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Choosing Cacti for a Beautiful Garden

Cacti are not just for the desert anymore. The hobby of cacti collecting has captivated a worldwide audience with many growers finding themselves engulfed in the quest to collect them all. But it is not just the typical spiny thing you’ve come to expect from your local Home Depot or Walmart. For the collector, the cactus is often a living work of art. Breeders mix and match these features, deserving the same praise as any artist. With ornate spinal patterns, zebra textures and wooly tufts, it is not hard for anyone to see the aesthetic appeal. So getting away from hardware stores and discount department stores, let us take a look at some ornamental options for your garden.

Perhaps the most ornamental genus of cacti is that of astrophytum. The root of the name astrophytum refers to the stars, as in the word “astronomy,” which reflects a somewhat star-shaped appearance of this cactus. There are various species of astrophytum such as astrophytum asterias, astrophytum ornatum, astrophytum capricorne and the quite popular astrophytum myriostigma, or Bishop’s Cap. Both astrophytum asterias and myriostigma are characterized by virtually spineless stems, which can make handling safe, particularly where there are children or pets present. Asterias is commonly referred to as sand dollar cactus and has a star-shaped pattern of cottony dots. Ornatum and capricorne, on the other hand, are prized for their ornamental spines. The name ornatum suggests its visual appeal while Capricorne refers to the ram, a reference to the way its spines curl.

Most of these species originate from Northern Mexico and Texas, although over-harvesting and habitat encroachment has led to endangerment in the wild. According to Adam Gottleib’s book, Peyote and Other Psychoactive Cacti, several species of astrophytum may have been considered sacred by the Tarahumara culture. Although astrophytum does not appear to contain psychoactive compounds, the historical and possible sacred significance will add to conversational value of your garden. Although the sad story of wild endangerment applies to a majority of the ornamental cacti, astrophytum is valued enough to ensure that it will at least remain preserved in cultivation.

When it comes to cultivation, the Japanese have become leaders in the art of breeding cacti. In particular, their variations of members of the astrophytum genus are unprecedented. One of the most popular of these gems is astrophytum asterias “super kabuto”. They have taken the already remarkable astrophytum asterias and improved upon it. Variations of this include changes in the texture and number of ribs as well as numerous hybrids. These are all options that will make your cacti garden stand above the rest, although it should be noted that some of the more marvelous specimens can be quite pricey. Many growers also resort to growing from seed which can be rewarding for both pride and finance.

Another genus that is filled with prime choices for a beautiful garden is ariocarpus. It has eight species. The most popular of these cacti is ariocarpus fissuratus, although ariocaprus retusus is nearly as popular. Like astrophytum, ariocarpus cacti remain short. Their rough texture has earned them the nickname, living rocks. However, it should be noted that this name refers to various other short cacti and succulents. Both lithops and pleiospilos nelii are examples. Ariocarpus fissuratus has variable features, but those with rougher skin are generally considered more valuable. From above, it looks like a stack of stars with a wooly tuft in the center. If you are lucky enough to be in a warm climate and have a cactus that is ten years or older, you may even get to witness the pink blooms.

Ariocarpus retusus has flowers that are usually white, sometimes with pink tips. It looks much like a small, chubby aloe. There is even a subspecies called ariocarpus agavoides, which is considered by some to be its own species. Retusus specimens vary mainly in the length and thickness of its tubercles. The tubercle is the nodule of flesh that sticks out from the body of the cactus. There is a well-known variety of ariocarpus retusus, called ‘furfuraceus‘, which has a significant amount of wool between the tubercles. Also, if you find aricocarpus retusus attractive, you will probably like obregonia denegrii or artichoke cactus.

All of the species mentioned thus far are button-like cacti that will remain small. A good cactus arrangement will usually benefit from some columnar cacti. Ideal choices of columnar cacti include myrtillocactus geometrizens (blue myrtle) and various species of the trichocereus genus. Trichocereus pachanoi, peruvianus, huasca and spachianus are all ideal choices. All of these columnar cacti are recommended because they are fast-growing and easy to maintain. Blue myrtle is a perfect choice because it has small spines and a bluish green body. Trichocereus peruvianus is a variable species with forms that have a similar, and sometimes frosty, color. It also has a number of different spine lengths to choose from, depending on genetics. On the other hand, the most common form of trichoereus pachanoi, which is known as the Backberg clone, has rather small spines. Another variety of pachanoi, the Tom Juul’s Giant, has even smaller spines. If you’re looking for spines with different coloration, those of spachianus are often golden with those of huascha ranging from reddish to golden. Furthermore, huascha can add appeal to your garden because of its tendency to clump at the base.

For experienced growers, trichocereus and myrtillocactus can be used to speed up the growth of their slower growing cacti or cacti seedlings by grafting. One of the most coveted grafting stocks in addition to these columnar species is pereskiopsis spathulata. Pereskiopsis is evolutionally on the border between cactus and succulent. It has both leaves and spines. Needless to say, pereskiopsis is quite unique on its own or with another species attached. By slicing and tapping into the vascular rings from a host cactus on the bottom, a separate specimen on the top will grow at an increased rate. It is also as way to save species whose roots have rotted because they will be able to benefit from the roots of their host plant. The combo of two cacti like this will certainly make your garden unique.

So your garden now has button-like, columnar and clumping cacti. But if you are still looking to add more variety to your collection there are more options. One more option is the lobed cacti, particularly opuntia. Opuntia are some of the most durable cacti in the world. Many of them can survive freezing temperatures, even if they are not rooted. Their spines range from long and sharp to barely visible hairs that will catch in your skin and irritate you. One of the best things about opuntia is that their blooms, often yellow or red, will be followed by edible fruits. The common prickly pear is the fruit of the opuntia ficus-indica. Opuntia pads are also eaten cooked or pickled and used to feed livestock. Opuntia are fast growers, and like previous mentions, they are sometimes used as grafting stock.

This final suggestion is somewhat surprising, but it is part of a growing trend. If you want to add that final degree of distinctiveness to your garden consider what is called a monstrose or crested cacti. These forms can be any species that exists. What makes it crested or monstrose is a mutation in the meristem (growing point) in the cactus. What were once outcasts have come to be known as genetic rarities, and like the Japanese cultivars, those of already rare species can carry quite a price tag. Mutations in these cacti result in a number of oddities. Crests tend to be rippled, wavy or fanlike, sometime resulting in brainlike shapes. Monstrose tends to have more of an outright deformed clumping effect. The most popular of the monstrose is probably that of cereus peruvianus. Crested trichocereus pachanoi and trichocereus thelogonus are also quite popular. However, when it comes to something that will surely catch your attention, there’s nothing like the trichocereus bridgesii monstrose, or more appropriately, the penis plant.

So now that I’ve finally got your attention, go back and narrow down some selections on your own. Our varied garden includes button-like, columnar, lobed, monstrose, crested and perhaps some grafted cacti. While everyone’s preferences will range, hopefully this article has given you some new options and a place to begin looking in the quest to beautify your cactus garden. I urge you to get into the growing hobby and become part of this worldwide hobby. As I said, look beyond your local department store or supermarket.