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Cactuses And Other Succulent House Plants

( Originally Published 1923 )

For the man or woman who has only a few odd minutes to spare at irregular intervals for plant cultivation the cactuses and some of the succulents will give the greatest amount of satisfaction. Unlike most other window plants they do not greatly resent irregularities in watering. They have no tender foliage to get damaged, or to fall if conditions become unduly bad; and they require less attention in the matter of repotting into larger-sized receptacles than any other class of plants. Their slow rate of growth is a positive advantage for the window gardener, as a remarkably large assortment can be kept in the same quarters for a number of years without becoming unduly crowded.

With very few exceptions indeed 'cactuses are not grown for their flowers, but when these do appear they are every bit as gorgeous as many of the better known flowering plants, and often indeed, with their intensely glowing ruby and purple shades, they rival even the most showy of the orchids. The flowers are also very large in comparison with the plants, and it is no unusual thing to see a little plant three or four inches high in a pot a trifle smaller, carrying two or three flowers, each one of which is of almost the same size as the parent stock.

Cactuses offer untold opportunities for "house gardens." Unfortunates who are con-fined to city apartments, and whose only opportunity to keep growing plants is confined to the living rooms or shelves in the window, can easily accommodate two or three dozen cactuses where there would hardly be space for one good-sized Boston fern or a couple of starved geraniums. The little plants are never in the way, and can be shifted about easily as necessity demands; and though, of course, hard usage is most undesirable, they will survive the hundred and one accidents and strains upon their vitality that would be fatal to any other living thing. Though the cat may jump and knock them down with such persistent regularity that the plants are tumbled out of their pots every few weeks, they will still remain alive. I do not advocate such maltreatment and neglect; cactuses, like everything else, will give amazing returns for attention that is just a little bit better than the ordinary, and there is a great personal satisfaction in being the possessor of some-thing a little better than your friends.

The only way to get flawless specimens is to grow the plants yourself from seed, and the process is simplicity itself. (See page 166.) You can begin at any time of year, with the absolute confidence of producing plants of appreciable size in twelve months of such genera as Cereus and Opuntia. Plants that have been collected in the wild will never present the same even texture of surface and bright green colour, nor will they attain equal rapidity of growth or live so long as plants raised in cultivation, because their roots are damaged in the removal.

For the purpose of the window gardener cactuses may be grouped into these general classes: (1) Tall; (2) Dwarf; (3) Vine-like.

In the first class are the Indian figs and some species of the genus Cereus, but I would hardly recommend them for the window garden, because they soon get so tall that they are top heavy, and frequently tumble over.


Only two of the tall growing kinds need be included in the amateur's window collection. The Indian figs (Opuntia) have flat, round or club-shaped stems, but they are usually flat, and the joints either round or oblong in shape. The rather large flowers are borne singly on the upper edges of the young growths, and are showy, the usual colour being yellow, but they may also be found in various shades of red. One of the best of this type to grow is 0. microdasys, with flowers two inches across, and greenish yellow in colour.

A very interesting one, but more difficult to grow, is the dwarf prickly pear (0. crinifera also known as O.senilis). Instead of spines, it has long, silky white hairs, and must be grown under a bell glass, if the hairs are to be kept clean. It never attains a height of more than about three feet.

In MexicO the organ cactus (Cereus marginatus, also known as C. gemmatus) is used for hedges or fences. It is distinct in appearance from others of its genus. The stem is seldom over three inches in diameter, with five or six very obtuse ridges, each of which has a row of short, black spines, which grow in bunches of seven to nine. This can be successfully grown in the house too.


The commonest cactus in the window garden, because it gives such a wealth of bright flowers, is the crab cactus (Epiphyllum truncatum). In its native country it is an epiphyte, but it can be grown successfully on its own roots in soil. The best way, how-ever, is to have a plant grafted on Pereskia. The young stems are flat, resembling the claws of a crab, but they become round and woody with age. During the winter each tip produces a pair of brilliant flowers, ruby-red, or varying toward violet-red, according to the variety. In Europe there are many named varieties. It is useful in suspended pots, or baskets, the long stems hanging over the edges of the pots. It flowers in the winter. Grow in a soil made of equal parts of fibrous loam, leaf-mould, and sand, with some finely broken charcoal or broken brick, for drainage.

