“Cactus” – the word drums up all sorts of images. The romantic will envision scenes of towering saguaros in the Texan landscape, barrel cacti in terra cotta pots lining the stairs of Moroccan villas, and flowering cacti tucked into the windowsill planters of university professors in the Ivy leagues. The satirical will envision crusty old in-laws in loveless marriages, uncomfortable seats for political leaders, and Road Runner cartoons where the coyote just can’t get ahead. For the indoor plant enthusiast, the word “cactus” and it’s over-arching name “succulent” evoke yet other images of low maintenance, long-lived, functional, and beautiful houseplants.
Belonging to a loosely associated group of 60 plant families, cactus plants and most succulents are easily recognized by their fleshy, water retaining stems, and, where applicable, sharp spines. Native to arid locations around the world (and finally our side of the globe plays a role in the origins of a common houseplant…almost all cactus plants are native to the Americas), these plants feature interesting foliage and flowers, are slow growers, are not prone to pests or disease, and enjoy dry air, gritty soil, and infrequent watering.
Here are some of my top picks for house succulents that offer maximum results with minimal effort:
Echeveria – Otherwise known as Hens and Chicks, this is a very easy to grow houseplant and suitable for beginner gardeners. Basal rosettes of thick leaves are blue-green. Interesting shapes are wonderful in dish gardens.
Aloe Vera – Well known for the traditional use of its sap for soothing minor scrapes, burns, and abrasions, the aloe vera plant is quite beautiful too. Featuring plump, upright leaves, this plant is usually stemless. Plant as the centrepiece of a succulent dish garden or alone in a fancy pot.
Barrel Cactus – A member of the desert cactus group, barrel cactus features sharp spines on a low-growing, barrel-shaped plant. The flowers on this plant are remarkable and intricate, with colors ranging from creamy white to vivid magenta.
Christmas Cactus – Native to tropical jungles, Christmas Cactus is a type of forest (i.e. rain forest) cactus. As opposed to its desert counterparts, this plant actually grows on trees (i.e. is epiphytic) and sometimes in rock crevices (i.e. is lithophytic), flowers in cool, low-light conditions (the waning daylight in the fall actually triggers this plant to flower), and could care less about growing big, hostile spines (not too many ungulates have a passion for climbing trees!) Where most desert cactus rely on insects and wind for pollination, and as a result develop blooms that are finely detailed with condensed features, Christmas cactus has evolved to attract hummingbirds as pollinators and as a result develop blooms that are tubular and elongated.
Prickly Pear Cactus – Not for the faint of heart, this desert cactus is a beautiful plant that will tolerate unbelievable levels of neglect, as it will survive months at a time with no water. Growing natively in large, ground-covering clusters, these desert cacti make it very clear to anyone coming too close that they mean business: their barbed spines are quite sharp and hard to remove once you’ve been stuck. As a houseplant, prickly pears are perfect plants for those areas in your home that are bright and dry, such as that hot spot in your bay window, on a deserted table near the heat register, or up in those hard-to-reach, dry ledges.