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Cactus – from the desert to your house

Submitted Photo Prickly Pear is one of five species of cactus in North Dakota that return year after year.

Cactus, or cacti (plural) is a family of about 130 genera with somewhere around 2,000 known species. They have made their way into all of our homes at one time or another – whether they lived a fruitful life or died a slow death, that is only for you to know. In general, cacti are some of the hardiest plants in the world and can live for many years. Cacti are considered succulent plants, but succulent plants are not considered cactus. A little confusing, I know. In order for a succulent plant to be considered a cactus, the plant must have areoles. Areoles are small, round, cushion-like mounds of flesh where spines, hair, leaves, or flowers grow from the cactus. Areoles are only present on cacti. Succulents may have spines; however, if there is no areole present it is a succulent.

Cactus are native throughout most of North and South American, extending from Alberta, Canada, to as far as Argentina. Although a few cactus species inhabit tropical or subtropical areas, most live in and are well adapted to dry regions. In North Dakota, there are five species of cactus that return year after year. Opuntia cymochila (“Prickly Pear”), Opuntia polyacantha (“Hairy Prickly Pear”), Opuntia fragilis (“Little Prickly Pear”), Escobaria missouriensis (“Missouri Foxtail Cactus”), and Escobaria vivipara (“Beehive Cactus”) are the cacti that can withstand the harsh winters we have with no protection from the elements.

There are two main types of cacti. The desert cactus, what we think of as the more “traditional” cactus, is usually covered with spines or hair and often grows in paddles, balls, or obelisks. Forest cacti grow in wooded areas, ranging from temperate forests to subtropical and tropical regions. The most well-known forest cactus may be the Christmas cactus. In either case, both desert and forest cactus boast beautiful blooms and can easily be grown indoors, even though they have very different growing habits.

Occasionally, I get calls about the death of a cactus. Typically, they are one of the easiest plants to grow in the home because of their wide variety of growth habits. Though the thought of cactus often makes us think of hot and dry, they do require water. A fast-draining cactus mix is necessary for planting and the soil needs to dry out between watering. Common mistakes are either not watering at all or overwatering. Repotting is recommended every other year to avoid a buildup of salts. Something we seldom think about is the hardness of the water we use for watering our plants. Hard water is best when watering cactus – not the water from softeners, which contains salt. Supplying good light and moderate temperatures are also necessary to maintain healthy cacti. Something to note, all types of cactus are prone to pests including mealybugs, scales, fungus gnats, and spider mites. In most cases, it is possible to simply wash these pests off using cotton swabs and water. With proper care and a little know-how, your indoor cactus should grow for years; many being able to be passed down to the next generation.

The oldest cactus was a saguaro named Old Granddaddy. It was 300 years old and stood 40 feet tall, boasting 52 arms. According to Saguaro National Park, where Old Granddaddy was located, the cause of death was bacterial necrosis, which typically affects older cactus. The disease caused Old Granddaddy to rot and turn brown. It also caused Old Granddaddy’s arms to fall off. Before Old Granddaddy’s death, it was one of the most visited and photographed cacti in the park. There are still a few cacti alive that are hundreds of years old.

If you would like to see one of the largest indoor cactus collections, we are lucky enough to have one right here, in our own state. The International Peace Garden houses the third largest cactus collection in North America, known as the Vitko Collection. There are about 6,000 cacti on display, 4,000 unique species and cultivars. Half of the collection is made up of cactus from the Americas and the other half is made up of mostly succulents/xerophytes from Africa and Madagascar. Currently, the Vitko Collection is housed in a 10,000-square-foot conservatory, with approximately 800 plants in an additional holding greenhouse. Plans to upgrade and expand the conservatory to double its current size is in the works and hopefully, will be mostly completed by the end of next year.

I remember as a kid watching the old cowboy movies. You know the ones, where the cowboy lops off the top of a cactus, normally a barrel cactus, and dips his cup in to get a drink – refreshed and ready to ride again. It turns out, that is just a myth. The juice in a cactus is high in alkalis. If you took a drink as they did, you would get a stomach ache, complete with vomiting. Consuming too much could even kill you. I guess the best thing, would be to not get lost in a desert. You heard it here folks, I’m calling out the Duke and all those other cowboys from the Wild West movies. Don’t drink the cactus water!

Happy Gardening!

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