Why I Can’t Resist Cactus Flowers

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

I can’t help it. I’m fascinated by cactus.

Cactus used to be a non-category of plants to me. But here’s the thing: I love looking at them.

I’ve started a small collection. I’m wary of course, I know they bite.

Cacti are a little like having an exotic pet. You admire it, but keep it caged. And you certainly don’t expect it to snuggle with you.

Oh, the flowers!

And the Fibonacci spirals! Many of these are mammillarias, from the Latin for nipple. (I know. Pretty racy.) Regardless of whether they have minimal spines or are so thickly spined they look furry, all mams have nipple-like bumps. From the tips of each (the aureole) emerge the spines.

These are a different kind of cactus. They have a name that’s bigger than they are: Echinocereus rigidissimus var. rubispinus. The common name is rainbow hedgehog cactus. It’s native to Mexico’s Sonoran desert.

This is golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). It combines really well with blue Echeveria imbricata, a hens-and-chicks succulent.

Cactus flowers turn into egg-like fruit, like these of Ferocactus wislizenii. They’re edible, but filled with seeds.Cacti are New World plants. The majority are native to the Southwest and Mexico, but a few are rainforest plants.

Yes, there’s such a thing as a tropical cactus. You’re familiar no doubt with Christmas and Easter cacti? Here’s an example of one of them, in the genus Schlumbergera.

I’ll leave you with this goofy one. No, it’s not a mammillaria. It’s Cleistocactus strausii. The common name is old man cactus, because it looks bearded. What do you think of the flowers?

Care: Cacti need superb drainage. Grow in potting soil that’s 70 percent pumice. These plants are water tanks, so their roots don’t know what to do with too much water. Let them go for weeks without watering, even in summer. Then water thoroughly. Withhold water during their winter dormancy. They need cold winter temperatures in order to bloom in spring, but not freezing temps—between 40 and 60 degrees is ideal. Give them as much sun as possible during the day, and if you overwinter them indoors, 40-watt fluorescent lights are fine. Cacti also need good air circulation; without it, mealy bugs and other pests may find and colonize them.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified.  www.debraleebaldwin.com 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored the Timber Press bestsellers Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified. Debra is a regular contributor to Sunset and other publications, and her own half-acre garden near San Diego has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens. Debra specializes in showing how to use architectural, waterwise and easy-care succulents in a wide variety of appealing and creative applications. www.debraleebaldwin.com.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Peter Johnsen June 20, 2012, 12:55 pm

Love these pictures, Don’t grow them, but I like the look.

I know. Don’t you wish there was a way to defang them? — Debra

Noreen June 20, 2012, 1:12 pm

Wow, wow, wow!!!! That Echinocereus rigidissimus var. rubispinus pic is a framer! I am finding an occasional cactus sneaking into my shopping cart with my succulents. The flowering “like no other” has drawn me in.

Hi, Noreen — Sometimes I like to play detective with Latin names. I this case, echino = “bristly like a hedgehog;” cereus = “waxy” (and has come to denote cylindrical, columnar cacti); rigidissimus I imagine means “most rigid” and is describing the spines, but that’s a guess; and rubispinus is pretty easy, too: ruby-red spines! — Debra

Harriet Watkins June 20, 2012, 2:16 pm

Cacti have some of the most beautiful flowers ever. Not to mention some of the best names, who can resist plants with names like Echinofossulocactus xiphicanthus? (Why they renamed that “Stenocactus crispatus” confounds me!) Despite the beautiful flowers, the plants themselves are fascinating and add so much to a garden – or windowsill!

Hi, Harriet — Aargh! Another renaming that is harder to remember, pronounce and spell. Honestly, sometimes I think whoever decrees these things doesn’t realize how off-putting such names are. Don’t they want more people to enjoy the plants? Of course, many do have common names, but most hobbiest-horticulturists distain them (too variable, and some are just plain silly). That said, I see where the nomenclature gods are coming from, but even so, when I look up “xiphicanthus” in “Gardener’s Latin” (a handy little reference guide) there’s no entry. So, is there a place named, maybe, Xiphicantha? Or (heaven help him) a person? I’d love to know. — Debra

Candy Suter June 20, 2012, 4:26 pm

Love your photos Debra. And I always can count on a giggle or two at the descriptions. At first I thought that the last one was the fruit that was showing. What unusual flowers! I have many of the large opuntia’s and cereus cactus lining my whole back fence. They have gotten so large that I have to trim them so my husband can mow. I hope one day I don’t come home to him having taken a machete to them! LOL And yes the flowers are so incredible! Did you see my latest video on my timeline with me and the bees? It was so crazy!

Hi, Candy — Bees like sweetstuff! ;+) Debra

Michael Romero June 20, 2012, 6:22 pm

Nice show of Cactus flowers. In the case of Cleistocactus strausii, while redoing a garden bed at The Huntington one day, two female visitors commented on the very mature cluster of Cleistocactus strausii in flower behind me. She said ‘Wow, those are erotic looking’, giggling as they walk off. Never have I thought so ‘creatively’ about the look of that flower, now every time I see that cactus in flower that woman’s comment pops into my head. :)

Andrea June 20, 2012, 11:47 pm

I also don’t like to grow them, but i always appreciate them whenever i see them. The manner of flowering of that first photo seem to be in that direction only, I am tempted to ask if you guided them or pinched those not in line, haha!

Town Mouse June 21, 2012, 10:52 pm

Wow, very cool photos. I’ve started volunteering at a cactus garden but I haven’t been for a while. Now I’m thinking maybe I’m missing the flowers.

Karen Chapman June 21, 2012, 11:05 pm

Incredible images and a wonderful close up look at the patterns, especially of the mammillarias.

Samantha Smith June 25, 2012, 8:23 am

Stunning pictures. I saw some “neon” cacti the other week which were absolutely amazing – I’ve never seen anything like them before. I wish I could have more cacti, but I have a little one in the “must touch EVERYTHING” stage, so not overly practical currently.

Mary Ellen Gambutti June 25, 2012, 11:08 am

Beautiful and informative…

sensiblegardening June 28, 2012, 10:32 pm

Cacti are amazing. I have wild ground cacti growing on my farm but for 15 years I never saw them bloom. This year we had a very rainy spring and bingo, they are blooming. It was quite thrilling to see.