Houseplants are back in fashion! They are cool again. Instagram is awash with shelfies – pictures of an array of gorgeous houseplants dripping off every surface. And surely, every shelf has a teeny tiny space for a small cacti or succulent.
Cacti and succulents come in an infinite array of shapes and sizes, making this a fascinating group of plants! Their reputation of being low maintenance makes these drought resistant plants a popular choice with beginners and experienced growers alike. Most prickly cacti and flesh-leaved succulents enjoy similar growing conditions making them perfect partners for your windowsill.
The common link between cacti and succulents is their ability to store water in the leaves or stems enabling them to survive in arid habitats. All cacti are succulents, but cacti are defined by the presence of spines (with a few exceptions) whereas succulents have none. The majority of cacti and succulents grow in desert and savannah situations with low moisture, dry air, bright sunshine, good drainage and high temperatures. However, there are succulents which grow as epiphytes in rainforests. These require semi-shade and humid conditions. So to cultivate cacti and succulents successfully it is best to research their native habitat to provide their ideal growing conditions, as far as is possible.
Cacti are associated with the desert, and many thrive in regions of Central and South America. Other cacti, though, come from as far north as Canada, and many are even native to the rainforests. The desert dwelling varieties of cacti can survive for really long periods of time without rainfall. They get their moisture from dew or mist and store nutrients and moisture in their tissues.
The word succulent means juicy. Succulent plants have leaves or stems that are filled with juices, the stored water and nutrients that allow the plant to grow. These leaves allow the plant to withstand harsh conditions all over the world. Normally these leaves have a glossy or leathery appearance, and the texture actually helps protect them from excessive moisture loss.
Storing moisture the way they do is what defines cacti as succulents. What makes a plant a cactus is they grow growths and it is from these points (growths) that spines, ‘wool’ flowers and off sets all grow. A lot of succulents resemble cacti in every way except they don’t grow spines. This is what makes a succulent a succulent and not a cactus!
Succulents make fantastic houseplants. They like dry air – so they are perfect for our centrally heated homes – and don’t need to be watered very often. Tepid rainwater should be used for watering, rather than tap water. This is because the minerals in tap water build up in the soil and can cause deposits on the leaves. Minerals also disrupt the flow of essential nutrients to the plant. In spring and summer plants should be watered at least once a week giving the soil a good soaking, allowing excess water to drain away. Make sure to allow the compost to dry out slightly between watering. During autumn and winter this is when the plant enters a rest period. Watering should be reduced so the compost dries out between watering.
For a lovely display try gathering different coloured but similar-sized, rosette-forming succulents together in a shallow white bowl. A good place to start is with Echiverias, try mixing red-pink varieties with grey-purple ones. Succulents can be placed outdoors in summer, as long as there is no danger of frost, so they can get some fresh air. In winter the biggest danger to succulents is too much water, so make sure the containers are really well drained to avoid roots sitting in water. The compost for cacti and succulents must be open and free draining, it is best to use a specialist compost as it will have added grit and sand for optimum drainage, it will also contain the right level of nutrients for your cacti and succulents. Re-pot pot-bound plants in spring into a pot only slightly larger in diameter. Holding spiny specimens can be tricky when re-potting, so try using thick strips of folded newspaper, tongs, or even an oven glove. Cacti and succulents should be fed once a month during spring and summer with a specialist feed and not fed at all during the rest period in autumn and winter.
Easy to grow cacti
Cereus are typically tree-like coloumnar plants with well-defined ribs and large spines. They can grow very large and tall. The flowers are nocturnal and fragrant, meaning they bloom at night, and are usually large and white.
Echinopsis (also known as hedgehog cactus, sea-urchin cactus or Easter-lily cactus) are known for their large, dramatic and beautiful flowers with long flower tubes which appear much larger than the cactus they are coming from. They are one of the easiest going cacti to care for and good for beginners.
Ferocactus, commonly known as barrel cactus, is a very popular cacti genus. They can grow very large, up to 3m tall and 0.9m wide. They are known for their cylindrical shape that are covered in ribs with long, sharp spines.
Commonly referred to as “pincushion cactus” mammillaria is one of the largest in the cactus family. They are also one of the most common with most varieties being very easy to grow and will tolerate mild frost and extreme heat.