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Cacti and Succulent House Plants

Kalanchoe blossfeldiana JaKMPM

The colorful Kalanchoe blossfeldiana blooms for a long period in winter. (photo by Jessie Keith)

If the ideal house plant existed, it would be a specimen that combined eye-catching good looks with the ability to survive on a diet of almost total neglect. That kind of perfection is unattainable, but succulent house plants come close.

Native to dry climates and situations, succulents have evolved over the millennia into efficient water-storage vessels, hoarding precious moisture in fleshy leaves and stems. The sheer number of available species and varieties is enormous and includes sedum, aloe, euphorbia, sempervivum, jade plant, hens and chicks, kalanchoe, many types of desert and jungle cacti, aeonium and living stones. Shapes, sizes, and colors vary widely, from the complex rosettes of “saucer” aeonium (Aeonium tabuliforme) to the statuesque beauty of a mature jade plant (Crassula ovata). Succulents practically beg to be shown off and grow equally well in standard containers, grouped in dish gardens or mounted as living wreaths.
Some of the most interesting and colorful types are described below.

echeveria

A suite of rosette-forming succulents for indoor growing. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Thorns and Rosettes

A relative of the common holiday poinsettia plant, crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii) is among the most popular of the many euphorbias. Evergreen, shrubby and succulent, it reaches about two feet tall as a houseplant. Crown of thorns is also true to its name, featuring intimidating thorn-covered stems. Rounded flower clusters with large, petal-like bracts in shades of red, yellow, orange, white or peach help compensate for the prickles.
If you prefer rosettes to thorns, try tree houseleek (Aeonium) or hens and chicks (Echeveria), both of which bear flower-like rosettes of fleshy leaves in colors ranging from silvery gray-green to reddish bronze. Some species, such as Mexican snowball (Echeveria elegans) are also noted for their showy, bi-colored flowers

A Cast of Many Cacti

Not all succulents are cacti, but all cacti are succulents. True cacti are members of the Cactaceae family and many of the best known are covered with the protective prickles for which the clan is famed. Handle household cacti with care and keep them away from children and pets. Prickles aside, cactus family members boast interesting shapes, colorful flowers, and undemanding natures, making them excellent houseplants. Traditional favorites include the shaggy “old man” cactus (Cephalocereus senilis), an erect, columnar plant covered with long white hairs. It has the potential to grow tall but does so very slowly.

succulents--3 old man

Succulent collections such as these need to be separated and repotted after a year or so, if each plant to grow successfully.

Little Bolivian cactus (Rebutia puchella) is part of the genus sometimes known collectively as “crown cacti”. Growing only about six inches tall, it bears batches of vivid orange blooms in summer and succeeded handsomely in a small container. Another low grower with bright carmine-pink flowers is rose pincushion cactus (Mammillaria zeilmanniana), which features a rounded form and summer blooming habit. Like Bolivian cactus, it is small. A four-year-old specimen is likely to be only four inches across.
Many mammillarias, with their appealing rounded shapes, succeed as houseplants. In addition to the rose pincushion type, popular species include snowball or powder puff pincushion cactus (Mammillaria bocasana) and silver cluster cactus (Mammillaria prolifera), featuring a plethora of small, silvery globes sporting bright red blooms.

Holiday Cacti

Though they are part of the cactus family, holiday cacti (Schlumbergera spp.) are rain forest natives. Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter cacti are closely related species, distinguished from each other by bloom time and leaf shape. Many commercially available varieties are hybrids. All holiday cacti all feature sprawling, succulent “leaves” that are actually flattened stems. The bright flowers produced at the stem tips run the gamut of the color spectrum, with the exception of green and blue. In the fall and winter, holiday cacti are sold in bud, ready to bloom for the celebration season. They can easily be kept and nurtured for years afterward.
Holiday cacti need somewhat less light and more frequent watering than their prickly cactus cousins. Position away from direct sunlight and promote flowering by placing pots on trays filled with pebbles and water.

Holiday Cactus

Holiday cacti (Schlumbergera spp.) are some of the must colorful succulents for the holidays.

Kalanchoe

Another succulent that lends color to the winter houseplant array is kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana). The upright plants are distinguished by fleshy, scalloped leaves that set off the clusters of small, bright flowers held above them. The flower color range is roughly the same as for holiday cacti and double-flowered kalanchoe varieties are widely available. Related to the jade plant, kalanchoe is a medium-sized specimen, growing up to eighteen inches tall. Under normal home conditions, the blooms last up to six weeks.

Succulent Care

Good succulent care begins with high-quality, free-draining potting medium, like Fafard® Cactus & Succulent Potting Mix. With the exception of holiday cacti, most succulents thrive on at least four hours of sunlight per day and relish the low humidity of the average home in winter. Indoors, position the plants in your sunniest window. The quickest way to kill succulents is by overwatering, so let the potting mix dry out thoroughly between waterings. Feed only during the active growth period—spring and summer—and use either a specialty fertilizer according to package directions or general-purpose fertilizer diluted to one-quarter strength.

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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