Another red flowered plant (but blooming in June) is Phyllocactus Ackermanni. Its big flowers (four to six inches in diameter are like those of the night-blooming cereus, (and it is grown in the same way) but they are scarlet-red outside and carmine-red inside. It has flat stems, and grows only about three feet high.


The most popular of the vine-like cactuses are several quite distinct plants, but all popularly known as "night-blooming cereus." Two genera are confused under this name — Cereus and Phyllocactus. They make long, straggly stems, which may be trained up along the window cases or over trellises. The stems of Cereus have three to six angles, while Phyllocactus stems are flat, the ends looking like long, fleshy oak leaves. All the cereus and the night-blooming phyllocactus have large white flowers. They expand just after sundown, and remain open until- the sun shines upon them the following morning, when they collapse.

These plants need a richer soil than the ordinary run of cactus. Give them a fibrous compost, and mix some broken charcoal with it, to insure good drainage.


Regarded purely as window garden plants the dwarf species — growing to about a foot, or less — are the most desirable. They possess a great variety of queer forms, and some are most viciously spiny.

One of the most peculiarly shaped is the "bishop's cap" (Echinocactus myriostigma, also known as Astrophytum myriostigma). The outline of this plant is that of a flattened globe, and at the most is only about five inches in diameter. It has five or six very prominent ribs, on the edges of which the pale yellow flowers are borne. The surface of the plant is more or less covered with a white scale-like growth (clusters of minute spines), which reminds one of scale insects. This plant seems particularly prone to rot at the surface of the soil, to avoid which it can be grafted on a cereus. Of the same general type is the sea-urchin cactus (Echinopsis). If it were not for the ridges these plants would look like gourds standing on their small ends. They some-times reach a diameter of twelve inches, but as grown in the window garden, rarely exceed half that size. The stem has anywhere from a dozen to eighteen sharp ridges. The flowers are about six inches long, trumpet-shaped, and either red, pink, or white. The two most commonly grown species are E. multiplex, with rose-red flowers, but blooming seldom, and E. Eyriesii, which has white flowers produced freely.

One of the most curious is the living rock cactus (Anhalonium Engelmanni, known in the trade as A. fissuratum), sometimes also called "dry whiskey," because a very strong, intoxicating drink is made by crushing the plant and adding a little water.

Among the very smallest are the mammillarias, seldom growing over six inches high. They get their name because they are covered with tubercles, instead of ridges. These are usually set in rows which twist spirally around the plants. On the end of each tubercle is a cluster of small spines. The flowers are small and tubular, yellow, red, carmine, or purple. In a month or two after the flowers have disappeared a little red fruit appears, and is far prettier than the flower. Mammillaria bicolor is a very handsome species, with white spines which lie flat on the stem. In M. plumosa and M. lasiacantha the spines are like fine white hairs. When grown under tumblers, to keep the dust from collecting and soiling the hairs, the plants look like bolls of cotton.

The "old man" cactus (Pilocereus senilis) is another one of those curious fuzzy cactuses needing protection from dust. The hairs are from two to five inches long. The flowers, which are seldom produced in cultivation, are four inches long, and red. In a pot this plant rarely exceeds a foot in height, although it becomes a veritable tree in its native haunts.


Some other desert plants which are not cactuses, but needing practically the same treatment, are usually associated with them naturally.

Probably the most talked-of among these " succulent plants" is the so-called century plant (Agave Americana), from the supposition that it blooms but once in a century. It seldom does bloom in cultivation, but that is because of insufficient pot room which cramps the roots and supplies a meagre amount of plant food. Under favourable conditions the century plant has been made to flower in something like twenty years. To accomplish this an abundance of plant food and water was supplied. Although this, as well as all the other agaves, come from the arid portions of south - western United States and Mexico where they have a strenuous struggle for existence, they will promptly respond to good treatment.

The century plant is very useful to the amateur. If he does not care for it in the living room it can be grown in a tub and set on or in the lawn during the summer and stored during the cool months of the year in a rather light but frost-proof cellar. Stored thus, it will require but little water during the winter.

Small plants can be grown all winter in the living room, and when warm weather comes they may be used for porch decoration.

