enormously in the production of the Echinopsis Hybrid booklet, also encouraged me in my Brickell Award application. I also thank Steve for frequently volunteering his services to work on the Abbey Brook National Collections. I was absolutely delighted to be honoured for my work on Lithops by the presentation of the Plant Heritage Brickell Award in July this year.”

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