Cacti Easy Care and Dramatic Looks

Let’s take a trip to an area most consider to be the driest desert in the world–the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Picture a landscape comprised of salt lakes, sand and lava flows. While not extremely hot (highs in the warm season are around 75 degrees), its lack of water is a killer. Evidence suggests that there was not any significant rainfall in this region from 1570 to 1971. It is 50 times drier than Death Valley in California. The landscape is so desolate that it has been compared to that of Mars. Does this sound like a place that can support plant life? You probably see where we’re going with this–with all these obstacles, some members of the Cactus family have managed to survive even here!

All cacti are native to the Americas, from Canada (not all cacti like hot weather) to Argentina. Europeans first encountered them when they arrived in the New World, late in the 15th century. By the early 1800’s, enthusiasts had large collections of cacti and other succulents. Rare plants were sought after and sold for extremely high prices. Cacti suppliers employed collectors to bring back plants from the wild in addition to growing their own specimens. This cactus frenzy lasted until the late 1800’s, when the affections of plant fanciers turned to collecting orchids.

The Cactus family is a large one. It contains small varieties that grow to only a few inches tall up to gargantuan types that reach fifty feet tall. While most types are extremely drought-tolerant, there are a few that prefer to grow in dripping, tropical rain forests in partial shade. These moisture-loving cacti (Epiphyllum, Rhipsalidopsis and Schlumbergera) grow on trees or rocks and derive their moisture and nutrients primarily from the air and rain.

How have cacti been able to adapt so well to adverse conditions? Over time, their stems have evolved into cylinders, pads or joints that store water in times of drought. Their thick, tough skin reduces evaporation. Why do most cacti have so many spines? These are actually modified leaves that protect the plant against browsing animals and help prevent water loss by reducing air flow close to the plant and providing some shade. The properties of the spines (number, color, size, shape and hardness) are often used as a means of identifying one cactus from another.

Cactus flowers are usually very showy and come in a wide range of colors. The flowers are produced from areoles, which are around the areas where the spines emerge from the plant. Many cacti also have delicious, edible fruit–and the flesh of a few other types (especially Opuntia) is also used for food.

Most cacti are extremely easy to care for. Most types require full sun and well-drained soil. Newly planted cacti should be watered very little, as their roots are subject to rot before they begin actively growing. In about six weeks, when the new roots become active, water thoroughly, then let the soil dry completely before watering again. Reduce (or even discontinue) watering in the fall to allow them to enter their dormant stage. To promote growth and flowers, fertilize monthly in spring and summer; no fertilizer should be given in the fall and winter.

Smaller types of cacti are suitable for growing in containers or as additions to rock gardens; it is in this type of setting that their interesting forms and brightly-colored flowers can be best appreciated. Larger types make striking additions to the garden–some of these get very large, however, so make sure to take their eventual size into consideration when placing them in the garden.

With their wide array of colors (plant as well as flower), shapes and textures, a garden of cacti can be a dramatic (and easy-care-for) focal point to the garden. Come by and let us help you get started on yours!

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