From the very small and intricate to the striking and architectural, these plants suit every situation, says Adrienne Wild
It’s easy to get hooked on cacti as their spiked, ridged, tall, squat and hairy forms are very collectable – especially with children as they are often sold at pocket-money prices in small pots containing a single curious-looking specimen.
These quirky plants make ideal room-mates as they are very undemanding and will withstand most maltreatment, except for heavy-handed watering and feeding.
In fact, they are pretty easy to grow indoors because they thrive on neglect! All you need to do is check on them and give them water about twice a month and that’s it.
Cacti are like succulents, having fleshy, juicy stems, but differ in that they always have prominent spines and barbs, or bristles, and some have woolly hair, which makes them much more interesting.
The desert types are especially collectable as they come in a vast range of interesting shapes and textures, which can be highlighted when arranged in a group display. Among the most popular types are the descriptively-named star cactus, golden barrel, bunny ears, rat-tail, pincushion, ball cactus and Turk’s cap.
Moon cactus are colourful crowd-pleasers. They are small, grafted plants, made up of a round-top cactus that is a mutation that lacks chlorophyll, so are naturally red, orange or yellow above a taller green base specimen.
All these cacti have the same requirements and are very happy to sit in a sunny window for most of the day. In summer you can put them on the patio, but remember that the more sun they get, the more water they’ll need.
Ideally, cacti should be watered with tepid rainwater whenever the compost dries out fully from your last watering. When this happens, water well again and don’t give any more until the compost has dried out once more.
Give less water if the plants are growing in a colder or shady position, and in winter give them a rest by cutting right back, giving just enough to keep the soil barely moist.
Just remember, cacti only need sufficient water to prevent them from shrivelling.
Humidity can be a killer unless ventilation is good. In hot, steamy bathrooms you should grow jungle cacti that are native to rainforests such as epiphyllums, or orchid cacti, and the Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera truncata. These jungle cacti tend to trail and have large flowers so can be grown in hanging baskets, saving counter space.
Desert cacti will also flower given the right conditions, and while individual flowers may only last for a day, the flowering period usually lasts for months.
Blooms may be pink, white, yellow or orange, and trumpet or bell-shaped. Some, including echinopsis, bloom at night and are scented, but unfortunately most types don’t have a fragrance.
Feed them in spring or summer with a tomato fertiliser, using only one-quarter of the amount recommended on the label, to encourage flowers.
Never feed in winter, as plants must have a rest. Most cacti don’t mind being a little pot-bound but if you need to repot after three to five years, wrap a folded piece of newspaper around the spiny plants to handle them without injury and use a gritty, well-draining compost.
If you do happen to get spines stuck in your fingers that won’t come out with tweezers, use heavy-duty duct tape, placing the sticky side to the spines to pull them out.
To keep plants in peak condition, you should also consider putting them outdoors in summer. Stand them in a sheltered spot and don’t just move them from lower light indoors to a south-facing patio. Also, don’t let them get soaked during rainy weather. Protect the plants from slugs and snails, otherwise they’ll gorge on their juicy stems.
Pests can be a problem, especially mealy bugs, which occur as white woolly patches on the leaves – these sap-sucking parasites can be removed using a cotton bud soaked in methylated spirit. Other pests to watch out for are red spider mites and scale insects, which tend to piggyback into your home from poorly plants bought from the garden centre.
Rots are the biggest bane for owners of cacti and occur when plants are overwatered and temperatures are low.
Lack of light will produce weak and misshapen specimens and corky patches of oedema is a condition brought on by high humidity and overwatering.
Be artistic and use cacti to make a bold statement in your living room. They suit a variety of interior design from modern to rustic and complement any colour scheme, so if you’re updating your decor to trendy metallic, or a neutral colour scheme, they’re perfect.
Tall specimens can be used as an impressive stand-alone piece, while if you can only afford to buy smaller plants, choose several plants in a range of interesting shapes and textures that can be highlighted in a tabletop, group display.
For best effects, choose a collection of plants that are all about the same size with similar care requirements.
A shallow dish container works best and putting a layer of fine grit over the compost will give an attractive, yet dry surface.
To reinforce the desert effect, consider placing some pebbles between the plants.
If you’re styling a narrow shelf or windowsill, look for petite plants of the same variety, each with the same type of pot, and line them up. White pots will create a look that is perfect for a modern interior.
Remember, when picking pots for cacti, they must have drainage holes as soggy soil will rot the roots.