Bizarre rock formations and desolate terrain comprise the Greater and Lesser Karoos in Africa. The light and heat are intense, and in some years there is no rain, only fog. Amazingly, in this harsh environment, exist the “sphaeroids”, miniature succulent members of the family Mesembryanthemaceae, or “Mesembs”. Sphaeroids have evolved ingenious strategies to maximize water conservation. Morphologically, the plants are nothing more than two fat succulent leaves and a taproot. In times of extreme drought, sphaeroids can become flush with the soil, with only the “windows” at the tips of the leaves exposed. In this manner, the “windows” diffuse the light entering for photosynthesis, minimizing the effects of the intense heat and light.
Approximately 19 million years ago in the Mediterranean, a plant emerged that is considered to be the ancestor of the Aeonium. As eons passed, seed from this ancestor found its way to Canary Islands. Aeoniums have since flourished in the Canary Islands, land of legendary “Atlantis”, and of the venerable Dragon Trees (Dracena draco), the snow-capped volcano Teide, and balmy pine forests, brightly lit with canaries and parrots.
Aeoniums provide the gardener with easy-care, water-wise, yet striking accents for the garden or patio. Usually forming clusters of geometric rosettes atop taller stems, Aeoniums give the impression of a bouquet of everlasting long-stemmed roses. Some species occur as cristates, forming fascinating fan shapes of frilly leaves.
I consider myself to be a good horticulturist and decent grower, but over the years of gardening, I have killed off a fair amount of plants. The survivors throughout the years have been my succulent collection, which have been fairly forgiving of my gardening lifestyle. After managing a nursery all day, the last think that I want to do is come home and water plants in the evening, usually putting this and other tasks off until my day off. Even I have killed many a rose at my house because it could not wait for me to have the time to water it, and I am a grower who oversees thousands of roses each day.
Succulents are great plants to use in the garden. They are easy to grow, requiring little water, fertilizer, care and maintenance. They are highly adaptable to difficult situations, such as rocky or poor soil, hillsides, crevices, small gardens and container plantings. With great foliage colors, unique textures & shapes, plus beautiful flowers, using succulents can a create true leisure landscape. I have found succulent plants to be patient with me and my lack of time for gardening. To give you an idea of how these plants can be, I planted an Agave in a container that had been sitting around the nursery on a pallet, neglected for years. This same plant sat in the same pot with no fertilizer, an occasional watering, in hot and bright sun for 25 years, becoming one of the nicest container plants in my collection. This year that same Agave finally bloomed! When I lived in a townhouse with a very small patio and extremely hot sundeck, my succulent collection grew as they are highly adaptable to container gardening and could adapt and survive the harsh exposure of the deck. My neighbor, who loves plants, had a problem keeping color bowls alive in front of her house. The exposure was full sun and they were constantly drying out. I planted her some colorful succulent bowls and her problem was solved.
At this time of year, cacti collections are bursting forth in color ~ Mammillarias with floriferous rings of vivid magenta amid Notocactus crowned with yellow, pink, or purple flowers. Fanciful flashes of color from Gymnocalycium, Rebutias, Lobivias and Echinopsis. But amongst the desert cacti, none can surpass the flowers of the Trichocereus grandiflorus hybrids for sheer flower power.
Catamarca, Argentina is a land erupting in volcanic fire, quickly changing to the glacial cold of the Andes. Nearby is the most arid desert in the world, the desolate Puna de Atacama. Inhabitants must be very rugged in order to tolerate such extremes in exposure. Trichocereus grandiflorus is such a robust individual. This tenacious Catamarcan columnar, with blood red flowers and decorative spine formations, has been the subject for years of intensive selective hybridization. As a result, Trichocereus grandiflorus hybrids now flower in a vast array of colors, including yellow, rose, crimson, orange, violet, white and even bicolors. Flowers can attain 9″ in diameter, rivaling even the giant flowers of the epiphytic “Orchid Cacti” (Epiphyllums).
Trichocereus grandiflorus hybrids are excellent for landscapes, being very tolerant of poor soils, extremes in exposure, and in time, forming attractive columns that explode yearly in vivid floral displays.
by Renee O’Connell
Originally published in Garden Compass magazine
Used with permission.
The ordinary garden of the past is no longer acceptable to many garden enthusiasts. Today’s discerning gardener searches for plants that will satisfy his or her need for aesthetic fulfillment, and at the same time be “eco” friendly. Cacti and succulents, the relatively unknown treasures of the deserts and mountains, are providing fantastic new possibilities for today’s landscapes. The rich palette of colors, combined with dramatic and unique shapes, gives the artist every conceivable tool necessary to create not only incredibly beautiful desert scapes and rockeries but also unique mixed plantings, which might include silvery epiphytic herbs, xeriphytic ornamental grasses or even miniature conifers.