As you peruse the airport gift shop, you become aware of tiny plaintive voices calling out, “Help me”, “Help me”! And, there they are, exotic cacti, boxed and waiting to be purchased and shipped to Uncle Fudd (I had one) in Maine or Aunt Etoile (I had one) in Kansas. Can it be, that the strange assortment of plants is all cacti in those boxes? The sign identifies them as cacti. Might there be an aloe or euphorbia mixed in with a cactus or two? Isn’t an aloe a succulent rather than a cactus? Or, in fact, are most all cacti, succulents.
Cacti are perennial drought tolerant plants with thick wax-coated stems that are quite resistant to moisture evaporation. The thick waxy layers give cacti their bluish or grayish tinge of color. Cacti, for the most part, are leafless and most have spines which are highly modified leaves. Moisture reserves are stored within the internal part of thick, fleshy parts, while food production (photosynthesis) occurs within the green outer cuticle of the fleshy parts. The size and shapes of cacti occur in a wide range from tree-size to thumbnail size. Any droughty parts of the Americas will have a cactus representative.
Internal fibrous or woody skeletal forms provide structural support for cactus plants. Most have fleshy lateral roots (just a few inches below the soil surface) and anchorage by a tapering tap root. The lateral roots are in all directions to absorb and store nutrients and moisture. An added bonus is cactus flowers are rose-like, beautifully colored and in contrast to the spiney look, nicely delicate.
Selecting a growing medium for cacti is as varied as the many different cactus types. Generally, an open medium with good air content is preferable. Most all nursery centers have a ‘cactus mix’. The medium is, as all are, to provide support and store oxygen, minerals and water. Experimentation will lead you to the truth and light of cactus cultivation. Whatever medium mixture you are generally going to stick with when transplanting your gift shop cactus garden, be sure to plant into dry soil.
Do not water for a few days (5-7) even though your inclination will be to treat that transplant like a flower or vegetable transplant (have patience). Allow the plant to settle. Keep the transplant soil at the level of the medium in the pot or other receptacle. Mix 1 tsp. of Seaweed Creme and 1 tsp. of Soil Source in a gallon of water and use as a soil drench for all cacti and succulents.
Once again, the plant type, size and weather will dictate how often watering should occur. Apply foliar only early morning or late evening during the cooler part of the day. Stomata (tiny openings in a plant’s epidermis, through which gases and water vapor pass) of cacti and other succulents open only at night, when water loss and temperatures are lowest. Stomata are closed during the day.
Succulents in Many Forms
Now, that you decided to purchase that cactus garden for yourself, you are left with learning which “succulents” are cactus or euphorbias or possibly, aloes. My advice is that you purchase one of many books devoted to Cactus Gardening. You will find the words ‘cactus’ and ‘succulent’ often used interchangeably. Succulent, to me, usually means plants with high moisture content that look soft, pliant and thornless, without spines and certainly having no prickles. Well, maybe a few prickles or hard, stiff leaf ends, like agaves and Sansevieria (mother – in- law’s tongue).
The following is a quick lesson in the general structure and genesis of thorns, spines and prickles:
Thorns = arise from shoots and have vascular bundles inside;
Spines = arise from leaves and have vascular bundles inside;
Prickles = arise from epidermis tissue and do not have vascular bundles inside (visualize rose “thorns”).
Vascular bundles are part of the transport system in plants: xylem (transports water and solutes from roots) and phloem (transports food from leaves).
The woe of cactus/succulent collections is the enormity of the selections that can be collected. One of my Major Professors went down the path of starting with a half dozen local cacti, then a dozen euphorbias and an aloe or two that were interesting. Then, on to a split-level greenhouse in the backyard, then had to increase the greenhouse size to accommodate exotics from Africa, etc.. The mania had set in and overcame logic. Stay away from those boxed Cactus Gardens in airport gift shops. But, if you can’t stay away, DO NOT OVERWATER!
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