Introduction to Succulents and Cacti
The first time I heard the word “succulent” in reference to a group of plants, I was a bit bewildered. That was because I associated this particular term with delicious things to eat like succulent, juicy spareribs or succulent luscious fruit, fresh off a tree! But here was an experienced gardener talking about a plant, which he called a succulent? It did not look remotely edible at all!
Cacti belong to the “Succulent Plants” family. Plants with green leaves that are left in the sun without water are going to flag and wilt within a few hours. They are going to die within a few days. However, mother nature has made some plant equivalents of camels, which can go for long periods without any water.
These plants normally live in a hot and dry climate and they have managed to survive since the dawn of time. That is because they are able to adapt themselves to their environment. They are going to pass the dry season as leafless shrubs, seeds or as dry bulbs.
Cactus as well as other succulent plants are capable of storing moisture, in their stems and leaves, especially when there is plenty of moisture in the atmosphere. This is so that they can get plenty of liquid available to them, when the atmosphere becomes dry and arid.
How to Recognize Succulents
In an ordinary green plant, the leaves are going to contain a green substance which is known as chlorophyll. The plant is going to make use of the various food materials taken in by the roots in the presence of sunlight with the help of this chlorophyll.
However, when leaves are absent as in the case of succulents and cactuses, the same have to take over this particular function. That is the reason why stem succulents are normally going to have a lot of chlorophyll content, which means that they are normally green. However, as time goes by, the plant stem area near to the soil begins to turn yellowish – brown and wood like.
In many plants water is stored away in the leaves, which in extreme cases are going to become spherical in shape. But as in the case of Conophytum, a pair of leaves may be joined so closely into a body which is shaped like a top that just a small slit on the top of the body is going to indicate the dual origin.
Cultivation of Cactuses
Cacti and others succulents are not difficult to grow, if the reason for their unusual form is remembered. They need an alternation of wet and dry periods because that is the sort of climate and atmosphere they are accustomed to in their native habitat. And naturally, they are going to prefer these particular changes of season at the correct time of the year depending on their land of origin.
True desert cacti are not going to be watered from October to March. During this period, you’re going to allow them to rest. Many of them are going to stand and some of them even prefer a cooler temperature when they are resting but you need to protect them from frost.
This is all very well outside in the desert, but don’t let this happen to the cactus in your gardens.
Plants with succulent leaves and much reduced stems neither definite resting time of some weeks or months. This resting time cannot necessarily be in the winter. Many succulents from South Africa or Australia where the seasons are reversed from other parts of the world may prefer to grow during winters and rest in summers. So look at your geographical location and then decide whether your cactus wants/needs watering or not.
Semi succulents which are plants with both the stems and leaves, slightly succulent, do not need such a definite period of rest but they prefer less water given to them after they have flowered.
Cacti are accommodating plants and that is why they can be kept in the greenhouse, living room, frame, or even out-of-doors. They however need plenty of light because after all, many of their ancestors survived in desert areas where the sun beat down upon their hardy heads for centuries.
Watering of Your Succulents
Watering is a necessary and important operation and one which often presents great difficulties to beginners. You just need to remember that plants are going to become succulent only as a result of wet and dry periods. Naturally, these climactic factors are going to be maintained in cultivation of your succulents.
For very highly adapted plants which have very thick stems and leaves, the time of the year and the duration of the wet period is going to be very important. It should always coincide with the particular growing period of your plant.
The plants which you are growing in the greenhouse where heat and warmth is available in cold weather are going to be given the amount of water they need when they want it. But when you are growing the plants in a living room where the temperature and the ventilation is arranged to suit the human occupants, that is where you will need to do a little bit of compromising. That is why plants such as the desert cacti which need resting in winter are better grown in cooler conditions. So remove them if it is possible to an unheated room for the time of their rest. If they are kept in a living room, a little bit of water may be necessary to prevent the stems from shrinking away unduly.
Propagation of Succulents
Propagation through Seeds
Most of the succulent plants are easily raised from seed. And if you have obtained the seed from a reliable source, the plants are going to be true to type. Do not sow the seeds until about May, or the end of spring. You can also sow them earlier in especially constructed boxes, where the temperature is between 10 – 13°C [50 – 55°F.] Seeds which are sown in a higher temperature may germinate more rapidly, but the seedlings are going to find it difficult to grow on as time goes by.
Distribute the seed evenly over the surface of the soil. If the seeds are larger than small pinheads, cover them with a light sifting of the soil, as fine as you can make it.
Unless they are overcrowded, leave the small seedlings which are difficult to handle in that particular seed pan for a year. Wait till the next growing period arrives. Do not allow them to get dry. This is going to check the growth.
If there are number of seedlings prick them out together into one pan. This is going to help in keeping them moist instead of separating them in different pots. The moment when you find that their growth is satisfactory, you can remove them from their crowded seed pan and place them individually in their individual possibly permanent pots.
Cultivated Succulent Plants
Succulent plants are normally classed together because they resemble each other in their adaptation to dry conditions. However, they do not all belong to the same plant family. There are 24 families in which some degree of succulence is going to be found, but only three of them – the Cactus, the Crassula, and the Mesembryanthemaceae families consist of plants where all the plants are succulent.
A large number of succulent plants are now grown all over the world, and if the generic or the first Latin name of the plant is known to you, you can get an idea of the type of the plant. You can also go to the nearest nursery and order it.
Remember that nobody can really be very certain about the flowering times of succulents or cactuses, because that is going to depend on the weather, the amount of sunshine the plant is going to get, and how well you take care of your plants. Other species in one particular genus may not flower at the same time, especially they come from different climates. This is going to happen in Crassula. There is no time in the year when none of the species is flowering and no two species are going to flower at the same time!
This book has given you plenty of knowledge about succulents and cacti. Not only are they going to add that touch of class and distinction to your garden, but they are also going to flourish for years if they have plenty of spreading space.
In many parts of these, cacti are considered unworthy plants to plant in gardens. That is because there is a medieval superstition about them that a house in which a cactus grows is going to be a house of strife, quarrels, disputes and disharmony. I can see the psychological basis behind such an idea, and there is justified reason for such a belief. For millenniums the East has been made up of joint families. Just imagine that one particular family member has a favorite cactus growing in one corner of the garden. And another family member with whom relations are not so cordial has a pack of children.
One fine day one adventurous child is definitely going to fiddle around with the cactus plant and get spikes into him. When he comes crying home to his mama, she is going to take up arms in righteous indignation and go kick up a donnybrook with the owner of the cactus.
The proud owner is definitely going to defend himself and tell the female to take better care of her curious offspring, making sure that it does not go wandering around places where cacti grow. And matters are going to escalate. So that is the reason why these plants were never grown in Eastern Gardens.
When I told my mother about this particular superstition, and the reason behind it, she said, well, she had grown up children and nearly grown-up grandchildren and none of them were going to come investigating her cacti out of sheer imbecility! So she was going to enjoy them thoroughly!
Live Long and Prosper!