I just got back from a business trip to Tucson, Ariz. Talk about a difference in landscape, not to mention temperature. No snow, but cacti everywhere you look and so much sun that some plants have chlorophyll in their bark. Oh yeah, and snakes.
Let's forget the snakes and concentrate on cacti instead. Hugh saguaro cacti, standing like ancient giants and tiny, young Ferocactus latispinus that grow into large, barrel shaped beauties. I learned to appreciate cacti on this trip, especially their partnership with nitrogen fixing bacteria and their strange growing conditions.
Surprisingly, cacti are wonderful succulents for growing indoors. They really don't require much by way of care, are always interesting to look at even when they are not in flower and come in so many shapes, colors and forms that they are extremely collectable. In fact, I once had a collection of zoo cacti, with common names derived from animals, like bear claws, panda and zebra cacti and the like.
Obviously, watering is key to cacti care. Many assume these plants thrive in dessert conditions and so they don't need water. Ah, but all plants need water no matter where they grow. The neat thing about cacti is that since they are succulents, they will usually let you know when they absolutely need water; they will shrink a bit when they do. Spines pull together, folds tighten. Your job is to make sure you provide water before this continues for very long.
About the only thing you need to keep in mind when growing cacti is that they don't like to be over-watered. They rot very easily and many a would-be grower has floundered at that point. Forewarned, you will always water carefully and only when the plant is dried out, provide an extremely well draining soil and never let their pots sit in water. As a result your plants will be pretty darn happy.
It is sometimes very painfully obvious to those who have been around their natural habitat that cacti enjoy lots of sun. Lots and lots of light is the ticket, though it should imitate the hours of the desert rather than our way too long nights and short days and then long days and way too short nights.
Under artificial lights try and give them what they normally would have, just a bit less in the winter and a bit more in the summer.
Still, cacti are amazingly resilient and do very well in the Alaskan home, making them great houseplants. For one thing, they do just fine at as low as five percent humidity, perhaps better than you and I. In addition, they are used to cold, winter nights. They can endure the wide range of temperatures in our Alaskan homes.
Oddly, cacti are plentiful here in Alaska, perhaps the furthest one can get from places like Tucson. No, not outside, of course, but I think I can safely say that there are cacti for sale wherever there are plants for sale in the 49th state. From big box stores to nurseries, there are literally dozens and perhaps even hundreds of different varieties from which to choose, ranging from large two- and three-foot specimens to diminutive plants in one-inch pots.
As a result of the plethora of choices, it is possible to establish a nice collection for very little money. Nurseries tend to have the large ones, of course, and often they can order different ones for you. Supermarkets always have new cacti coming, so keep your eye out for them.
One last caveat is to ensure plants you buy are labeled. Knowing the name of a plant is absolutely a must if you are to research its specific needs and learn when it normally blooms and what length of day or night results in bloom -- all things you will want to know once you get a bit of confidence that your new friends really are easy to grow and might just be around for a while.
How long might you have one? Some cacti are passed from generation to generation. Just remember that they need water, but not too much, and you might be able to pass yours on.
Jeff Lowenfels is America's longest running gardening columnist. You can reach him at www.teamingwithmicrobes.com.
Jeff's garden tips
• CHRISTMAS CACTI: NOT REALLY CACTI, YOURS SHOULD HAVE BUDS BY NOW. IF NOT, PLACE IT IN A COOL ROOM WITH NATURAL LIGHTING AND BUDS WILL SET. THEREAFTER HOLD BACK ON WATER A BIT.
• POINSETTIAS: BUY, LOVE 'EM AND THEN TOSS THEM AFTER THE HOLIDAYS. TO KEEP THEM THRIVING NEVER LET THEM DRY OUT, BUT DON'T OVER-WATER EITHER. NO DRAFTS ALLOWED.
• LIGHTS FOR PLANTS: THESE MAKE GREAT HOLIDAY GIFTS FOR THE GARDENERS ON YOUR LIST.
• ALASKA BOTANICAL GARDEN WORKSHOP: 2 P.M. ON SATURDAY. ABG HORTICULTURALIST LACEY OTT WILL TALK ABOUT HERBS AS GIFTS.