The Garden Patch: Growing succulents

052514-garden-excericiseA little change of pace this week – some information on succulents (or cacti to us that are more basic gardeners).

Succulents are plants that have become adapted to the shortage of water by developing water storage tissues, which make the leaves or stems juicy or fleshy and produce bizarre and weirdly beautiful plant shapes. Since these camel-like plants have the ability to hold water in the driest atmosphere, our modern homes with artificial heat and dry air provide a good environment. Most succulents, including the cacti which are a special family, require full sun. Others, strangely enough, grow best in shade.

Succulent plants have such varied shapes and forms, and so many dwarfed varieties that they are ideal houseplants for the most unusual containers. Planting and care are easy when you understand their special heat, light, soil and water requirements.

The cactus family numbers over 2,000 species all of which (except the most primitive members) are devoid of leaves, having swollen stems and spines. Their vividly colored flowers are composed of many petals and sepals with numerous stamens and a single pistil.

Cacti are native only to the Americas but are found from the Arctic Circle to the southernmost part of South America, having the greatest development in the deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico.

In the beginning, cacti somewhat resembled citrus, being a group of trees, shrubs and vines with evergreen leaves. This group still exists in the West Indies, a relic of the distant past (50 million years ago) when the climate was moist and tropical. When great ranges of mountains appeared, blocking the rain clouds, large areas of land become deserts. Before the great drought, which came gradually, these plants grew rampant but only those that gradually developed resistance to drought survived.

Leaves were reduce to transitory structures which appeared briefly after infrequent rains. Some plants lost their leaves entirely and the stems became flattened and green and took over the duties of the leaf. Since the fleshy stems were attractive food for the hungry herbivorous (plant eating) animals which roved the land, the cacti developed spines which protected them from even the greediest animals.

After eons of time, seed of the cacti that had developed in the desert were carried by birds back into the lush jungles. There, the rugged cacti found a place to grow on the branches of giant trees, where they can still be found in the jungles of Central America. Survival in the precarious setting was possible because the small amount of water retained after the frequent rains was sufficient to sustain them. These species are known as orchid cacti since, like orchids, they are epiphytes (air plants) with large, vivid flowers.

All succulents are not desert plants. Although most have developed in the arid regions of the world, some have evolved under alpine conditions where water is scarce because it is mostly frozen and ice cannot be absorbed by plants. Some have evolved as epiphytes in the humid, high rainfall areas of the world, and need the succulent conditions to survive between rains. Still others have evolved by the ocean beach and adjacent to salt seas where fresh water is very scarce and difficult to come by.

These observations should dispel any idea that all succulents need full, bright sunlight. Many, even some desert forms, grow best in partial shade and some require full shade to endure.

Like all plants, succulents need water. True, they do not need as much, but in most deserts of the world there are heavy dews that provide enough moisture for plants to survive in the absence of rainfall. So give them a little water frequently for best results.

It should be obvious that all succulents do not grow in pure sand. The richness of desert lands has been shown again and again when they have been reclaimed – just water is needed to make them productive. As a matter of fact, deserts have large amounts of organic matter in their soil, but it is coarse and porous. Therefore, a planter mix that contains sponge rock is ideal for all succulents. Even tree dwelling cacti in their original tree dwellings thrust their limited root system into the coarse organic matter which accumulates in the crevices and pockets formed by tree branches.

Since succulents like to be watered, but can’t survive standing water, water must be allowed to drain away quickly and completely.

The use of high nitrogen fertilizers is disastrous when growing succulents since nitrogen forces growth and induces an over development of soft tissues. In the days when manure, guano and other natural fertilizers were used, it was strongly advised not to apply these to succulents due to their high nitrogen content. Similarly, most soluble indoor plant fertilizers are designed for foliage plants and contain too much nitrogen. The best plant food for succulents is available in tablet form. These low nitrogen, balanced formulation tablets give succulents just enough nitrogen to sustain growth but not enough to make them soft.

NOW you’re ready to grow cacti! Low maintenance, small amount of work, much interest from guests and darned pretty and interesting little plants! Try ‘em, you’ll luv ‘em! Till next time! Thanks for reading!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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