80808thumbAlmost everyone thinks of cacti as tough plants that live out in the hottest and driest parts of the deserts, where few other plants can survive. They are the sorts of plants that we threaten to plant out in the most inhospitable or neglected parts of the garden. We never actually do so, just because we do not appreciate cacti any more than weeds. They are fine over in the neighbor’s garden.

Whether we like them or not, cacti really deserve more respect than that. Even if they do not fit our style of landscape, they are striking and distinctive features within the landscapes that they are adapted to. Except for a few euphorbs that look sort of like cacti, there are no substitutes for their form and, of course, their texture! The uniquely specialized physiology of cacti is extraordinary.

Cacti really are built for the desert. In a climate where heat and arid air desiccates foliage, cacti do without. Photosynthesis is done in the green skin of the distended stems. Furrows in the stems of some cacti increase surface area for photosynthesis, but still expose far less surface area to the weather than individual leaves would. The succulent flesh of the distended stems stores water.

The foliage is not totally lacking. It is merely modified into sharp spines or irritating glochids with which cacti protect their succulent flesh from animals. Spines of the old man cactus are elongated into coarse hair that diffuses the intensity of the sunlight that might otherwise scorch the green skin below. Bigger thorns that extend beyond the spines within each tuft are actually modified stems.

Cacti certainly put significant effort into surviving desert climates; but surprisingly, most cacti do not even live in deserts, and many live in tropical rainforests of South and Central America! Some have weirdly pendulous stem structure, and some are epiphytic, so they hang from limbs of larger trees. In regions where most insect and animal activity is at night, cacti bloom nocturnally, with big luminescent and fragrant flowers that appeal to moths, bats and their associates.

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60 thoughts on “Cacti Are Notorious For Nonconformity

      1. That is what blue gum did here. It was planted for railroad ties, but when the timber was determined to be unsuitable, those who grew the plantations went bankrupt and left the plantations to go wild.

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  1. Fascinating details of the plant structure! Cacti certainly stir the passions of a select group of plant lovers. I find them amazing, but am not moved to grow a garden full of them. I love it when others do, though!

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  2. I appreciate cacti–their resiliency and structure, but I’m not a fan of most of them (agaves, too) in a typical small, urban garden. They’re too big and too spiky! I do have some agave in containers and some small cacti in pots. Good post, though!

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    1. Oh, it makes me SO angry when landscape designers install big types of agaves into small landscapes just because they happen to be a fad. They use specie that get quite large, and install them right next to walkways! They need to be at a safe distance, and only where they can be appreciated. They do not belong in landscapes of those who do not like them. I happen to like yuccas, and would prefer them to be more popular in our climate, but would not recommend them for many other landscapes outside of my own unless a client liked them, or the style of the landscape would accommodate their striking form.

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      1. This keeps coming up and I thought it was a good time to reblog it. The botanist were still arguing where they agave fix in. Some place with the Lollies I personally considered them succulents. The family of my plant Penstemon have been changed and I missed the change. I have over of 100 Penstemon pictures of the western Penstemon s

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      2. I consider agaves to be succulents too, but then, most consider yuccas to be succulents as well! I can not figure that one out, but I figure it is because they are related to agaves. Of course, they all fit in with lilies too!

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      3. I consider juices to be succulents. It been years since I look at the information. Since I haven’t really had technical training and got a lot of My knowledge from Washington state Master Gardener program.What is upsetting someone will pickup a book and used the the information in it and repeat wrong information as correct. I recommend Sunset book. I don’t remember it name. But it has correct information for the Western Coast.

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      4. I consider yuccas to be yuccas, in a group all their own. They might be succulents, but it is not important to me.
        Sunset used be near here in Menlo Park and are still in the area up in Oakland. There was a book about greenhouses, and my old greenhouse was featured in it back in the 1970s. My colleagues landscapes and plants are often featured in their publications.

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      5. I do as well, but I still prefer some of the older publications to the newer ones. They tend to be more accurate. Newer publications are good for information about newer varieties though.

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      6. I use to get all the seed catalogs and spend a lot of time reading and studying them PARKS was much have. It has been a long time sin e I seen one. Another was the Wayside Garden. They have much plant information in them.

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      7. I grow only a few, and they are the old fashioned hybrid tea roses that I grew up with. They take more work than the modern types, but they are what I like to grow. I have no use for the modern roses. In fact, almost all of my flowers are very old fashioned.

