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Raise Your Garden blog: You NEED a cactus ~ Seven Reasons Why

Original story published by Raise Your Garden

May 28, 2019

Cacti are like all the unique people you know.

Many are tall and thin. Others are short and fat. Some are even bald. And if provoked, all can sting with those prickly spines!

The spunky shapes, sizes and spines lure me into the cacti world.

Many thanks to Altman Plants for providing the cacti and succulents for this post. Altman Plants are dreamy.

​Now you want to know about the googly eyes. Okay, that’s all my mom. Who else is gonna find you goggly eyes with eyelashes?

But I digress. Pardon all my silliness.

So saddle up your horses, let’s go all wild west today and slash into some cacti facts!

Just a little bit about Altman Plants before we get started….

I appreciate how Altman Plants sends you a plant even nicer than the one shown in the “stock” images used on their website. Altman Plants do not disappoint.

And they won’t be dead in a week either because they are weak plants!

​So to answer your question; yes…they will survive!

​Altman Plants sent me a variety of succulents and cacti for my reclaimed driftwood planters last year and those plants are still thriving.

Especially the two cacti! And we’ve had a very harsh winter.

The size of the 3.5 inch pots is pretty sweet, too. You are getting a good sized plant  considering just how slow cacti tend to grow!

Located in Vista, California, Altman Plants were shipped straight across the country to Buffalo, NY. Talk about a long journey.

On the day of delivery we were slammed with a massive snow storm. White-out driving conditions. Zero visibility. Frigid temps.

​And the plants arrived in pristine condition. Way to go Altman Plants!

And kudos to that poor UPS guy who nearly blew away delivering the package. In retrospect, I wish I sent him on his way with a cup of hot cocoa. He earned it!

1.) All cactus are succulents & succulents are hot now

All cacti are succulents. But not all spiny succulents are cacti. Feel free to check the veracity of this statement but it is true. 

So you can’t use the term cacti and succulent interchangeably. 

Succulents are plants that store water and nutrients in their leaves, stems and even roots. Sixty different plant families boast ties to this succulent group including aloe, haworthia, sedum, sempervivum and cacti. 

Cacti are fleshy plants that store water making them a succulent. But they usually do not have branches or true leaves.

Cactuses ability to retain water helps them survive periods of drought. The spongy tissues of their thick, fleshy stems can hold water during the rainy season. 

It forces the water down into the roots.

So cactus spines are actually modified “leaves” and it is the stalk that performs photosynthesis.
 
But for a succulent to be considered a cactus, the plant must have areoles. 

2.) Speaking of those areoles…

Areoles are small, round, cushion-like mounds of plant flesh where spines, hair, leaves, flowers, and more grow from the cactus. Areoles are only present on cacti, not all succulents.

To the human eye, areoles look like a tiny patch of cotton. The areoles are arranged in clusters separated by areas of spineless skin.  Each areole usually bears multiple spines.

Sometimes these spine clusters are arranged in rows along raised ridges, as in barrel cacti and saguaro.

A few succulents get mistaken for cacti because they have thorns or spines, but these traits do not automatically qualify a succulent as a cactus.

All cacti have areoles. No other plant besides cacti have areoles. So checking a plant to see whether the plant has areoles is the only real way to distinguish a cactus from other succulents.

The ‘Christmas Sleigh’ aloe succulent in the below left bottom photo shows great spines but no areoles. Their spines grow directly out of the plant tissue, therefore aloe is not a cactus.

To the bottom right is a ‘Hens and Chicks’ succulent plant. Again, if you squint, you can see those fun spikes at the tip of the “leaves”. No areole though. So not a cactus either.

The back plant is an echeveria ‘Neon Breakers’ succulent. Tough to see those spiny spikes but I assure you they exist! But no areoles, so again, not a cactus.

So it’s the areoles that are the defining feature. Without areoles, the succulent can’t be a cactus.

The size of the spines on the areoles vary from species to species but can be as long as 15 cm. Yikes! Don’t touch.

Spines help protect the plant from the sun while reducing evaporation. They also provide a multitude of surfaces where dew can condense at night, supplying extra water.

Spines can even condense moisture in the air so that it drips onto the ground, providing the plant with water.

Some cactus spines are light in color which help them reflect the most sunlight all the while keeping the plant cool in the desert.

Spines also protect the plant from birds and other predators who only go after the cactus for water! ​

3.) How do you make cactus plural or it is plural already?

Cacti is the Latin plural of cactus. Cactuses is the English plural. But most dictionaries give the green light to both spellings so neither is right or wrong.

Latin is given lots of leeway on biological nomenclature. So Latin plurals are not considered out of place in botany and other scientific fields.

