By Russell McCulleyIf plants could be ascribed personalities, it wouldn’t be difficult to separate the A-list from the rest. You’ve got your tropicals, the extroverts of the garden: showy, charismatic, a little demanding of attention, but eager to please. Most people are naturally drawn to them, and they mix well with others. They’re sociable.
Then there are cactus and succulents. Temperamentally adapted to the harshest of conditions, they can be withdrawn, spiky, defensive. They don’t play well with others, and would often prefer to be left alone rather than smothered with attention. They have weird habits. They dress funny. And some people find them absolutely fascinating.
Cactus collectors “can be absolute fanatics,” says Rosemary Sims, who is in charge of plant acquisitions for the New Orleans Botanical Gardens at City Park. During a tour of the gardens’ greenhouse and outdoor beds dedicated to succulents, Sims pointed out some of the quirkier members of the tribe. “Many collectors are into caudiciform plants,” she says: that is, plants that have developed a swollen, usually woody caudex, or stem. “They’re into the sculpture and structure of the plants.” Cactus aficionados often seek out rare specimens, Sims says, and nurture them with the same care given to bonsai or show dogs. “They’re really into this perfection thing,” she says.
Century Plant Dwarf
Cactus do need Care
However you feel about cactus and succulents—and people do tend to love them or loathe them—you have to admire their tenacity. These are plants that have adapted to some of the earth’s harshest environments; even though they show up in a range of natural environments, they’re indelibly associated with the desert Southwest where, at least in the popular imagination, rugged individualism and survival skills are prized over assimilation.
But they do quite well on the Gulf Coast as house and garden plants. And properly cared for, they can be just as showy as their more popular peers. “Some desert plants have some of the most spectacular flowering qualities of all plants,” says Sims. The sheer variety is equally staggering: succulents, which are plants that have developed water-storage tissue, include more than 60 families and 300 genera. Almost all succulents—of which cactus are merely one division—need good drainage, plenty of sunlight and not too much attention.
That doesn’t mean they should be entirely left to fend for themselves. A good fertilizer, one not too rich in nitrogen, is key to keeping cactus and succulents healthy and growing. “People think they don’t eat much,” just like they don’t drink much, Sims says. “And it’s true that it’s hard to kill them. But it’s equally hard to get them to grow properly and to maintain their proper blooming cycles.”
Cereus Peruvianus Flower
Most cactus and succulents bloom in the spring, and the flowers can indeed be spectacular. Many have some medicinal uses, and some produce edible fruit. Steve Murphy, president of Sunrise Trading Co., plucked a ripe seed pod from one of the tall Cereus peruvianus that grow along the driveway to his Kenner nursery—the soft white flesh inside, packed with tiny black seeds, was delicately sweet and tasted faintly of salt. This particular plant, he says, grows well in South Louisiana yards, reaching 12 feet or more in just a few years.
Indoors vs. Outdoors
Murphy is perhaps the only commercial grower who specializes in cactus and succulents, and a stroll through his grounds is like a trip to some exotic desert. He has some impressive examples of other succulents that can thrive outdoors here, including thick-leaved Sedum; Stapelia, or starfish cactus, which produces big, leathery blooms; and larger plants like Agave Americana, or Century plant; and the Madagascar palm, a succulent that has beautiful, waxy leaves and a spiny trunk
that resembles a cactus.
For indoors, Murphy has put together what he calls the “window sill collection”: an assortment of cactus and succulents in four-inch pots made to be placed in a sunny window. Larger potted plants also do well indoors, including various species of Pachypodium, which have well-developed caudices, and Adeneum obesum, better known as the Desert Rose, as prized for its gnarly base as its vibrant flowers.
In 35 years of growing cactus and succulents, Murphy has seen interest in the plants come and go. Thanks to a spate of recent articles in national gardening magazines, he says, they appear to be coming back into fashion, even in these humid climes. You don’t have to resort to cactus kitsch: that sun-bleached cow skull works better as a lawn ornament in the Desert Southwest. But tastefully placed, cactus and succulents can lend a visual punch to an outdoor or indoor garden. Even the most prickly, defensive ones have their good points, Murphy says: “People don’t steal ‘em.”
Where to learn more about Cactus
New Orleans Botanical Garden at City Park, 482-4888
Sunrise Trading Co., Kenner, 469-0077
Cactus and Succulent Society of America, www.ccsainc.org
Dave’s Garden, www.davesgarden.com