The century plants are well adapted for this because of their symmetrical habit. A large century plant will have forty or fifty fleshy leaves, each about three or four feet long and three to four inches across, which gradually taper to a point that is tipped with a very sharp spine; the edges also have a few short spines. They form a large rosette which sits on the ground. The leaves are of a light glaucous green colour in the type, but there are several varieties known as picta, variegata, and recurvata. Some of the varieties have a more or less broad yellowy stripe down through the centre of the leaf, while in others the leaves are edged with yellow.

Should you be so fortunate as to have a plant flower, do not be surprised that it dies as soon as the seeds mature. It always does this, but the plant may be perpetuated by the numerous suckers which will be found about the base of the old plant.

The flowers are borne in clusters at the top of a tall stout stem and have a weird candelabra-like effect.

There are about one hundred and fifty different species of agave, varying in the size and shape of the leaves, but there is not enough difference between them to pay anyone but a botanist in growing a large collection of them. The only exception to this is the Queen Victoria century plant (Agave Victorioe-Reginoe). The leaves of this are short and thick — so thick that sometimes they appear to be three-sided — with three more or less well-defined edges, having white filaments. The ends of the leaves are blunt but tipped with a short black spine. So closely together and so regularly are the leaves set that they form a hemispherical mass. Where the room is limited this is the best one to grow.

Give century plants a sandy soil and pot them firmly. If they are planted outdoors during the summer, be sure they are in sufficiently large pots so that when taken up in the fall they will not need repotting.


Next to century plants I believe that the aloes are the most interesting. Although there are a large number of species, only a few are in general cultivation, the most common of which is the Barbadoes aloe (Aloe vera). Strange as it may seem it belongs to the same family as our beautiful Easter lily. The light green leaves are very thick and fleshy and taper gradually to a point which is not tipped with a spine. At a distance the edges look as if they were set with spines, but one is agreeably surprised to find that it is a suggestion only. In the late winter months a flower stem about one and a half or two feet long is produced which bears at its top a conical-shaped cluster of yellow flowers which reminds one of the flower cluster of the red-hot poker plant (Kniphofia), a close relative. The individual flowers are about one and one-quarter inches long, yellow, and crowded closely together. A single flower lasts only a day or two, but the lower ones open first while the buds of the upper ones are still forming so that one plant will be in flower for a fortnight, or so.

If you want a red-flowered aloe grow A. Succotrina.

These aloes have one bad habit: when they begin to get of any size they become top-heavy. To overcome this, stake them for several years. If the plant becomes too big for the window garden and yet you do not wish to dispose of it, use it outdoors during the summer and store it in the cellar over winter as suggested for century plants. Under this treatment, however, flowers are the exception.

The aloes prefer a richer soil than most of the succulents. I have seen them thriving when grown in nothing but garden loam, but I prefer to give them a soil made up of about three parts sandy loam, and one part of old plaster and broken bricks. A little well-decayed manure may also be added with much benefit to the plants.


The best succulent for a hanging basket is "little pickles" (Othonna Capensis, but almost always called O. crassifolia by the florists). Its leaves are shaped like cucumber pickles, but are only an inch or less long. The flowers are yellow, one-half to three-quarters of an inch across and look like dandelion flowers. They only open in the sun but at almost any season of the year each shoot has a flower stalk on the end of it. Little pickles may be increased easily by planting pieces of the stem and does best when given a fairly rich soil, but be careful not to over water it.


If you want something interesting to show your friends, grow the so-called air plant (Bryophyllum calycinum). The plant itself has no decorative value, but it blooms about once a year. The flowers are reddish green with white spots, are about two inches long and are borne in clusters. The curious thing about this plant is that if a leaf is laid on a damp surface it will produce a new plant at each indentation. I have seen leaves pinned to a wall or window casing in the house pro-duce four or five new plants.


For something grotesque, grow one of the euphorbias, and it does not make much difference which one of the fleshy kinds it is; neriifolia and antiquorum are good ones. The stems are green, fleshy and three or four angled. Some kinds, like E. neriifolia, have a good crop of leaves; others have but few, in which case they look like bare poles, and some have no leaves at all and are very spiny, so much so that you look a second time to see whether they do not belong to the cereus tribe of cactuses.

