Interesting cacti, succulents welcome hot, sunny days

Water's the enemy for these tough, potted survivors

In The Garden

May 09, 2004|By Beth Botts | Beth Botts,Chicago Tribune

As you gather plants for the patio pots, think beyond begonias and geraniums and consider the sculptural possibilities of cacti and succulents. They not only will bring interest to your outdoor plantings, but they are also tough survivors next winter in the bone-dry climate of a centrally heated home.

Succulents and cacti are desert plants that thrive in dry air. But they also can tolerate temperature extremes, such as the sunny, hot days and cool nights of a winter windowsill. And if you if go away for a few days, they won't die from lack of water.

These are plants that have evolved to thrive where water is scarce. Most have thick, fleshy leaves or stems to store water and leathery skin to keep it in.

Succulents -- a broad category of plants with structures adapted for retaining water -- include such familiar plants as the kalanchoe of florists' shops, mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria) and Aloe vera (of hand-lotion fame). They are found all over the world in habitats that range from bone-dry to tropical.

Cacti are a family of succulents found almost exclusively in the Americas. They tend to have compact shapes and scales or spines, which can be soft and furry or wickedly sharp.

As houseplants, the one major demand of most succulents and cacti is sun. They will delight in the full sun of a deck or patio. Indoors, cacti need a south or southwest window with bright all-day light, says Daniel Biernacki, co-owner of Ted's Greenhouse Inc. in Tinley Park, Ill. Some fanciers grow their cacti under lights.

Most cacti grown at home are small, Biernacki says; you are unlikely to be able to provide the year-round light levels a big cactus needs. "A cactus needs as much sun as possible and as small a pot as possible," Biernacki says. "A little torture never hurts."

Before watering a succulent, Biernacki suggests feeling an older leaf. If the leaf feels firm and turgid, the plant contains plenty of water. If the leaf feels a little soft, the plant is starting to use up its stored supply, and it's time for a drink.

Some succulents need more water than others. For instance, pencil cactus, with its thin stems, needs a little more than fleshy-leaved aloe.

Cacti and succulents need extremely well-drained soil, with large particles that leave plenty of space for the air the plant's roots need. Ted's mixes its own formula that involves coir (coconut shell fiber) and crushed pumice (volcanic rock). Special cactus mix is available in some garden centers.

Don't use sand, Biernacki says: "Sand actually holds quite a lot of water."

Every couple of weeks, use a balanced liquid fertilizer: for example 10-10-10, at one-quarter the strength suggested on the label, Biernacki says. But in winter, cut back even more on fertilizer and water.

Gradually increase the watering and feeding as days grow longer. Once the danger of frost is past, gradually introduce the plants to the outdoors if you have a yard or a balcony. "There should be no plants in the house in the summer," Biernacki says sternly.

They can stay outside until frost threatens.

The sculptural shapes and interesting textures of many succulents make them striking additions to the home. And -- as long as they get sun and an occasional sip -- they'll laze through hot summer days and then cruise through the winter.

Getting started

Here are some cacti and succulents that do well as houseplants:

* Ponytail palm (Nolina recurvata): A bulbous stem and a froth of skinny, leathery leaves streaming from the top give this plant the air of a Dr. Seuss illustration. Not really a palm, it is a Mexican native related to agave. It can grow to several feet high over a period of years, even indoors.

* Mammillaria: This genus of cactus includes some 300 species from various parts of the Americas. They are popular because they are easy to care for, grow quickly and bloom when fairly young.

* Jade plant (Crassula ovata): A shrub in its native South Africa, this plant has glossy, fleshy deep green leaves on thick, branching brown stems. Tough and resilient, it will survive almost anything except over-watering.

* Burro tail (Sedum morganianum 'Burrito'): Native to southern Mexico and Honduras, burro tail, with trailing stems packed with crescent-shaped pearly pale-green leaves, usually is grown in a hanging basket. One caution: The stems break apart easily if disturbed. "You really need to buy it in the pot you're going to keep it in" and not risk repotting, says Daniel Biernacki of Ted's Greenhouse Inc.

* Euphorbia: There are almost 2,000 species of euphorbias, most from Africa and Madagascar, in a wide variety of forms. Some are trees and shrubs (such as Euphorbia pulcherrima, the poinsettia of Christmas cards).

* Aloe: Succulent members of this genus, found in Africa, Madagascar and Arabia, usually have a rosette of pointed, fleshy leaves.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Cactus basics

* Sun: Give them plenty.

* Soil: Provide extremely well-drained soil, with large particles that leave plenty of spaces for air to reach the roots.

* Water: It's better to under-water than over-water. Water only when soil is dry, and less frequently in the winter.

* Fertilizer: Use a balanced houseplant fertilizer at one-fourth the suggested strength every two weeks, and less often in winter.


For information on individual succulent and cactus species, visit www.

The British Cactus and Succulent Society can be found at

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