Cacti have perhaps lost a little of the popularity they enjoyed 50 years ago. No longer do they top the best-seller lists, but they still are to be found in millions of homes and they still remain the least understood of all plants.
Cacti are often regarded as plants which actually thrive on neglect. Hardly any other indoor living thing can put up with such poor conditions and yet outlive its owner. And so there are millions cacti in homes throughout the country which are kept as semi-alive, green ornaments which, apart from some increase in size, hardly change their appearance over the years.
After all, as everybody knows, they are desert plants which thrive on a staple diet of sandy soil, drought and year-round heat, and if you are lucky they will bloom every seven years.
All of which is nonsense. Too much fine sand may actually kill them. Summer drought will put them to sleep. For proper development and regular flowering they need winter temperatures which will make you shiver and in summer many prefer fresh air outdoors to overheated stuffy rooms. Given proper treatment your dusty desert cactus will come alive and, depending on the variety, may flower as regularly as the daffodils in spring.
The cacti are a vast and varied family of plants which in nature range from tiny ground-hugging types to towering pillars seen in the deserts of the American South West. Although there is such a wide variety of sizes, shapes and flower types there are still a few features they have in common. All of them (except Pereskia and young Opuntia) are leafless. On the stems you will find a number of areoles (woolly or bristly cushions). In most cases you will find outgrowths from these areoles – there may be spines, needles, long hairs or short hooks.
The cactus family is divided into two groups:
1. Desert cacti – Natural home is the warm semi-desert regions of America. Despite the name of the group very few can exist in sand alone. Nearly all cacti belong to this group and there are hundreds to choose from. Most types are easily propagated from cuttings. Desert cacti need very little or no water between mid-fall and early spring. They require as much sunshine as possible, especially for flowering (suitable for south-facing windowsills).
2. Forest cacti – Natural home is the forest regions of tropical America, where they grow as epiphytes on trees. Only a few varieties are commercially available, and most of them can be recognized by their trailing habit and their flattened leaf-like stems. Forest cacti may need some water and feeding during winter months. They require some shade during hottest months of the year (suitable for north- and east-facing windowsills).