A garden without leaves can only be a cacti garden. Its striking landscape and distinct architectural form strays away from a conventional one (rich in palms, seasonal plants and creepers), giving the space a cutting-edge look.
There are more than 1,500 varieties to choose from and some cacti can live up to hundreds of years and produce countless offspring with their seeds, eliminating the need to buy new plants. “Cacti live for as long as you can take care of it,” says Fahim Siddiqui, founder of the Cactus and Succulent Society of Pakistan. His collection consists of more than 5,000 cacti and 800 succulents and the oldest cactus in his garden is almost 35 years old. “The thing about cacti that attracts me the most is its tactics to survive in the most difficult conditions… a trait rare to us.”
Pink blossoms of a Mammillaria.
The shape of a cactus is determined by its capacity to store water or minimise water loss. This makes it an ideal plant to grow in the country, where water shortage is a perennial problem. The slender, finely toothed Yucca variety grows slowly and can reach up to 3ft, while the Golden Barrel species, covered in rows of sharp spines, takes a spherical shape and produces yellow flowers. “A Mammillaria’s bloom fascinates me the most and there are more than 170 varieties that one can grow as a beginner,” says Khalid Suhail. His cacti collection of over 15 years features interesting red, yellow and white ones.
Buying a cactus
Start by buying potted cacti first which cost somewhere between Rs100 and Rs500, depending on the type. A wide variety of ornamental species are imported, primarily the eye-catching colourful, grafted cacti. Although they look vibrant, they do not last long as grafting means slicing your cactus in half which could go terribly wrong if not done properly. Also the colour is injected in the plant which overshadows its natural beauty.
The Queen Victoria Agave cactus.
Caring at home
Well-drained soil is ideal for a potted cactus. It can be 20% organic compost or animal manure and 50% sweet sand, with the remaining 30% covered in a layer of stone chips. Weekly watering patterns work best as the plant requires minimal water only when the soil dries out and during winter most species don’t require any watering at all. For this purpose, get pots that are barely one to two inches bigger in diameter as bigger pots allow the soil to store water longer. And the best time to re-pot or divide the plant is during spring.
Gardening enthusiasts like to collect unusual cacti.
Over-collection and habitat destruction has led to a threat of extinction. Preserve the endangered species by growing them in your own garden or donating to a botanical garden. Cacti take several years to grow large enough to be used for landscapes. If you come across one at a very low rate, it has probably been sourced from the wild unless the seller can prove otherwise.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 13th, 2014.