Relatives and close friends will gather Monday in St. Paul at the Portland Avenue home of Mick and Barbara Burleigh. And before the guests leave, they will be offered a cactus.

The gesture is just Barbara's way to say thanks for everyone who came to remember her husband, who died Sunday after a brief battle with cancer of the plasma cells.

Malcolm "Mick" Burleigh died at age 72 and spent six decades nurturing his attraction to all things cactus, culminating in two greenhouses filled with hundreds upon hundreds of the thirst-defying desert plant.

"A lifelong passion" is how Barbara Burleigh describes her husband's cactus devotion, starting as a child in Northern California, then during his college studies in the desert area east of Los Angeles.

"He and his college friends, they camped in the desert," Barbara Burleigh said, "and traveled down into Mexico and everything. I don't know what the fascination was."

When Mick Burleigh retired after 40 years with 3M as a chemist, his dedication to horticulture "really took off," his wife said. He served on the Horticultural Society's board and for the past six years was a State Fair favorite at the society's plant show.

Visitors "would bring in pictures of their plants on their cellphones so he could identify them," said Rose Eggert, the Horticultural Society's chief executive officer.

"He would bring samples of some of his really unusual plants and do a display to show what he had," Eggert added. "He loved being there from 9 in the morning until 9 at night. To get the kids involved, he bought these little plastic monkeys and told the kids to find them so they'd look at the plants."

Eggert said the Horticultural Society's 2011 Volunteer of the Year not only raised cactuses, but he "groomed them from seed, which is unusual." He also made his own pots for them, she added, "learning how to throw pots from a wheel."

"He could just talk forever about them," Eggert said. "It's an unusual plant for someone to have a passion for."

Every fall, Mick and Barbara Burleigh hauled each cactus from the backyard greenhouses down to the safety of their basement. Come spring, back they would go to the greenhouses.

Now, Barbara Burleigh will turn to Monday's visitors to trim back the lifetime's collection every so slightly. Otherwise, she's counting on another Twin Cities cactus expert and North Hennepin Community College to accept her prickly donations.

"If you raise cactus, you are in it for the long haul," Mick Burleigh said in an interview published on the Horticultural Society website, "It's a process, an endless process."

In addition to his wife, Burleigh is survived by sons Paul Burleigh, of Woodbury, and Brian Burleigh, of St. Paul; and sister Margot te Velde, of Modesto, Calif.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482