Herbaria (January 16, 2013): The All Hardy Cacti Edition

As previously mentioned, I decided to stop posting weekly from my ongoing Herbaria project. However, I am still assembling the boxes and taking the photos each week and hope to make this into something bigger once the full year is up in May. Until then they will make an appearance now and again rather than weekly.

When I took this photo we had just experienced a big thaw and I thought it would be interesting to assemble the opuntias to see how they have been fairing up underneath snow. For eight of the nine plants this is their first winter in the ground, outdoors. I checked up on them today (another big thaw) and they are holding up nicely.

I am yet to write extensively about my experiments with hardy cactus in Toronto, Canada, but I promise there is more to come. What you see here represent the sum total that I have growing outdoors to date, but I hope to add many more this spring. The desire to fill up all available space with these ferocious beauties is strong — the trick is in finding them.

If you’d like to learn more about growing hardy cacti, I highly suggest “Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates” by Leo J. Chance. It’s a fantastic book full of useful information. I’ve gone back to explore its pages and drool over the photos many times since I purchased it.

From Left to Right:

Top Row: 1. Opuntia fragilis aka Brittle Prickly Pear The woman who sold this plant to me described it as a menace and I bought it anyways. The spines get stuck in my shoes and clothing as I work the bed. The pads break off and travel with me. This has happened a few times. It’s quite a good strategy for spreading and survival, don’t you think? 2. Opuntia fragilis f. denuda aka Potato Cactus Also known as Opunti debrrczeyi, my friend Barry gifted me this tiny monster with very oval, pebble-like pads that break off and roll around in the bed. I expect to find bits of this one everywhere soon. 3. Opuntia ‘Red Gem’ Gorgeous, red flowers literally blanket the low-growing pads. Another variety that I can’t wait to see in bloom.

Middle Row: 4. Unknown Cylindropuntia (I suspect it is Cylindropuntia davisii) I’ve had this thin, upright cylindropuntia/opuntia for years. It lived for some time in a bonsai pot on the roof of my old building and I brought it indoors to overwinter in a cold location each winter and I did not want the terracotta pot to break. It was a happy day when I finally planted it in the ground in the Dry Bed here. Planting it felt a bit like setting a wild animal free after a long time in captivity. I may have got a little teary. What will it do now that it has the chance to spread its prickly limbs? 5. Cylindropuntia vindiflora aka Sante Fe cholla Apparently this ferocious beast of a thing has the potential to grow up to 4 feet tall. Although I suspect this is unlikely to happen in my northern garden, the possibility of it both terrifies and delights me equally. And if it turns out to have green flowers as the name suggests (vindiflora means green flowers), well, that will make up for the times (two so far) that I have had to wrench one of its painful spines from my knee. Why is it always my knees? 6. Cylindropuntia whipplei The plant is still small, but when it grows, so will my fear of it. Just look at those mega-long spines. My knees (and hands, arms, legs) are f-cked.

Bottom Row: 7. Opuntia polycantha Also known as starvation prickly pear, this species is very common in Colorado and another with a very low-to-the-ground growth habit. 8. Opuntia polycantha ‘Wavy Gravy’ This is a fascinated or crested cactus, meaning it grows in a misshapen manner. With this variety, even the flowers are fascinated with shades of yellow, peach, and green intermingled between the folds. I can’t wait to see what it does this year. 9. Opuntia humifusa My first ever hardy opuntia was a humifusa species that I grew in a pretty Mexican pot that I bought for a dollar in a thrift store. It lived for years like this, and like the Cylindropuntia (above), I had to overwinter it indoors to save the pot. I can no longer recall now what killed it. I purchased the current plant at an end-of-season clearance and planted it into the dry bed in m first season here. It is the only plant of the nine here to have been overwintered in the ground outdoors. It bloomed like crazy this summer and even made little fruits that I tasted. They were okay, but there was not much flesh. I would need to grow a very large patch to consider it an edible.

p.s. My friend Meighan asked if I rooted these cuttings after the photo shoot and indeed I did! Why let them go to waste when I can make new plants?


Herbaria F.A.Q

What is this?

An herbarium is a collection of plant specimens. Herbaria is the plural form. A collection of collections.

Every week, until I can no longer find anything living to fill up the boxes, I am photographing and posting a collection of flowers, leaves, stems, and other plant parts that are in my garden. This is an experiment in celebrating diversity and I hope it will allow me to focus more closely on the beauty that is inherent in the different parts of each plant. It also serves as a visual file of the seasons and a record of my garden, my gardening practice, and the plants that I choose to grow.

Why doesn’t this start at the beginning of the calendar year or garden season?

I would have preferred starting this project at either of those times, but alas, that is now how things worked out. The idea for this project came to me rather spontaneously one May morning as I sat pondering how I could best use a stack of nine wooden, pint-sized fruit boxes that I had recently purchased at the flea market. I have a thing for wooden boxes and I love to display little collections of cherished items within them. These nine little boxes begged to be kept together as a display — it didn’t take long before the idea came to mind: little boxes within a box, framed within weeks and months of boxes. Within the hour I had worked out the logistics of the project and was photographing my first box. That was May 16, 2012.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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10 thoughts on “Herbaria (January 16, 2013): The All Hardy Cacti Edition

  1. You read my mind. I just picked up Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates this week! I look forward to hearing about your experiments.

    Did you grow these from seed? I’ll be attempting to for the first time with some Escobaria vivipara I got from Gardens North recently.

  2. Sorry for leading you into temptation. :P What did you buy? I think the cactus seeds I bought sold out; honestly, I don’t think they carry cactus seed very often. Would you like some of mine?

    • No, it was good — I got some interesting stuff that I am looking forward to growing. Some salvias, nicotianas, alliums… I would definitely trade and I am sure I have something here that will interest you. Some mixed non-hardy cacti for example? Edibles galore…

  3. So cool! When I get a sunny garden again I MUST have a dry bed with hardy cacti. Also glad to hear that book is worth getting. Perhaps I’ll buy a copy for more ideas and for drooling over photos….

  4. We have a spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana) growing in our church’s community garden. It hasn’t set fruit, but that is probably because we keep trimming the new growth for cooking. I used to hate it when I was a kid. Now, it’s one of my favorite foods. ;)

  5. I have a small hardy cacti garden. It’s a raised bed made out of old cinder blocks I found on the curb. I filled it with a mix of potting mix, small pebbles, paver sand, and play sand. Topped it off with some pea gravel and lava rock, also added beach glass and sea shells for decoration. I planted sedums, ice plant, and hens and chickens in the holes in the cinder blocks. I planted several varieties of hardy prickly pear, cane cholla, and Oklahoma barrel cacti. Also planted some Agave harvardia, Agave Parryi, and Yucca Rostrata. I really like these plants because they don’t need to be watered very much.

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