I happened to see the glass enclosed Cactus garden at Bangalore, developed and maintained by the University of Agriculture at Hebbal and was totally impressed by some of those magnificent specimen.Among the 200 odd specimens they had , some  grew upto twenty or thirty feet in height and some melon varieties which looked so cute until  you went close and happen to touch it ! The mind boggling variety and the colors and shapes were really something. They also have many of their own species developed through cross mutation , some of which are really beautiful and unusual looking. 

Nowadays, Cacti are increasingly becoming very popular with gardeners across the world and are being used by landscape designers because of their dramatic forms, shapes and colors. One of the greatest advantage of cultivating cactus plants is that they can be taken out of their pots , wrapped in paper , cloth or plastic, and carried to any place and replanted even after a month or 2 months. They don’t wither away like most other plants since they have their own reservoir of water within and instead come alive the moment you replant them in sand or potting soil. Cactus plants are relatively easy to maintain too if a few precautions are taken.

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Some historical facts about Cactii

Cactus plants are tough, adaptable and different specimens are found everywhere except probably in the poles. With an estimated 1600 + species varying greatly in size , shape and appearance, one has an abundance of choice while choosing to grow or own a cactus plant.

Cacti has been part of human history for more than 900 years and have come a long way from their original habitat stretching along the Western range of North and South America. Cacti and Succulents belonging to the same plant family are hardy plants that has a highly specialised system which enables them to endure prolonged drought conditions and survive even when the water resources go to almost nil.

Cacti are easily recognisable by their thick mostly thorny stems and in most species leaves are either absent or reduced , thereby minimising the surface area susceptible to water loss. The root system of this species is generally fibrous and shallow which helps them to absorb moisture efficiently from the soil. The thorns found the stem are modified leaves providing them with a defense mechanism against predators also condensing moisture, which drips on to the soil above the roots of the plant.

All Cacti are Succulents but, all Succulents are not Cacti. Cacti are distinguished from other succulents by their aeroles or buds on their bodies, which is a common feature among all species. Although Cacti are termed as hardy plants , they do require looking after. The soil should be right - porous enabling the water to flow through immediately after the plant has been watered. A combination of soil and sand is best suited for growing Cactus.

The lifespan of a cactus plant can vary from 25 years to 300 years. But most of the species live for a number of years without much care. They also multiply easily and spread out covering a large space of area within a matter of few years.

Requirements

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If you wish to grow cactus and keep them as houseplants, then you do not have to invest much time and effort for its care. It has to be planted in a mixture of soil and sand and not just in sand as some people do, since to grow well it needs nutrition found in the soil. It should be kept in a location where it gets enough sunlight and exposure. It should be watered regularly during the growing stages, but over watering should be strictly avoided. The best and safe way of watering is to water when the surface soil completely dries out.

Since they need very little water, while most plants die due to lack of water, the Cactus plant can die due to excess water. On an average they require water twice a week during Summer months, may be more if the heat is very intense and they are getting direct sunlight, and once a week or even once a fortnight during winter and probably once a month during rainy season. During monsoon there is actually no need to water them since they are able to absorb water that is there in the atmosphere.

They need to be protected from direct rainfall but need light and sunshine. One hardly ever comes across Cacti plants being attacked by pests for obvious reasons. However, the most dreaded disease that can attack and destroy cactus plant is the one which attacks the roots of the plant causing them to decay and the plant to die. We can see brown spots forming on the surface and spreading and slowly the inside dries out leaving a shallow stem.

It is easy to grow cactus at home - a few basic points to keep in mind

1, Most cacti and succulent plants have shallow roots and they respond well to being grown in containers. That’s why they have become very popular as house plants . One can grow them in any kind of container as long as they get firmly placed and show signs of growth.

2,Containers that enhance the shape and form of the plants – wide and shallow are best suited for displaying low-growing and creeping species of cacti. Those with stronger and larger form, such as Agave attenuata require more nourishment and water to grow to their full size.

3, Light is very essnetial although direct sunlight is not required nor advisable while growing most varieties of cactus.However some hardy varieties require more sunlight and should be kept in the sun all the time.

