You may not have heard of Strathmerton, but it’s one of those small country towns that has really put itself on the map. About three hours north of Melbourne via Shepparton, the place has a history of dairy farming. But Cactus Country is the attraction drawing travellers, families and even wedding parties to this relaxed and quiet town.
Cactus Country is home to Australia’s largest explorable cacti collection. It first opened in 1988, spawned from a humble hobby on the land of a fruit-and-veg farmer, Jim Hall, and his wife, Julie. Jim built on his own assortment of cacti and succulents by buying a large exotic collection. And his love for propagating and experimenting with different species, tied in with years of patience, has now become a fully fledged family-run tourist destination.
When Broadsheet speaks to Jim’s son, CEO and owner John Hall, he’s walking the property on a sunny, blue-skied winter day with his two dogs. “We have plants from all over the world. If you were overseas, you’d be travelling months to see all of these.”
A visit to Cactus Country will transport you to four distinct desert landscapes. There are more than 4000 species from South America, North America, Africa and Mexico. Take your time to explore the different continental sections. There’s a whole 12 acres of garden here, with plans to extend by a further eight and open a picnic area.
In “Mexico”, you’ll find huge agaves with “tall, asparagus-looking flowers” towering around seven metres. There’s also a ton of saguaro cacti, which John describes as the ones you see in western movies, planted tightly together for a bigger impact.
“North America” is dominated by thick cacti covered in white flowers. “In October and November they have these huge, almost dinner-plate-sized flowers which erupt,” John says. “‘South America’ features low-growing cacti, which flower together so you get pinks, reds and yellows, all colours through the garden. It’s stunning.” Meanwhile, “Africa” is predominantly made up of succulents, with red-hot pokers, flowering agaves and green, shrubby plants – a completely different landscape again.
Spring – particularly October and November – is the most spectacular time to visit. But Jim, who’s creative director these days, is working towards having flowers year-round, something he’ll achieve through plant breeding. The plants are grown from seeds in hothouses, where Jim manually cross-pollinates different species. It takes at least three years for hybrids to flower.
“He’s got a real passion for plants and likes to create unique spaces,” John says of his father. “You often see him wandering the gardens, watching to see how people interact with the spaces he’s created, and that gives him inspiration for how to develop new parts of the garden.” He currently has 20,000 small cacti waiting to be planted.
Once you’ve explored the garden’s thousands of species, fuel up at the cafe with coffee from Shepparton roaster GB Coffee. Snacks include loaded nachos and cactus-inspired creations (think cactus cake and cactus ice-cream made using parts of prickly pear and other fruiting cacti). To drink, there are Mexican Jarritos sodas and frozen Margs.
But the boozing potential doesn’t stop on-site. Back in Melbourne, Ivanhoe’s Imbue Distillery has used some of the Hall family’s prickly pear to make its Bitter Sweet Aperitivo and Suburban Gin, giving them notes of melon. And Bunbartha cidery Cheeky Grog Co has brewed a cider with Cactus Country cacti.
There’s also a nursery, so you can start your own cacti collection or order via the Instagram page. John’s tip: “They’re really suited to the hottest part of your garden with the least amount of rainfall.”
John says his family’s progression from traditional vegetable farming to growing cacti has given them a new perspective on agriculture. “The fruit that grows is spineless and delicious to eat, so these plants don’t need water. You could rely on rainfall alone and have crops year-round.
“All of a sudden we have these desert plants growing as a tourist attraction and it’s allowed us to stop farming, as it wasn’t profitable anymore. But we start to see opportunities to get into agriculture in a totally different way.”
Cactus Country reopens on Thursday July 29.
4986 Murray Valley Highway, Strathmerton
Wed to Sun 11am–5pm