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      1. What a surprise to here from Jackson and Perkins. Thanks for the offer of a catalog It has been years since I have been able to garden. I think I will pass. Roses are not my favorite flowers. I always felt they were to much work when there are so many other flowers that were easier. 🌟📚☕💕🌹🌼🌻🌷🌟

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      1. Yes, my aunt has some stories about how nasty that stuff is. I saw some huge saguaros and big barrel cactus, and oh, it was wonderful. I never got to be there when some were blooming tho. That would have been great to see.

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      2. The saguaro is the state flower of Arizona. It s sort of weird though. It is big and squishy and often nocturnal. Blooming barrel cactus look like a plump girl with a very fancy hat.

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      3. They are all just fascinating, having not lived among them. But it’s ok to not live among them, cos we saw tarantulas and scorpions out there among them too. I can do without any of them.

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      4. I don’t know of sugar maples. I have silver maples in my back yard. It does snow here and gets hateful cold. Sir Albert isn’t sure he wants to travel the whole way out there, so I guess you don’t have to be looking for him. 🤪

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      5. The second tree I planted when I was a little tyke was a silver maple. They get too big for urban gardens here, but I like them because the shade is not so dark that it kills lawn. I really like the texture of the foliage too. I do not miss the color in autumn because there are only a few trees that color reliably here anyway. Although it is structurally deficient when it gets old, silver maple does not have the bad reputation here that it has there just because it is not at all common.
        Does Sir Albert have a problem with traveling all the way out here, or does he have a problem with California?

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      6. He just likes his spot in the garden. He doesn’t even move around much; just sits there, lol! Silver maples are so soft, and prone to disease when they get old too, yea. I had 2 others that had to be cut down, cos of fungus and one’s interior turned out to be very bad once it was down and we could look at the stump.

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      7. It sort of makes one wonder what he is up to. He must be plotting World domination. He had to off the silver maples because they knew too much. He made it look like a natural demise.

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      8. That’s a bad houseplant for sure. I had read this before, when I was having my own bamboo issues. Not in the house, but everywhere in the back yard. Now I know that there is clumping bamboo, and the non-clumping kind……what a carnage my back yard was, having it dug up. That was last year, and I’m still weed-whacking off shoots trying to grow up again. 😳

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  3. George Washington University in Downtown Washington, D.C. has a big urban campus and they do some innovative landscaping with native plants, edibles, and others…One of the buildings has prickly pears in front of it and when they bloom, it’s spectacular. Of course, they’re edible too, and very sweet…

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    1. I would so not expect to see prickly pears in Washington D.C.!, although they do grow wild in Oklahoma! Those that I brought back from Oklahoma are not very pretty, but I like them because of where they came from.

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  4. I have the several of the so-called “spineless” prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana) on my patio, and several pots now of one with that weirdly pendulous stem structure: Cereus peruvianus monstrose. The prickly pear came from a ranch in the hill country that I loved, and it’s thrived. I started with three pads, and now I have a dozen pots filled with the stuff.

    The cereus got so big I couldn’t move it any more, so I finally gave in and decided to do some repotting, taking easily removable segments from the big, globby plant. That’s when I learned nothing is easily removable on one of those. In the end, it took a saw to get through the main stem. But! I have a half-dozen pots that are growing nicely.

    It did bloom for me, in two years. One year I got three flowers, and one the next year. I’d had it for several years at that point, so I was pretty excited. The flowers were huge, opened for only one night (from about 10 p.m. until dawn) and were so heavily scented it was unbelievable.

    I have one other columnar cactus that blooms repeatedly through the summer, with clusters of yellow flowers that look like daisies. Its name is Godette. It was the companion of Godot, a lace cactus that unfortunately died. I named it Godot because I had to wait and wait and wait for it to bloom — but it finally did.

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    1. Oh — when the U.S. Army took a notion to import camels into Texas to see if they’d do well as pack animals in the desert (in the 1800s) they discovered that camels adore prickly pear. They’d munch on those pads like nobody’s business.

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    2. The spineless prickly pear was supposedly discovered as a seedling growing at California Nursery in Fremont a very long time ago. That sounds a bit far fetched to me, but I can not find any other information to the contrary.
      I find the night blooming cereus cactus to be remarkably sculptural, even if no one ever sees the flowers at night. The flowers are an excellent bonus when they happen to bloom, but are not necessary. I ignored mine when it put out buds because I though it would be a few more days before they would open; but I happened to go outside while they were in bloom, and thought that there were white leghorn hens roosting in the cactus! It was funny. The fragrance was unreal! I gave them to a neighbor, but when he moved, the people who moved in cut all the cactus down and disposed of them before anyone knew about it. We would have taken them!

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