4, Cactus plants do need manure when grown in pots. Organic manure should be added once a year and if possible changing the top soil while doing that takes care of most of the plants needs. The flowering variety of Cacti need more nutrition and need compost or plant food at least twice a year. Many nurseries these days have plant food specially made for cactus that gives excellent results.

5, Cacti flowers are remarkable when they begin to evolve and look very attractive as they go through the different stages of blooming. The blooms are brightly colored in red, yellow, pink and orange , eye catching and beautiful. Most such varieties need a certain amount of direct sunlight

6, It is very easy to graft and make new plants with cuttings. You need to cut of a portion of the stem where it is branching out of the main stem and immerse the bottom portion of it in a mixture of sand and soil. Water lightly and let it take its time to grow roots and begin branching out, normally in a month or 6 weeks time.

7, Some of the most common variety of cacti that we often get to see at nurseries and houses are Cereus Peruvinus, Monstrosa cactus so named because of its monstrous unnatural form that twists and turns into unbelievable shapes and size. Melocactus Cephalium with a crown from which flowers appear is also a common and popular variety that can be seen often.

8, Some Cactus plants which flower profusely are very easy to grow as well – The ones that are ideal for someone who has just started growing cacti is a variety called Astrophytum that flowers freely and is a very hardy variety .

9, Cactus plants need to be repotted at least once in two years and this should be done with a lot of care .Water the plant well to loosen the soil and gently pull out the plant after covering it with a gunny bag or some thick clothing material. Once the entire plant comes out you can plant it in a larger container or if the plant is already large if convenient plant it in a prepared bed in your garden.

10, Cactus can easily be grown indoors in small containers and kept at strategic places since they look ornmental. Most varieties do well indoors and require very little care other than watering every now and then when the top soil dries out completely.

11, Some of the wild varieties of desert cacti have the most attractive flowers although they dont last long. Most of them bloom once in two or three years and cannot be grown as house plants.

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Some relevant and interesting facts about Cactus

1, Cactus plants are no doubt very impressive looking and one of the most important feature of cactus is that this plant serves as a natural water reservoir. Although the liquid stored in it is not clear like water, but looks like a thick viscous substance, it is apparently absolutely safe for human consumption. It can be obtained for drinking by scratching or making a hole in the columnar cactus and the liquid collected into a container held below the cut as it drips down. This fluid has saved several lives in the desert regions when people got lost and could not find food or water.

2, Some of the tallest varieties of cacti are found in Mexico and Arizona in the USA. A variety called Pachycereus pringlei is the tallest cactus plant which reaches to a height of about 20 m (approximately 65 feet) and Blossfeldia liliputana, also found in the same region and in other desert areas is the shortest with a height of just a few centimeters and can be grown in a small plastic cup.

3, Some of the barrel varieties have very wide bases measuring to almost 5 feet or even more. Some beautiful specimen are found in the Botanical gardens of Ooty.The weather seems to favor their growth since some of them have grown to unbelievable gigantic heights.

4, India is home to more than 350 varieties of cactus both wild and cultured home grwon varities. The Cactus and Succulent Society of India founded in 1984 has more than 500 members who exchange views with other members across the world and are actively involved in conserving cactus.

5, It is interesting to know that one of the succulent that was found in the year , a specimen called Fockea Capensis, collected in 1798 is still alive in Austria. Some of the cactus varieties live for more than 200 years with very little care.

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6, The oldest cactus, called the Peyote cactus dates back to 20,000 years , was also part of religious ceremonies of Indians in Central America. In Mexico it is used as a medicine against infections and practically every other complaint - such is their belief and faith in its healing powers.

Conclusions

Although there is still no definite record as to when cactus was introduced in parks and gardens. However, these days no garden is complete without at least a few specimens of cactus grown in a corner complementing the other more delicate and ornamental looking plants. Many home owners, especially those living in apartments prefer to grow cactus on a windowsill since it is convenient, taking up hardly any space and looks after itself when you go away for a long vacation. 

With more than 600 varieties found all over the world, Cactus is one of the most widely spread species that is known to all plant lovers ... 


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