When Michiel first contacted us in 2023 to trial the IrisBG database, we were instantly intrigued by the clever name of his cactus nursery, Prickly Prospects. As conversation ensued on how the database could best fit Michiel's mission, we quickly realized the nursery was more than a business with a catchy name. With an inventory of 5,000 adult plants and thousands of seedlings, the purpose behind Prickly Prospects is one that IrisBG holds in high regards: growing and selling cactus species in cultivation to preserve those growing in the wild.
In this Community Spotlight, Michiel offers some practical and inspirational plant collection tips. He also explains how advocating for the protection of endangered group of plants involves more than ethical propagation.
When did you know you wanted a career in Botany?
I first became interested in plants as a teenager growing up in Belgium. A class friend told me he had bought a cactus, and wanted to show it to me. For the next few years we went to plant nurseries, cactus club meetings, and conventions together.
Michiel at his nursery, He is holding Jasminocereus thouarsii*
I moved to Montana in 2008 to start a degree in dinosaur paleontology. A few years later I decided to pursue my passion for plant ecology. In 2016, I started a PhD program at The University of Arizona, investigating the impacts of climate change on cacti. This led to a partnership with the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Plants Specialist Group, of which I first became a Member, and now Program Officer. The Specialist Group is hosted by Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.
Tucson's climate was perfect for me to rebuild a cactus collection, which quickly got out of hand.
As my collection grew, I decided to build it into a conservation nursery, Prickly Prospects.
I've become very involved in the hobbyist community as well, giving lectures on cactus conservation and serving on the Conservation Committee of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. I enjoy building connections between academia, applied conservation, and the horticultural community. I am convinced this is the best way to protect cacti, which are one of the most threatened groups of organisms on the planet.
Many plants shown here are threatened.
What is the cactus that started it all for you?
My favorite succulent changes pretty much weekly. I love prickly pears, columnar cacti, and the succulent Stapelieae tribe within Apocynaceae. When I was a kid, I would buy Leuchtenbergia principis whenever I saw one. This is a monospecific genus from Mexico, closely related to barrel cacti, but looks completely different.
Who do you look to for inspiration in the botany world?
There are numerous people whose paths have crossed mine and have left a lasting impression. There are none, however, who have shaped my endeavors as extensively as my friend, Tristan Davis. Tristan does not work in biology, but has described several species of succulents and tends to a collection of tremendous botanical value. He and I share a passion for columnar cacti. Tristan has been there for me during several difficult periods in recent years, encouraging me to focus on my conservation goals.
Is there a particular plant that you have learned a valuable lesson from or about?
Succulents can be an exercise in patience. Many growers, especially those with commercial aspirations, focus on how fast they can make their plants grow. I don't push my plants too hard. This means slower growth, but sturdier individuals with higher survival rates, which makes sense from a conservation point of view. I've tried to adopt this perspective in life as well, slow and steady wins the race.
Which garden/ nursery tool or aid could you not live without?
One of the best investments I've made is a horticultural label printer. I feel very strongly about recordkeeping, and switching away from handwritten labels is amazing.
Good tweezers also really come in handy working with cacti- No explanation needed.
A custom four-digit item numbering scheme allows tracking of clonality and container sizes, the latter for commercial purposes. The IrisBG item number is 4 digits, with the first two digits indicating plants are all in 2" pots, and the last two digits indicating clonality is not tracked. As clonality is not tracked for this accession, the item number is not printed on labels.
What have you found as the most handy IrisBG function to use?
I just finished migrating my collections data to IrisBG from a previous spreadsheet approach. I decided to use a custom taxonomy for cacti (Cactaceae at Caryophyllales.org), and started by importing all accepted names and synonyms. I then designed separate data import templates for accessions and accession items, and converted my existing spreadsheets with the R programming language. The most challenging aspect was importing intergeneric hybrids. The ability to create custom accession attributes has helped a lot in adapting IrisBG for the commercial aspects of Prickly Prospects, and I hope this functionality is extended to accession items.
Each plant is tagged with its accession no. & item no., where appropriate.
What IrisBG report you find most useful?
I previously consulted collections data in the greenhouses on my phone. Until a mobile IrisBG solution is released, I use the task scheduler to create daily item stock reports using the Item02 template. The reports are exported to the cloud, which allows me to inspect them on a phone or tablet and add stock changes on-the-go. Once I'm done playing in the dirt for the day, I can manually enter these changes into IrisBG. I plan on writing a script that wrangles the stock changes into a data import template to automate this further.
What is one thing that most people wouldn't guess about you?
I love fixing things. Starting a nursery as a graduate student is hard work, and I've had to learn plumbing, mechanical, and electrical work to succeed. This can come as a surprise to people as I work in academia as well. In rare moments of relaxation, I enjoy binging period dramas with my cats while eating tons of pizza.
Do you have a book or podcast that you would like to recommend?
Summer Rayne Oakes of Homestead Brooklyn produces a series called Plant One On Me, and did an episode on my nursery [you can check out it below!]. The number of people I've met because of her work is astounding. Several people have told me they became fascinated with plants through her efforts.
I also strongly recommend her Bad Seeds podcast, covering the black market trade in plants. Dr. Jared Margulies, a fellow Member of the IUCN SSC Cactus and Succulent Plants Specialist Group, just published a new book, The Cactus Hunters, on this topic.
* A columnar cactus native to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. This accession and clone have been in cultivation since the 1960s. Collected by Edward Anderson, a prolific cactus biologist and conservationist.