GV Gardeners: Cactus, engineered for desert landscape

Cactus put on a spectacular show when in flower, as shown by these Lady Finger Cactus in a raised cactus bed at The Arid Garden.

Some residents drive hundreds of miles to attend competitive shows and sales, climb steep mountain slopes to view the unique, or spend huge sums of money … all to pack their small suburban yard with cactus, the “icons of the desert.”

To get started, one of the first considerations is the standard of Cactus 101: All cactus are succulents, but all succulents are not cactus. Succulents are plants whose special anatomy allows survival during prolonged drought. Moisture is stored in their leaves, roots, and stems. They have mechanisms that help reduce water loss due to their unique structure or ability to become dormant during prolonged dry periods. The master plan of succulents is to collect, store, and retain as much water as possible while living in a dry, hostile environment.

Cactus are cactus only because they alone have cushion-like buds called areoles, from which spines, side shoots, and flowers may grow. Most cactus are what are called “stem succulents,” meaning they have no leaves from which water can evaporate. Large amounts of moisture are stored in their swollen stems, whether barrel, columnar, or global shaped.

Ribs, much like an accordion, allow expansion and contraction depending on the amount of water being stored. What may sometimes be considered a bizarre appearance actually reflects the unique processes by which cactus survive.

The appeal of cactus is often the unusual structural shape and dazzling flowers. Their form is sometimes disguised by indented ribs, multiple prickly spines, or even a thick woolly coat. Some plants develop a new silhouette as they grow, changing from columns to clumps, or from upright to prostrate runners. These unique cactus forms and textures provide year-around interest even when there is no bloom.

Cactus put on a spectacular show when in flower. Available are plants with flowers from pure white, subtle shades of green, hot pink, cherry red, vivid yellow, orange, or combinations of several colors. Blossoms may occur once or several times during the growing season, which is commonly May through October. Professional hybridizing has further created a succession of contrasting or complementing colors throughout the bloom periods.

How better to create a desert environment in your landscape than to begin collecting cactus. Even when these plants randomly appear in a photo, immediately the setting is identified as “the desert.” So since you’ve chosen to live here, why not use this important part of true western character in your landscape? However, be aware that cactus collecting can easily become addictive!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.