Succulents For Better Or Worse

There are all sorts of succulents.

Succulents, both old and new, have been something of a fad for quite a while now. There are certainly many reasons for them to be popular. They add bold form, texture and color to the garden. Most adapt excellently to container gardening. Many types are resistant to pathogens. Succulents are generally easy to maintain and equally as easy to propagate. 

However, one of the primary premises of the increased popularity of succulents is simply untrue. Contrary to popular belief, not all succulents are drought tolerant. Only those that are naturally endemic to desert or chaparral climates can survive with minimal irrigation. They neither expect nor require any more moisture than the rain that falls through winter.

Many succulents are naturally endemic to climates that are not arid. Some are even from tropical rain forests. Such succulents rely on watering to compensate for the local lack of rain through the long and warm summers. Furthermore, many succulents from chaparral and desert climates also want water if their undispersed roots are confined to containers. 

Many popular succulents are cacti. They lack foliage, and are instead armed with spines and thorns. (Spines are modified leaves. Thorns are modified stems.) Their fat succulent stems are green to compensate for their lack of foliage, by conducting all photosynthesis. Generally, most cacti actually are tolerant of drought, although less so within containers.

However, many of the most popular and trendy succulents have succulent leaves as well as succulent stems. Some obscure their stout stems within densely set foliage. Although some are chaparral plants that are somewhat drought tolerant, many require watering for adequate hydration. Even Epiphyllum, which are tropical cacti, require regular watering.

Furthermore, many of the succulents that can survive through dry summers without water take drastic measures to do. Various species of Aeonium and Echeveria let much of their older foliage shrivel to conserve moisture for the younger foliage. Echeveria retain much of their shabby dry foliage as insulation. So many of the succulents that have potential to survive without watering are happier with it.

Rat Tail Cactus

Not many cacti cascade from planters.

When first imported to Europe from the Americas, cacti were very strange. Their distended green stems do all the photosynthesis. Vestigial leaves develop into sharp protective spines. Vestigial stems develop into more formidable thorns. One of the first cacti imported is among the weirdest. Rat tail cactus, Aporocactus flagelliformis, develops pendulous stems that do not stand upright.

In the wild, rat tail cactus cascades from rocky ledges and crotches of trees. In home gardens, it cascades splendidly from elevated planters or hanging pots. Pruning scraps make good cuttings to plug into loose stone or broken concrete retaining walls. Rat tail cactus likes warmth, but also some partial shade from hot afternoon sunshine. Yellowish stems appreciate a bit of mild fertilizer.

Old stems grow longer than three feet if they get the chance. However, they discolor with age. Pruning them out from the base promotes healthier and more compact growth. Most stems emerge from the base, with minimal branching beyond the base. Bloom is slightly purplish pink. Individual flowers are about two inches long and slightly wider than an inch. They last for three or four days.

Barrel Cactus

Barrel cactus spines are serious business!

‘Echino’ translates to ‘spiny’; so the genus name of barrel cactus, Echinocactus grusonii, means ‘spiny cactus’. Duh! The nearly spherical and furrowed (ribbed) plants are completely covered with stout and dangerously sharp spines. The most popular variety, known as golden barrel cactus, has pale amber yellow spines. Another variety has white spines. Tan or ruddy spines are rare.

Growth is quite slow. It takes many years for plants to get to three feet tall. Only plants that are quite mature bloom in spring or early summer with bright yellow or orange flowers that develop in a circle, like a halo around the top of the plant. Pink or red flowers are rare. Old plants typically develop a few pups (side-shoots), which may likewise take many years to bloom.

Like most cacti, barrel cactus wants a warm and very sunny location, and very well drained soil. If they do not get watered too much, they can stay potted for many years. However, because they are so nasty, they are not too welcome on porches or patios where most potted plants live. Because they are so heavy and difficult to handle, they are not as portable as they should be.

Cacti Have Bite Without Bark

Cacti exhibit unique and striking form.

The most inhospitable spots in the garden that no one wants to put any work into seem to be the domain of cacti, whether or not any cacti actually live there. “Oh, I will just put some cactus there!” is cliché in regard to shadeless and dry spots that get too hot with glare from a south-facing wall. Yet, such spots typically continue to be neglected, and the cactus never get planted.

Why are such distinctive and interesting plants considered to be so lowly that they should be banished to the badlands? Why should they be expected to endure what not other plants are expected to endure? After all, there are so many other distinctive xeric plants, like yuccas, agaves and some aloes, that are just as resilient, and according to some, just as lowly.

Cacti really are not as independent as commonly believed. New plants should actually get watered occasionally until they disperse their roots. If they get watered regularly, they need coarse soil that drains very well. Cactus plants that were grown in sheltered spots really can get scaled if planted where they are too harshly exposed during hot weather.

The main problem with cactus is their nasty spines. Simply planting small plants without getting poked is a challenge. Moving big potted specimens or removing overgrown cactus plants without getting seriously perforated can be daunting. So, even though they might do well in the harsh exposure at the curb, they do not belong in such a high traffic area.

Without foliage or conventional stems, cactus are either awkward to prune, or can not be pruned at all. Barrel cactus have only one or very few round stems. If one of these stems gets to wide, it can not be pruned back. Prickly pear cactus is easier to accommodate only because it has enough stems to spare those that grow out of bounds.