But are you ready for this one? Like other names of plants, sometimes cactusis can be considered the plural.

Fungus is like cactus and becomes fungi when made plural. Funguses sounds silly but is also grammatically correct.

But then again no one says octopi instead of octopuses. And you never hear viri instead of viruses. So why is it cacti instead of cactuses?

It’s a matter of preference. And right now the trend is to make it cacti, that’s why! So cacti has edged out cactuses as the plural.

 

4.) All cacti bloom and the blossom is breathtaking!

When I was researching this article, I thought to myself….could this possibly be true? That all cacti bloom?

Then I had to accept that just because not all my cacti have bloomed doesn’t mean they won’t bloom or can’t bloom.

​In fact, when I got my order from Altman Plants, the Mammillaria elegans (above photo) was in bloom.

​Blooms do fade quickly, but when another magenta flower emerges on this globular cactus with dense white spines and white wool, your heart will flutter.

I get a new bloom or two nearly every day!

Just below shows off the satiny creamy yellow flowers on a Mammillaria gracilis fragilis, or more aptly named “Thimble cactus.”

Tiny globular bodies are densely covered with white radial spines resembling…you guessed it, a thimble. Very sharp too!

Blooming Fast Fact!

Flowers originate from the areoles of the cactus. Usually funnel-shaped with a flaring mouth, most blooms have a large but indefinite number of stamens- often more than 50! 
 

When I acquired a ‘Rose Quartz’ “Peanut Cactus” (shown in the below photo) I had no idea it would bloom for me. So when five blooms appeared one day as shown in the below photo, I nearly fainted with joy.

Magnificent, bright red blooms with feminine petals will steal the show. 

​Overall the blooms are short-lived, but when they appear you feel like you won the lottery. And if you think I’m referring to the lottery that I never play you would be correct.

But it is the colors of the flowers that will boggle your mind the most. Bright reds, yellows and pinks burst in size. Many are humongous in comparison to the size of the plant making the display that more eye-popping!

It’s possible for some cactus flowers to bloom for a few days, but in my experience most come and go within a 24 hour period passing their prime.

Other cacti bloom only at night and these nocturnal special get pollinated by bats (eek)  and other nocturnal insects and animals.

5.) The real deal on water & cacti

The natural water reservoir is the most famous feature of the cactus plant. I read that a cactus devotes over 90% of its inside body parts to handling, circulating and building up supplies of water. Whoa.

As a kid, I  still have all these memories of cacti in cartoons getting slashed open and the hero being miraculously saved by drinking the water within.

And while it’s true this fluid has saved several lives of a few individuals in dire, desert regions, it’s a thick substance; not clear.

Just like those old wild west movies, the hero gains access to the liquid by scratching the cactus or creating a hole with a handy ax. The water gushes out! Nope. Not reality.

But due to the way cacti carry out photosynthesis,  the water in a cactus is generally not potable. Moisture within the pulp of a cactus is acidic and many cacti contain toxic alkaloids.

So if you find yourself stranded in the desert without water, drinking the cactus water may save your life but it could also make you sick and cause additional dehydration, and that alone will kill you.

​Stick with your coconut water!

“Old Man of the Andes” hysterical Fast Fact

Groom woolly hairs on your “Old Man of the Andes” cactus like you would your own! Providing that you have wooly hair to groom.

​When hair becomes matted, carefully “shampoo” it in weak, soapy water (not detergent) solution and rinse thoroughly, combing out any excess soap.

Maybe while shampooing you could provide your senior citizen cactus  the latest AARP edition for a little distraction? Just saying…. 

6.) Cacti are literally showing their spunky, spiny selves everywhere!

Clothing, cupcakes, cards and on all the covers of magazines….we are being bombarded with cacti. And why not?

It’s the year of the cactus. Time for the spine to shine.

While feverishly checking out at the grocery store this week, the cupcakes featured on a magazine cover distracted me and contributed to my tying up the line.

Not to mention the succulent/cacti Valentine’s Day card my mom sent me. Not throwing that one away!

​My son’s clothes. Yep. They have cacti on them! Wild little man.

​Cacti salt and pepper shakers? Tell me you have a set!

And surely you have seen all the cacti bedding? As long as the sheets don’t come with thorns attached, I’m all in!

You want to ride this trend while it’s hot, hot, hot.

​And please don’t tell me that you’ve never sampled cactus candy? Okay, how about cactus jelly? 

7.) Long live the cactus!

If treated right, cactus can live anywhere from decades to well over 300 years. So you better have a name in mind in your will! Who gets you cacti plants?

​To encourage more blooms, you need to foster periods of blossom and rest in your cactus.

