CACTI AND SUCCULENTS
THEfamily (Cactacea) is probably better known for its peculiarities than for the undeniable beauty of its flowers. A native of the American Continent, it develops in the desert lands of that great country to giant stature and grotesque shapes. In its effort to conserve what meagre water supply it can secure, it has turned its leaves into spines, reduced its branches to mere uprights, which offer small surface to the rays of the midday sun; it has cultivated “the hide of a rhinoceros”; in some cases covered itself with minute woolly hairs, and in every imaginable way reduced evaporation to a minimum.
grow throughout the continent of America, from Canada to Patagonia, so it is not surprising to find that there are over 3,000 varieties, and the plants vary in size from 60 ft. high to tiny buttons embedded in the .
They are, too, of innumerable shapes, globular lobed, angular, twisted, ridged, barrel-shaped, columnar or awl-shaped. They are only constant in the matter of colour—in which their taste is a somewhat monotonous greyish green—though one or two let themselves go in the coloration of their spines, and vivid flowers are frequent among them. Actually an odd variety here and there indulges in markings of yellow, but the Cactus has so reduced its surface to prevent loss of water, that it is usually bound to keep that surface entirely green to provide sufficient chlorophyll with which to carry on its vital processes.
The amateur often asks: “What exactly is a Cactus?” And it is not enough to say “a succulent plant,” for there are quite a number of succulent plants that are not Cacti, although every Cactus is a succulent plant. The Cactus is perennial, its fruit is a one-celled berry, its seed has two cotyledons, and its ovary is below its petals. But its last and most essential characteristic is that it has areoles, that is, spine cushions from which spines may or may not grow. Given these characteristics, the succulent plant is a Cactus; without them it is merely a succulent plant.
It may be well to note, too, that there are exceptional economic values in these plants. Immense plantations of Cacti (Opuntias) have been maintained for the growth of cochineal insects, for cochineal dye.
The liquid contents of some varieties are valuable in the treatment of various diseases—particularly diseases of the eye. The young shoots of some are eaten raw as salads, or cooked as vegetables, and the centre pulp is made into candy.
Orchards of Cacti are grown for the sake of their fruits, which are considered great delicacies in Mexico. The spines are used as toothpicks and for other purposes where a sharp, strong point is needed. Fences, and even huts, are made from their wood; they are excellent hedge plants, and travellers in the deserts, well-nigh dying of thirst, have been saved by the discovery of a barrel Cactus with its moist pulp.
In England, small Cacti are grown in pots, and kept in warm rooms or greenhouses, and a visit to Kew or some other large botanical garden is the best introduction to the possibilities of the family. Interest in Cactus culture is growing, and those who are taking up this hobby will find many kindred spirits.
The simple Continental classification (rather than the more elaborate, new American nomenclature) divides the main families into:—Cereus, Echinocactus, Echinocereus,, Mamillaria, , Rhipsalis, and there are a number of smaller classes, among which are the slightly differing Epiphyllums and Phyllocacti, whose fleshy, flattened stems are leaf-like in form and bear flowers on their tips, or along their edges.
To the Cereus family, which may be columnar, or trailing in habit, and is ridged, belongs the world-famous “Queen of the Night,” whose flower opens after dusk and dies before morning.
Echinocactus, usually round, include the immense Barrel Cactus of which mention has already been made.
The most familiar of the Opuntias are the Prickly Pear, which has become such a pest since its introduction into Australia, and Burbank’s Perfection, the new spineless Cactus, which forms invaluable cattle foo 1 in Mexico.
As is usual, the Cacti favour similar conditions to those of their native haunts, and, from a list compiled by an American grower, it seems that the great majority have a penchant for full sunlight, and sand; a moderate number do better with some humus and medium sunshine. A few prefer lime and a certain amount of shade, and a crank in the family here and there will only thrive on chalk! But the two things that must be avoided in this country are excess of moisture and frost.
A sunny window or warm greenhouse are essentials, as a temperature of 60-70° is needed to keep the Cactus healthy.
To prepare for potting
Thoroughly wash and scrub out all pots to be used; disinfectant in the water will ensure destruction of any harmful disease spores, but if used it must be rinsed away with clear water before the pots are used.
Fill one quarter of the pot with clean, broken crocks. Mix two parts of garden soil, without humus or manure, with one part of silver sand. (It is best to bum the ordinary garden soil before use.) Do not powder the soil, but let it remain somewhat lumpy, and put some in over the crocks before putting in the plant. Mix in a little builder’s rubble in small lumps likeand if the soil is not sufficiently good, add a little bonemeal, but on no account use manure.
Suspend the plant in the centre of the pot and trickle the soil in round it. Gently press the soil, but do not ram it.
Golden rules for watering are: When in doubt, do not water at all. Increase water when new growth appears. Warm the water slightly in really cold weather. Never water from the top, stand the pots in water until moist, then drain. If the top soil is already dark and damp do not water.
At times give salt in the water used. One dessertspoonful to a gallon is sufficient.
At the end of August lessen the water supply. During September and October, once a week will suffice; during November, December and January, once a fortnight; February once a week; March thrice a week, and from April to August normal daily watering. Mamillarias will, however, need more water from February as they flower by the end of March.
Most Cacti love sun and fresh air—so, on all except frosty days, open the windows or ventilators during the day—but shut them well before sundown.
Flowers are the glory of Cacti, and while some, like the Mamillarias, Dear small flowers in profusion, others like Echinopsis and Cereus have huge flowers, as much as a foot in diameter, and many of the smaller Cacti are almost hidden in flowering time by their blooms, each larger than the plant itself..,