More cacti selections from a greenhouse, but these are in 2-inch clay pots. Make sure you buy cacti with name tags, or it will be hard to know who they are and what to expect from them in terms of flowering and care. Cute, but not quite stocking stuffers. ANDREW MESSINGER
Local garden centers have several varieties of cacti to choose from. There are seven varieties here. The lower right is a succulent, but not a cacti. These are all in small clay pots and would make great holiday gifts (careful wrapping) or collection additions. ANDREW MESSINGER
This is a grafted cactus where the colorful top is grafted to a different cactus below. These rarely live for long and can be a disappointment when give to children, giving them early black thumb phobias. It’s not their fault. ANDREW MESSINGER
It can be frustrating buying cacti that don’t have name and care tags, but this one appears to be Parodia aureipina, or a miniature barrel cactus. This is one of the easiest to grow. ANDREW MESSINGER
The price of this cacti ($50) is pretty clear, but it has no care or name tag. It’s probably in the Mammillaria group that includes 170 species. At least it’s in a clay pot, but it’s too big. Cacti like being in “tight” pots. ANDREW MESSINGER
This unlabeled cactus is probably a Mammillaria cactus. This group can be barrel shaped or cylindrical, like this one. They can be “hairy” with spines or just with spines. Flowers can be white, red, yellow or pink. It looks both overpotted and in a plastic pot. ANDREW MESSINGER
Probably Melocactus gisantes, but not tagged. About $15 in a 6-inch plastic pot. ANDREW MESSINGER
This is Opuntia microdasys, or the bunny ears cactus. Native to the Americas, it’s related to our local prickly pear cactus. New plants can be started in sand with individual paddles, but use gloves when handling them as the spines are tiny and annoying. ANDREW MESSINGER
If you’re thinking about what to get your favorite gardener for a holiday gift, I’ve got something that’s a bit unusual, won’t take up a great deal of your intended green thumb’s time, may bloom in the dead of winter and loves living in our dry homes.
No, not Christmas cacti, but real desert-type cacti that can ever so slowly grow wide or tall. The kind with spines. And yes, they even have wonderfully scented flowers. And yes again, you may want a few for yourself.
I doubt if the names chin, bunny ears, rat tail, Turk’s cap, Joseph’s coat, Irish mist, seven sisters, old man and sea urchin have been rolling off the tip of your tongue lately, but these names are just a few of the more than 1,300 different cactus species that you can grow indoors. Those native to the Southern Hemisphere will flower in the dead of our winter with magnificent blooms that can last for weeks, and while they prefer a bright southerly or southwesterly exposure many won’t complain with just bright light.
There are so many myths and misconceptions enveloping cacti that many gardeners are either scared away or confused by them. For example, many people think that all succulents are cacti, and while it is true that all cacti are succulents, all succulents (like a jade plant) are not cacti. If you understand that, let’s go on.
Succulent, as we know, means juicy. Succulent plants usually have fleshy leaves, stems or both. Cacti are just one part of the succulent group and are, almost without exception, plants without leaves. Their bodies are ribbed or flattened and are able to store quantities of water. They are easily recognizable because of their unmistakable stem shape which can be round, columnar, jointed, fluted, angular or notched. And when they flower, their blooms are magnificent, distinctive and in some cases said to be effective aphrodisiacs. For the most part they have spines, but some are nearly imperceptible unless you touch them.
This is an excellent time to buy cacti, either from a local nursery or garden center, but shy away from those that you may see offered in supermarkets and big box stores as the plants’ survival percentages seem to drop precipitously when these cheap (as opposed to inexpensive), small plants of unknown origin are purchased. Well, maybe buy them for yourself, but please don’t give them as gifts.
Also stay away from the grafted cacti that have bright orange or red globes on top. They rarely survive and are mostly novelties. Kids seem to enjoy them but often get discouraged when the grafted tops die off, leaving a bare stump. Not a great horticultural experience for a newbie.
You can, however, start out small by buying a few small “quality” plants in 2- and 3-inch pots and don’t be concerned if the plants seem much too large for their pots — they like it that way. This is a great way of buying several different cacti, small ones, that your giftee will be able to nurture along and get a great deal of satisfaction from as they grow. Slowly.