The crown of thorns (Euphorbia splendens), is covered with short, stout, sharp spines. The young growth is always covered with leaves and the bright red bracts, surrounding the flowers, are in evidence most of the year. In order to keep the plant within bounds it must be trained on a form.


Another class of plants which will prove very interesting indeed, are the fig marigolds (Mesembryanthemum). The leaves of the various species assume very peculiar shapes and the colour varies from a light glaucous green to very dark green. Some of the species flower freely, e. g., tricolorum and Pomeridianum, two annuals.

M. cordifolium, var. variegatum, is a half-hardy, variegated form which is well worth growing as an edging for beds in summer or for rockeries.


The apicras, haworthias, and gasterias have curiously shaped leaves. Those of the latter are usually strap or tongue shaped, four to six inches long, dark green in colour, and covered more or less with small white spots. In all of the gasterias the leaves are produced in two ranks one above the other. In April and May, and sometimes later in the season, a long flower spike is produced on which are scattering red flowers, which are rather interesting but do not make much of a show unless one has a number of plants in flower at the same time, in which case mass them.

The apicras and haworthias have short leaves, One and a half inches long, roundish, tapering to a point and are arranged in spiral form around a central axis which sometimes is three or four inohes tall.


Another interesting plant which I like to grow is Cotyledon gibbiflora, var. metallica, but known by the florists as Echeveria metallica. It has some curiously shaped flowers which are interesting but not showy. Its interest lies in its beautiful glaucous, purple, obovate-spatulate leaves which are sometimes six inches wide and seven inches long; also it forms a big rosette. About one plant is enough in a collection. If you wish more, break off a leaf at the joint and put it in sand; in a few weeks a bud will develop at the base. I have, however, seen leaves that failed to make a bud. They continued for three or four years to exist simply as rooted leaves.

A good many cotyledons are used during the summer for carpet bedding, but perhaps the commonest is C. secunda, var. glauca. This plant is about three inches in diameter and one or two inches high; the flower stalks are always kept pinched out, for the flowers are uninteresting.


There are a great many sedums and they are very interesting plants too. The showy sedum (S. spectabile) and the live-for-ever (S. Telephium), are two that are hardy and can be successfully grown outdoors as well as in the house. The commonest sedum, however, is the stonecrop (S. acre). This is an evergreen and may be used as a hanging plant for the stems will hang down over the sides of the pot, or it may be used in filling window boxes. I have seen it used thus and stay outdoors permanently. The leaves are very small (one-quarter of an inch long), but they are crowded closely together on the stems. The foliage is a delightfully bright green and in the variety aureum the shoots are bright golden yellow in the spring; in the variety elegans the tips and young leaves are a pale silvery colour. The sedums are easily propagated by seeds or by the offsets which are freely produced.

The house leeks (Sempervivum) are very similar to the sedums. The commonest ones are the common house leek (S. tectorum), and hen-and-chickens (S. globiferum). Like the sedums these are best grown in boxes, but the plants must not be allowed to grow too thickly or they will not flower.

The most interesting one and, perhaps, the best for house culture, is the spider-web house leek (S. arachnoideum). The leaves, which are short and fat, are borne in rosettes and between the tips of the leaves there are fine, white threads, like a spider's web. The flowers are bright red and borne on stalks three to five inches high.

Like the sedums the house leeks are easily reproduced by the offsets or even by leaf cutting as suggested for the cotyledon.


To grow cactuses from seed sow the seeds in a well-drained seed soil, and handle them like any other seeds. After germination give less water than for other seedlings, or the young plants will burst, i. e., the skin will crack open, resulting in a scar that is permanent.

Making a cutting of cactus is the easiest thing in the world. Just cut or break off a piece of the plant, and you are done. Since the tissues are so watery, the cut surface must be callused before the cutting is planted. Lay it on a shelf in a sunny situation, where there is a good circulation of air, for a few days.

Such succulents as the aloes, haworthias, apicras and gasterias, may be grown from suckers as well as seeds and cuttings.

Late May and June is best for starting the cuttings, because the wounds will then heal quickly and well. Similarly, collected plants should be received in the early summer, because they are so liable to suffer, some damage in transit, but will heal quickly in summer.

