Old man of the Andes cactus is just one of several hairy species
The cactus family is chock-full of old men and old ladies. Enough so that they deserve their own membership wing in the AARP. Ha, we kid, but the “old …” cacti all share an eye-catching attribute: a coat of protective white hairs. That hairiness, while not of identical density, can make it tough for nonexperts to distinguish individual species from one another. Today, though, we’re singling out one senior cactus in particular: Oreocereus celsianus, aka old man of the Andes. The prefix, Oreo, means “mountain,” from the Greek word oros.
This old man dwells far above the sea, although you won’t encounter it unless you’re exploring the mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, or Peru. It is in those high-up places that old man of the Andes cacti stand like snowy sentinels, eventually reaching up to 10 feet tall. Don’t count on one hitting such a height in your garden or patio pot anytime soon. The same goes for branching growth. Perhaps in time, but no promises.
The long, tubular red flowers are springtime, hummingbird magnets, but they might not make an appearance for several years. Planting one, though, does allow you to joke that it barks at the neighborhood kids to “get off my lawn.” And a specimen (or multiples) would ably serve as a textural counterpoint in a yard of colorful succulents such as agaves, sedums, and hens and chicks.
We’re not especially keen on sticking old man of the Andes in the middle of lawns, of course. We recommend planting a specimen with porous cactus soil that allows for adequate or better drainage. Try to avoid watering O. celsianus during overcast or humid weather, or on cold winter days. If indoors, it will want to be near a sunny window.
In this video, our very own Tom Jesch talks about how the woolly hairs act as a defense against ultraviolet exposure for a cactus accustomed to the thin, dry air of its high-elevation climate. Bright light is required to encourage denser hair growth, but this mountain native does not care for extremely elevated temperatures. Its coat serves as a frost blanket in winter and shades the plant in summer.
O. celsianus is some character. Its multitude of hairs and common name lend the species to many pop-culture references, whether it’s a classic Neil Young tune or a 100-plus-year-old nursery rhyme (“This Old Man”). Or before planting it, attach balloons to its stem to see whether it will float away, a la animated Ed Asner and his house in the movie “Up.” If any cactus could stand in for actor Christopher Lloyd, it would be this one. Just tease out some hairs on top and voila: Doc Brown the cactus. But can it drive (never mind fly) a DeLorean?