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It's a cactus practice

MINOT -- While working amid the largest known collection of cactuses in the U.S., many of which are native to South Africa, and listening to the roar of lions from the nearby Roosevelt Park Zoo, Johannes Olwage must feel his world has turned upsi...

MINOT -- While working amid the largest known collection of cactuses in the U.S., many of which are native to South Africa, and listening to the roar of lions from the nearby Roosevelt Park Zoo, Johannes Olwage must feel his world has turned upside down. Olwage recently moved to Minot from Namibia, South Africa.

"I sometimes hear the lions roaring, which makes this even more strange," Olwage said with a smile.

Olwage has been hired by the International Peace Garden, north of Dunseith, N.D., to be caretaker of the cactus collection of Don Vitko, Minot.

The collection, believed to be the most extensive of its kind in the U.S., is housed at Lowe's Garden Center in Minot and numbers well over 5,000 varieties.

About half of the collection is scheduled to be moved to a nearly completed new conservatory at the Peace Garden.


"It's extremely odd. I didn't believe it about these cactus. When I first saw them I said, 'This can't be! It's not possible!'" Olwage said. "I was shocked, but now I believe."

"This collection is definitely one of the secret treasures of North Dakota. I've traveled all over the U.S., Canada and Europe and I can attest that this is just amazing," said Doug Hevenor, chief executive officer of the Peace Garden. "It'll be electric for the Peace Garden. It's one of the biggest reasons I'm still in North Dakota. I want to be a part of this. People don't realize how amazing this is."

Olwage, who has a degree in ecology with a minor in botany, is married to a Minoter. While that took some of the surprise out of a move from one hemisphere to another, it was the opportunity to work with the cactus collection at the Peace Garden that provided additional incentive.

"I have a lot of reading to do, but I'm very happy about that," said Olwage. "It's great. There's not a better job I could have hoped for. This is what I love. What a challenge it will be to organize everything."

So far, Olwage has been busy placing new labels on the cactuses in the collection and removing weeds that have sprouted in many of the pots. The work is necessary preparation for a move to the Peace Garden where the cactuses will take center stage.

"We want this cactus collection to be a magnet for the Peace Garden," Olwage said. "Not many people go there in the winter. The hope is that soon, when it is 30 below, it will be sunny and wonderful inside."

Hevenor said 2,000 to 2,500 plants from the Vitko collection will make the move to the Peace Garden in July through September. The initial move will concentrate on the largest cactuses which are expected to create a stunning year-round display. Cactuses bloom in the winter months, which should make the new conservatory an even more inviting wintertime destination.

"That's really when they put on their show," Vitko said.


Hevenor has been working with landscapers and stone masons to create a showy display area for the cactuses. Because of the great number of unique specimens, careful planning is necessary to ensure the most effective display of the cactuses for the enjoyment of Peace Garden visitors.

"We'll move plenty of them into the conservatory," Hevenor said. "The neat thing is, we have a very large atrium and will put containers in there. Some of them we'll be able to display outside during the summer."

The extent of the collection continues to marvel the experts who examine it. Wayne McGonigle, a horticultural consultant for Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and an internationally known authority on North American orchids, recently conducted a workshop at the Peace Garden. He has also perused the Vitko collection.

"Here's a guy who has lectured all over the United States and Canada, and he couldn't believe the extent of the collection," said Hevenor. "He was quite taken aback."

Before the collection can be moved, caretaker Olwage must complete the task of labeling each plant, so they can be tracked once they arrive at the Peace Garden.

"There are 2,116 species of euphorbia alone," said Olwage. "We don't have all of them, but a lot of them. A lot of these plants are from South Africa and Madagascar and are Old World plants. In South Africa, some would be used for hedges and others for medicinal purposes."

Hevenor said decisions are still being made on what plants from the collection will initially be the most appropriate fit for the design of the conservatory and the Peace Garden. Long-term plans call for adding additional conservatory space at the Peace Garden and, hopefully, the display of the remainder of the Vitko collection.

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