What makes cacti so excellent is their distinctive form. Some have strictly upright stems that resemble those of the organ pipe cactus. Some grow as clumps of short and fat stems. Others grow upward and outward with rounded and flat stems like those of the beaver tail cactus.

Epiphyllum Surprise

80808Epiphyllum oxypetalum was my very first epiphyllum. A friend’s mother gave me three long cuttings, which were cut in half to make six cuttings. They grew like weeds, and I was quite pleased with them. At the time, they were the only epiphyllum that I wanted. The wide nocturnal flowers are strikingly pure white and nicely fragrant, and stay open late into the morning if the weather is right. Since white is my favorite color, I craved no more.

Then I got bits of another epiphyllum from one of my clients. I do not know if it really is a species of epiphyllum, but it grows just like one, with the exception of the bloom. Rather than only a few huge nocturnal flowers, it blooms with many smaller pink flowers that remain open all day. It lacks fragrance. It is not as impressive as Epiphyllum oxypetalum, but it is colorful for a longer time. Besides, now that I got it, I must continue to grow it.

Shortly afterward, I acquired a bit of another epiphyllum from another client. I expected it to bloom with a bright red flower, but it did nothing. In fact, it sat around for a few years without doing anything. Finally, it bloomed for the first time this year. That is the surprise.P80714+++++

This red epiphyllum that bloomed last year is not mine. It belongs to a colleague who hangs it in public garden at work while it is blooming. This is what I expected mine to look like. I sort of believe that it happens to be one of the more popular cultivars of epiphyllum.

What I got instead was these intriguing pink blooms! I don’t know what to think. The clear whit Epiphyllum oxypetalum is still my favorite, and I really like the rich red, but these pink flowers are totally rad too!P90707P90707+P90707++

Six on Saturday: Cacti

Cacti was the topic for my gardening column less than two weeks ago. ( ) Both space and illustrations are limited in the column though. Only a picture of a prickly pear was posted with that main article. The other part of that article, which is a brief description and a picture of white epiphyllum, was posted the next day. ( ) Since then, I have been wanting to get a picture of one of the small but delightful orange flowers of a prickly pear in the private collection of one of my colleagues. Now that I got that picture, I really did not know what to do with it. I got two other pictures of the fruit and stems of the same prickly pear, and three more pictures of other cacti in the same collection so that I could post them here. Instead of saving the best picture for last, the prickly pear flower is posted first just because it is that cool.

1. Prickly pear flower should bloom during the day. They should not be nocturnal. I can not be certain because I am not familiar with this particular species. What I do know is that the flowers have been open early in the morning, and then closed shortly after exposed to sunlight, almost like those of a nocturnal epiphyllum. It took me a while to get this picture of this single peachy orange flower.P80811

2. Prickly pear fruit should ripen right after bloom, but most fall off of this plant while still green. It might be because the plant is potted and watered regularly. Those that ripen are only about two inches long, and quite pithy without much flavor. They would probably be bigger, more abundant and better flavored if the plant could grow in the ground.P80811+

3. Prickly pear pad is not as prickly as those that I got a picture of for the previous article about cacti. I do not know how their flavor is because I have not tried them. This is a small plant that can not spare many pads. Even if there were a few to spare, they are not very big, even when mature. The probably would not taste very goo either, since they take so long to mature in the pot.P80811++

4. Cereus cactus really is nocturnal; cereusly! It produces huge white flowers that are about as big as those of the white epiphyllum that was featured earlier. The flowers do not open until after sundown, and may wait until late at night. While open, they are powerfully fragrant. The fragrance seems to ‘turn on’ immediately when the flower open, and ‘turn off’ as soon as the flowers close before dawn.P80811+++

5. Rat tail cactus, like epiphyllum, is epiphytic, which means that it grows where debris collects in crotches of limbs in big trees. If they grown on the ground, they just sprawl about and maybe form low mounds. This is not an exemplary specimen, although it bloomed well earlier, with reddish orange flowers that are significantly smaller than those of the epiphyllum, and also a bit smaller than those of the prickly pear.P80811++++

6. Epiphyllum is a weird epiphytic cactus. This particular cultivar is even weirder than most. Cacti photosynthesize with their green stems, while using what should be leaves as spines. This cultivar does not seem to be satisfied with that technique, so is outfitted with these weird leafy appendages on its flat green stems, as if it really wants leaves like other plant have.P80811+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Epiphyllum oxypetalum

80808The common names of ‘Dutchman’s pipe’ and ‘queen of the night’ are not much less awkward the the Latin name of Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which might be why the Latin name is more common than the common names are. Some know it as ‘white ephiphyllum’ or even more simply as ‘white epi’. It is one of the more popular of the epiphyllums; and it is the most popular with white flowers.

The nocturnal flowers appeal to nocturnal pollinators. What we see simply as luminescent white is actually outfitted with exquisite patterns that are only visible to those who can see ultraviolet light, like nocturnal moths. Bats are as blind as . . . well, bats, but can follow the richly sweet fragrance if they choose to. Sunlight disables fragrance immediately, and causes flowers to close soon after.

In the wild, sprawling primary stems can cascade almost twenty feet. Of course, they are much shorter in home gardens. The more pendulous secondary stems that bloom get about a foot long, and perhaps three inches wide. Flowers bloom in summer, and can be half a foot wide and a foot long. Epiphyllums naturally hang from trees as epiphytes, so will do the same from hanging pots.

Cacti Are Notorious For Nonconformity

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.