Select plants that are sturdy and not in the least shriveled, uniformly colored, nicely balanced in shape and without scars, bangs or nicks. When you get them home, don’t rush them to the hottest, sunniest part of the house. Allow them to become acclimated to their new environment by keeping them indirectly lighted for the first few days. This way, when you gift them, the receiver can get them right into sunlight or bright light.
Another misconception is that cacti live and grow in pure sand, require no water and thrive in beastly hot sun. Well, some of them do, but most are really more like “regular” plants than most people realize. They definitely need fertilizer (but sparingly), water and light to grow and prefer something more substantial than pure sand (and NEVER beach sand) as a place to set down their roots. And while they can often thrive with soil on the dry side, they’ll die quickly when consistently overwatered, especially in plastic pots that don’t let the water evaporate from the root zone.
And, just as this is one of the best times to buy cacti, it’s also the best time to repot many of them, especially if you bought one that came in a plastic pot or a pot without a good-sized drainage hole. Select an unglazed clay pot with a large drainage hole for best results, as plastic and glazed pots retain too much moisture, which often leads to wet soil and rotted roots. You’ll need to either make or purchase cactus soil.
Here’s a rule of thumb for proper pot selection: For vertical cacti, use a pot with a diameter half the height of the plant, one that is deeper than it is wide. For rounded cacti, use a pot that is 2 inches larger in diameter than the plant. For cacti, it’s important that you use either a brand new pot or one that has been thoroughly scrubbed with hot, soapy water then fully rinsed and dried.
Regular potting soil will be too “heavy” for cacti and sand will be too light. Use either a prepared cactus potting soil mixture or make your own using equal parts of potting soil (Pro-Mix or a peat-lite mix is fine), sand and leaf mold with some small gravel mixed in for increased drainage. Water your cacti sparingly. Twice a month might do just fine. It’s almost impossible to kill them by withholding water, but very easy to do them in with too much. Always use water at room temperature, as cold showers easily shock and disturb these plants.
You will probably find that your plants may do fine without any feeding, but a diluted feeding during the plants’ growing season and nothing at other times of the year is a pretty safe schedule. Any balanced, liquid plant food should be fine if it’s diluted to half the suggested rate, or use an organic plant food — and organics are preferred.
Cacti require good light if they are to retain their color, grow and bloom, and part of the thrill of growing these plants is in getting them to bloom. Many are quite spectacular. Put them in the sunniest window you can find and you’ll really enjoy these marvelous plants. Some will bloom in winter (those native to the Southern Hemisphere) while others will bloom in our summer or sporadically throughout the year — and, yes, there are those that bloom only at night. These tend to have the most incredibly aromatic blooms, but each bloom lasts only for one night as in the case of the night-blooming Cereus.
In the summer, the plants can be moved outdoors, but remember, they can get sunburn just like us. Make sure to bring them back indoors before our first frost. Don’t put cacti outdoors where they’ll be subject to the constant watering of an irrigation system, and don’t leave saucers under the pots that could accumulate standing water.
There is also another world of cacti that are referred to as the epiphytic cacti. This group lives in jungles and absorbs moisture thorough long tendril-like aerial roots with separate root-like structures that hold the plant in place much like orchids, but absorb very little moisture. This group includes the Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving cacti, which are blooming now but a bit passé as gifts.
Some cacti are obviously hardier than others such as our local Opuntia compressa, or prickly pear cactus, which was once common in the Hamptons but can now be hard to find in the wild. There are even those that survive the winters of South Dakota, so if you are up to the challenge of growing hardy cacti try these: Coryphanta vivaparta, Echinocereus viridiflorus, Noebesseya missouriensis, Opuntia compressa, Polyacantha, Aurea, Fragilis, Rutila and Himifusa, but don’t give them as gifts.
All cacti can be grown from seed (unless they are the grafted types) and many seed catalogs and specialty mail-order growers offer seed. It’s another one of the great horticultural challenges to get many of the species to germinate, but if you’ve got a few months to a few years to wait, give it a shot.
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