These remarkable plants, modified by nature to withstand drying winds, blistering sun, severe cold, and long drought, nevertheless appreciate a little care and understanding.

Cacti and Succulents Identification

Succulent is a fairly loose title applied to any plant with fleshy leaves and steins capable of storing water to tide the plant over lean periods.

Nature has modified these plants to lose very little moisture to the atmosphere, and to store reserves in their thickened stems or leaves.

All cacti belong to the one botanical family – distinguished by the fact that all have groups of spines that radiate from regularly spaced hairy or woolly sections known as areolas. The breathing pores of the plant are protected below this woolly covering.

In the Epiphyllums (strap cactus) or Zygocactus (crab’s claw) these areolas, less obvious than on the desert varieties, are tucked away in the notches of the stems, or between stem segments. Although size of bloom varies greatly, all cacti have the same characteristic flower formation at the end of a fleshy, pear-like ovary or fruit.

So, technically, a succulent may or may not be a cactus, but you can refer to a cactus or any other plant of similar nature as a succulent.

Most of the true cacti originate from American desert regions, but are not necessarily exposed to the full fierceness of the sun. Many of the smaller types grow in the part shade of the tall cereus or candle cactus, of sparse desert shrubbery, or sheltered by craggy rocks.

So, in the garden or indoors, they need plenty of light, but not necessarily full sunlight. Under poorly lighted indoor conditions they become drawn and thin, sometimes weirdly elongated when in shade for a long time.

Desert soils are sandy or gritty and water drains away rapidly, but usually they are well supplied with organic matter from spent annual growth that matures rapidly in the showery season.

These low-rainfall desert areas are usually rather limy. Most garden loams can be made more suitable for cacti by raking in a 1 inch layer of coarse river sand or twice this amount if the loam is heavy.

A good pottery mixture would be about 2 parts medium garden loam, 2 parts coarse river sand, 1 part well-rotted compost. Unless the soil is limy, add about 2 teaspoons of garden lime or dolomite to each 2 gallons bucket of soil mixture.

Use at least 1 inch of broken crocks or coke in the base of the container to ensure good drainage, making sure that this material doesn’t block the holes.

See that the plant isn’t covered deeper than its previous level. Set it with its base at soil level, about 1/2 inch below rim of pot.

Firm it well, then scoop about 3/4 inch of soil from round the rim so water drains quickly away from the stem. Prevent the soil from leveling out by covering with about 1/2 inch of scree – blue-metal screenings, small pebbles, or crushed tile.

This surface covering also stops soil from splashing on to the stem of the plant and causing stem rot.

Most fleshy-leafed succulents also respond to the conditions suggested for cacti, although some also tolerate comparatively moist conditions in a well drained garden soil. Roughly, it is the grey- or downy-leafed types that need best drainage and limy conditions.

How often should you water a succulent?

Water is needed most when new growth starts. In succulents, new shoots are an obvious indication of this. Cacti usually show brighter-colored new spines.

Many succulents from Africa and the Mediterranean areas make new growth in winter. With cactus it is more frequently in spring, and at this time the plants will benefit from watering two or three times a week.

Wet the soil in the containers evenly. If the plant has been dry for some time, stand the container for about ten minutes in a bucket of water. Let the soil dry out between waterings. True cacti especially need little more than a fortnightly watering during their dormant period, which is usually in winter.

How to fertilize succulents

Avoid heavy feeding. Slow acting bone-dust or cotton-seed-based fertilizers such as rose foods or seedling starters are ideal – a level teaspoon scattered round the edge of a 5 inches pot and scratched in lightly.

When should you repot succulents?

Small, rapidly growing plants are best repotted each year, more mature plants every 2 to 3 years, preferably in early spring. Containers shouldn’t be more than a couple of inches wider than the plant’s spread, as the surplus soil is too slow to dry out.

A painless way to handle prickly plants is to fold a length of paper into a band, encircling them with this, and using the surplus ends like a cup handle. Pack soil round the plant with a pencil.

What is the fastest way to root succulents?

The usual method for branching succulents is by cutting. Use pieces of any length, cut cleanly with a sharp knife or razor-blade to avoid bruising. Leave fleshy stems for a few days until the cut section dries out.

Pot in a sandy, well-drained mixture with a minimum of water for the first few weeks. Some succulents form plant lets at the base of severed leaves left to rest on a bed of sandy soil.

Cacti are usually propagated by removing “pups” or new divisions that form round the plants. Large sections can be cut from tall types such as cereus. Don’t bury them too deeply, but tie to a stake with the dried-out cut section covered by about 2 inches of sandy soil.

Raising cacti from seed can be fascinating. Scatter the seeds thinly, press into the surface of shallow trays of 3 parts sand 1 of moistened peat moss; or of seed-raising mixture. When about small-pea size, transplant about 1 inch apart in seed trays or boxes. Pot individually the second year.

Pests and diseases

Mealy bug is the worst enemy of cacti and some succulents – a small, downy, white-aphis-like pest found in ridges of the plant at the base of the spines, sometimes in the roots. Small infestations are controlled by touching them with a camelhair brush dipped in denatured alcohol. It is best to repot.

Control widespread attacks by spraying with rogor or malathion, adding about a teaspoon of household detergent to each quart of spray. Also water round each plant to wet the roots thoroughly.

Red spider or similar mites may also attack cacti or succulents, especially when under cover in a dry atmosphere. Symptom is a dull, lustreless or mottled appearance. Spray as for mealy bug.

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