Collected plants are generally without roots, or they are so badly damaged that they must be removed. Make a clean cut with a sharp knife (always use a sharp knife in gardening), and if the base of the plant is hard and woody, remove that also, because roots will start only from the fresh growing parts. Cut back to the soft, watery tissue, and expose to the sun until the wound has callused. Any diseased or decayed portion of the plants must be cut out; if this does not stop the spread of the trouble, cut it out again, and then cauterize the wound with a hot iron.


It does not matter much what sort of soil is used so long as it is a well-drained one. That is essential. One successful grower uses equal parts of sandy loam, coal ashes and sand, and advises the improvement of a clayey soil by adding to it a little air-slacked lime. Another, equally successful, uses equal parts of fibrous loam and old lime rubbish (plaster, etc.) from which the fine dust has been screened, with the addition of some clean, sharp sand.

The succulent plants other than the cactuses can be grown in a much richer soil, but great care must be exercised not to overwater, causing the stems to rot. Seed-ling succulents may be grown in pots — one to a pot — or in flats with a large number in each one. It is handiest to have the plants in pots. Even the smallest need drainage. A good rule to follow is to fill one-quarter to one-third of the pot with coarse drainage, - such as coke, coal clinkers, or broken pots, over which put a little sphagnum moss, to keep the soil from sifting down among the drainage.

When potting up a cactus select a pot just a little larger than the body of the plant. Many people crowd the plant into as small a pot as possible, but I believe this is bad, because the plant needs some space in which to grow, and if the pot is small, it is impossible to water it properly. When potting, put the coarsest part of the soil next to the drainage, with the finer part above it, and around the plant, so inserting it that the bottom (be it rooted plant or cutting) is only a very little below the surface, of the soil. After potting, give a little water, to settle the soil, and no more, ordinarily, until the plant begins to grow. Lightly syringe on all bright days. If the potting is done in early summer, and the plants are plunged outdoors, the water which they receive from the syringing will be sufficient for all their needs until growth begins.


Too much watering, or too rich and heavy a soil, will cause rotting of the plant at the soil line — the commonest cause of loss in amateur collections. This can only be avoided by watching, and giving water only when the soil becomes dry. When you do water, give enough to thoroughly dampen all the soil in the pot.


A properly potted plant will not need shifting for some years, and will do all the better for not having the roots disturbed. If the soil becomes water-logged, or sour (perhaps growing moss), repot at once. Mealy bug sometimes attacks the roots. As soon as it is detected, shake the soil from the roots, and thoroughly wash them in clean water, repotting in a clean pot and new, clean soil.


The most likely insect pests are red spider, thrip, scales, and mealy bug. The two latter are easily brushed off with a small brush, but if the stems are frequently syringed with clear water, soap suds, tobacco water, or a solution of fir tree oil, none of these pests will give serious trouble. The red spider will never appear if watering is frequent enough. The fir tree oil pre-vents thrips.

Cactuses are not helped by rich feeding. The only exceptions to this rule are old plants of night-blooming cereus, and the crab cactus (Epiphyllum), which occasional waterings with weak manure water (about half the strength used for other plants) will benefit.


The ideal place for cactuses in winter is a rather damp greenhouse, but they will thrive in the window garden, so long as they never get frozen. Try to keep the night temperature about 50 degrees. The drying of the soils under ordinary house conditions makes watering in winter a necessity. Planted out in a greenhouse, their requirements are very much less. The window gardener must remember that although they are desert plants, they do not naturally grOw in small pots, exposed to drying draughts of desiccated hot air.

The growth of the plants will be improved if they are put OutdoOrs when all danger of frost is past in early spring. Some people knock them from the pots and set them in the ground, but it is better to plunge them—plant, pot and all — because they are more easily lifted and no damage is done to the roots. Place them in a well-drained border, fully exposed to the sun, and with a free circulation of air.

The opuntia is the most disagreeable of all the cactuses to handle because of the very small brown spines which grow in bunches all over the stem and fruits. These spines are barbed, something like a fish hook, so that when once they are in the flesh it is exceedingly difficult to remove them.

Because of these troublesome spines in the ordinary forms the so-called "spineless" cactus was hailed with great joy, the claim being that it would be a good stock food. There is nothing really new about it, how-ever, as spineless cactuses of various genera are well known to botanists and collectors.

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