They are furry, fuzzy and friendly looking. However, they are not to be touched. Even so, sooner or later, if you have a hankering for drought-tolerant plants, you are bound to see them at the nursery and take one home. Just looking at any of them calms the nerves, not only because of their soft and whimsical appearance, but because they require the barest minimum of attention to grow.
Old Man Cactus Comes from Mexico
I am talking about three cactus species that you most likely have seen, here or there, but which you may not know much about unless you have a special fondness for growing them and their ilk. All of these cacti come from Mexico, will easily grow in the Valley, and placidly survive both droughty summers and freezing winters.
The first of this memorable triumvirate is old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). It is endowed with bearded plumage as a defense against desert heat. In 20 years, it may grow no more than 2 feet tall in its Mexican habitat, although it can grow much more quickly under cultivated conditions, and eventually reach more than 30 feet in height. When young, its silver fur grows out to 8 inches in length, but at maturity it becomes hairless. No matter how tall it gets, it never produces branches.
The old man cactus’ soft, if shaggy, beard conceals wicked spines, and thus caressing it carries considerable risk. In spring or early summer, propagate it by cutting off its top. Allow the cut-off portion to stand for a period of about two weeks, during which time it should develop a thickened layer of callus. It can now be planted in a container in fast-
draining soil mix where it will eventually develop roots and may be planted as a companion to the original.
Old Man Cactus Demands Better Drainage than Most Cactus species
Old man cactus demands better drainage than most cactus species, so add a measure of perlite to the standard cactus mix of three parts potting soil and one part sharp sand. An alternative cactus mix includes one part peat moss, one part sand and one part perlite. Of course, it is easiest to simply purchase a bag of customized cactus soil mix, available at most nurseries and home improvement centers.
Maximizing Old Man Cactus Beard Growth
To maximize beard growth, situate the old man in a bright, if not exceptionally hot, location.
Shampoo Old Man Beard with Dilute Shampoo Solution
You can even clean its hair, should it darken, with a very dilute shampoo solution.
Old Man Cactus May Take 20 Years to Flower
It does not flower for its first 10 to 20 years of life but, eventually, you should see flowers in yellow, red or white.
If you purchase your old man, or any cactus, for that matter, in the winter, just set it on your patio until spring. Cactus prefers to be planted in the ground when the weather warms. In cold soil, cactus becomes dormant and any excess water can kill it.
Thimble cactus (Mammillaria vetula ‘Gracilis’ or Mammillaria fragilis) grows no more than 6 inches tall and, as its species names suggest, it has both graceful and fragile characteristics. You do not grow one solitary thimble cactus but, rather, a whole party of them since they quickly multiply vegetatively into a gregarious clump.
Planted out in the garden, thimble cactus offsets are frequently broken off by pets but, not to worry, you can easily plant the detached pieces and start whole new clumps from them.
In the manner of most Mammillaria cactuses, which is probably the most popular cactus group, thimble cactus is characterized by tubercles, which are mini-tubers or warts on the surface from which yellow spines emanate. Looking at thimble cactus, you may think it is a cute little thing and long to rub its surface. Again, you do so at your peril because the white threads that you see do a nice job of concealing its piercing spines.
One of the most popular of all cacti is bunny ears or polka-dot cactus (Opuntia microdasys). It has what appear to be innocuous, fibrous white dots on its pads, which are, once again, deceptively inviting.
Each of these dots or areoles bear hundreds of tiny, wicked, barbed threads known as glochids (GLAH-kids). They sound like creatures out of some science fiction story and, truly, are unlike any other spines or thorns in the botanical world. Unlike typical cactus spines, which may stick you but stay on the plant, glochids, which are also found on the fruit of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica), detach from their pads and, lodged in the skin, may cause a nagging dermatitis that lasts for months.
Research has shown that, if you are stuck, the most successful procedure for glochid removal involves two steps. First, pull out as many of the glochids as possible with tweezers. Next, cover a piece of gauze with Elmer’s or Borden’s glue and lay it on top of your skin where the glochids are embedded. Let the glue dry and keep the gauze in place for 30 minutes before peeling it off.
To keep free from glochids when handling your bunny ears, be sure to wear a pair of thick gloves.
Tip of the week
No tree has more beautiful foliage and no tree is more resistant to pests than the chinaberry (Melia azederach). The chinaberry has fragrant lilac-colored flowers that appear in the spring. It is deciduous and its lush, fernlike foliage turns a vivid gold before dropping in late fall.
Flesh-colored berries adorn the otherwise naked tree during winter months. Its bark is a deep shade of brown, hinting at its close relationship to the mahogany tree. In the Valley, the chinaberry is probably the most modest-sized shade tree you will encounter and it is highly drought tolerant. It produces lots of suckers so you will have to work at keeping it a single-trunk tree. Despite having a fast growth rate, it does not exceed 40 feet in height, while its canopy expands to 25 feet. A relative of the neem tree, from which the neem insecticidal products are derived, its leaves and bark are powerful pest deterrents. In 30 years of Valley plant watching, I have never seen the chinaberry affected by pests of any kind.