In its growing phase, the cactus wants direct sunlight, high temps, high humidity, and proper watering for growth to occur.

​When in dormancy, keep cacti in a place with lower temperature and humidity and water no more than once a week. Likely less!

Your basement is actually a good spot in winter providing you have one and it doesn’t get too cold (50-55 degrees.)

Tallest cactus? 66 feet. Shortest cactus? One centimeter.

You want the truth? I don’t care how black you think your thumb is: anyone can grow a cactus as long as you don’t overwater it.

Depending on where you live, they can be grown indoors or out. I grow mine indoors and let them bask in the summer sun when May hits all through September on my patio.

The “Peruvian Old Lady” is a unique and interesting cactus. Aptly named, this cactus appears to be covered in gray hair, but underneath it all are some very stiff thorns!

Since I’m growing my “Peruvian Old Lady” cactus indoors, I can only expect it to grow about 10 inches in a ten year period. But if grown in the wild, some can grow 7 feet tall.

The nocturnal, white flowers are rare and stretch about two inches wide.  Berry-like fruits are produced with edible dull black seeds inside. Who’s hungry? 

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Succulents make super holiday gifts for friends, family, and yourself

As of Nov. 27, Altman Plants has now lowered the threshold for free shipping at shopaltmanplants.com to $50 for the holidays

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More than just Copiapoa cacti in Chile

In November, Altman Plants succulent plant development mgr. Kelly Griffin and his wife, Denise, traveled to Chile for a week of marveling at Copiapoa cacti., but they also enjoyed seeing wildlife as well as non-cactus flora. With that in mind, please enjoy the decidedly non-cactus photo essay below. Read part one of Kelly’s travelogue here and part two here.

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Copiapoa cacti in Chile: location, location, location

Editor’s note: In November, Altman Plants succulent plant development mgr. Kelly Griffin and his wife, Denise, traveled to Chile for a week of marveling at Copiapoa cacti. They also took in non-plant sights, admired the wildlife and, of course, indulged in the food, if not exclusively Chilean cuisine. They also toured the San José mine, where 33 miners in 2010 endured more than two months of being trapped 2,300 feet underground. This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first installment (days one through four) here.

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Chile offers cornucopia of Copiapoa cacti

Editor’s note: In November, Altman Plants succulent plant development mgr. Kelly Griffin and his wife, Denise, traveled to Chile to, more or less, see as many Copiapoa cacti as possible in a week’s time. They also took in non-cactus sights, admired the wildlife and, of course, indulged in the food, if not always Chilean cuisine. They were also fortunate to get a surprise private tour of the San José mine, where 33 miners in 2010 endured more than two months of being trapped 2,300 feet underground. This is the first of a two-part series.

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This old man, he plays it cool

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.

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Celebrating the flowery side of cacti

Forgive us if we ever get a bit flowery in our musings about cacti. These plants are often noted for their spiny (not thorny) toughness, but — beyond cactus geeks — probably don’t receive their proper due for all the textures, shapes, and hues they possess. Their satiny, out-of-this-world flowers are some of the most fetching ones on the planet. Alluring reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, whites. Even purple. Some run small while many are certifiably ginormous. (The flowers of Hylocereus undatus — dragon fruit — can exceed 12 inches in length.) Many bloom after dark when other plants have closed up their displays for the night.

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Old man Andes has a point: The purposeful hairiness of Oreocereus celsianus

This old man dwells far above the sea, although you won’t encounter “him” 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. 

We recommend planting a specimen with porous cactus soil that allows for adequate or better drainage. Try to avoid watering Oreocereus celsianus during overcast or humid weather, or on cold winter days. Outdoors, this mountain native is fine with full sun, but it does not care for extreme heat. If indoors, it will want to be near a sunny window.

Look for old man of the Andes cactus at our retail shop and wholesale shop.

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Explore this golden-yellow sphere’s galaxy

Golden barrel cactus adds rugged depth to the garden

Thank Mother Nature that not all living things are as delicate as us humans. In summer, we pine for anything that cools us off — beaches, pools, lakes, and all matters of covered, artificially cooled rooms. Not golden barrel.

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Altman Plants team members display their plant geekery

We’re thrilled to share the creative chops of the four winners of the first Altman Plants team photo contest. We challenged our colleagues to submit images that captured nature being awesome in whatever way they could find, whether in and around their homes or while out and about, and they came through big time. In the case of this fab four, that could be of a hummingbird zipping around for nourishment or of a quiet moment with a rose bush in the rain. Of a living wall of succulent colors and textures or of a backyard space transformation. 

Accompanying the four photos below are the stories behind them, in the words of our coworkers. View all of the winners’ submissions here.

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