Cacti are a good houseplant year roundThere are many thoughts that go through people’s minds when they think of a cactus. Usually it focuses on the spines that cover the plant and how much they hurt when you touch them. Not that you are supposed to touch them or anything, but sometimes you just can’t resist and other times it is by accident. Either way, when the spines break the skin, you know what happened!
By: John Zvirovski, The Jamestown Sun
There are many thoughts that go through people’s minds when they think of a cactus. Usually it focuses on the spines that cover the plant and how much they hurt when you touch them. Not that you are supposed to touch them or anything, but sometimes you just can’t resist and other times it is by accident. Either way, when the spines break the skin, you know what happened!
When I think of cacti I usually think of warm places, such as the desert where the air is hot and dry and there is nothing but sand blowing across the terrain. I also hear the comment of many people saying, “If you can’t grow a plant, get a cactus as you just forget about them.” Not an entirely true statement, as the demise of a cactus is usually from too much water or from not watering them at all because you just “forgot about them.”
To most people cactus plants are boring and don’t have a lot of excitement to them. The most common one that people are familiar with are the Christmas and Easter cactus that seem to be covered in flowers during the holidays. All cacti actually bloom; most typically bloom during later winter or early spring. As boring as the plant may seem during most times of the year, it really makes you smile when it starts to put out its dainty little flowers when the time comes. Usually the flowers are white, cream, yellow, red, pink, purple or magenta. They typically set buds near the ends of the newest parts of the cactus depending on the variety. Few are scented, but the beautiful flowers against that harsh plant itself are captivating.
Cacti are very recognizable by their compact round shapes with bumpy textures or ribbed or fluted stems. It is these growth characteristics that allow the plant itself to expand and contract during times of rainfall or drought. During dormancy and dry periods, the bumpy and ribbed skin will contract making the plant smaller with less surface area in which to lose moisture through evaporation. The spines that cover the plant also act as a screening mechanism to shade the surface from the sunlight. As the rainy periods arrive, the cacti absorb the moisture through their dense, surface roots causing the plant to expand due to the stored water. In extreme cases such as the large saguaro cactus, an adult plant can retain as much as 200 gallons of water at one time. This water is used during the dry months to allow the plant to survive for long periods of time, regardless of the harsh environment around them.
Cacti are divided into three types. The most common is the barrel type of armed cacti that are covered in spines and have no leaves. Then there are the epiphytes, which grow in the tropics that climb trees and live off the humid air. Their branches are usually flat and long with no leaves and they cling to trees with aerial roots. The third type is the ones that actually have leaves, such as the Barbados Gooseberry or leaf cactus. These are the most unfamiliar of the cactus family to most of us.
As most people assume, cacti enjoy warm dry conditions for the most part. They enjoy temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees, but typically not outside of that range. Direct sunlight within the house is most beneficial and only water your cactus when the soil is completely dry. Make sure you water lightly and during its dormancy period in winter, water a bit lighter for best results.
Most cacti will not do well in soils that are heavy and get soggy after being watered, as this is very damaging to the roots systems. A mixture of non-soil medium, perlite and sand or grit is best in equal parts. This allows enough air circulation around the root system while allowing the water to drain through and wet the roots.
Most cacti that we are familiar with grow within the home as a houseplant, but there are a few that also have the ability to grow in our gardens year round. All cacti are native to the Americas and a few now grow in the tropics of Africa. There are even four varieties that will grow in our own state and are hardy for our gardens. They are the Common Pincushion Cactus, the Missouri Pincushion Cactus, the Fragile Prickly Pear and the Plains Prickly Pear.
These cacti grow close to the ground and the prickly pear varieties grow round, flat paddles with spines that really hurt if you ever trip on a nature trail and fall on one. Be careful if you are out in the western part of the state on vacation and are walking the plains or through the Badlands, there are many that grow in that area. The prickly pear varieties also create large yellow blooms with red anther centers that are quite attractive. If growing these in your garden, I would plant them in a well-drained area that receives full sun and is located far enough from the edge to keep you from accidentally coming in contact with them.
Check out some of the many varieties of cacti available in the local nurseries and find one that fits your needs. Many have great growth habits and structure and some produce some of the most amazing flowers when the time arrives. They may not be carefree, but they are much easier to grow than many other types of houseplants. Just be careful when handling them with your bare hands, as they will still let you know who is boss!