Cacti and Succulents

A Succulent is a plant which stores water in it's tissues. A cactus is a particluar family of succulents. Therefore all cacti are succulent, but not all succulents are cacti.

Succulents store water so they have supplies for when times are tough. The shortage of water can be for a number of reasons, the obvious one being drought, but there are others. Some succulent plants grow in high mountain regions or other areas where water may be plentifall but innaccessible due to it being frozen. A plant may also have problems getting water due to the salty conditions of a salt marsh.

Succulents living in hot, dry conditions will also need adaptations to prevent water loss. Many types have a waxy or hairy coating on their leaves, but the ultimate adaptations are those made by the cacti. The body of a cactus plant is actually a distended stem, with the spines being formed from highly adapted leaves.

Many people believe the spines are there to stop them being eaten. In fact this is only partially true, and the spines also serving the purpose of shading and holding a small amount of moisture close to the plant. Some genuses live in areas with virtually no rainfall and the plants harvest sea mists through condensation which forms on the spines.

One myth which needs to be dispelled is that cacti only bloom rarely. Whilst the larger tree like species will only flower at maturity, most types if grown properly will flower reliably every year. Some such a mammilarias bear a ring of small flowers, others can have a flower up to six inches (15cm) across which open in the evening and are dead by morning. The flowers of cacti (and many other succulents) are usually very brightly coloured.

Growing Succulents

Most succulents are susceptible to rot if they get too wet. In spring, summer and autumn they will consume a surprising amount of water and should be watered whenever the compost starts to dry out - perhaps once every one to two weeks. During the colder months of the year they will naturally go dormant and can be left dry, perhaps with a light watering every couple of months if they are in the dry air of a centrally heated house. They will benefit from a general purpose house plant fertiliser being incorportaed into each watering except during winter.

Succulents and especially cacti will lap up all the sun you can give them. The ideal site for them is in a greenhouse or conservatory (preferably with doors and windows left open in summer to prevent them overheating) but they can also be successfully grown on a south facing windowsill. If grown on a windowsill they are best turned every few weeks to prevent lop-sided growth.

Tender varieties will need a winter minimum of 5°C (40°F). Other varieties can be grown outside in a sunny rock garden.

They need to be grown in very well drained soil. The best soil is usually a mix of 1/3rd grit to 2/3rd potting compost. Plants are best potted in spring, when still dry from their winter rest, and should be left for about two weeks before being watered in to prevent root rot. Spiny plants such as cacti can be best handled whilst repotting by wrapping them in one or more layers of newspaper.


You can obtain mixed cactus seed from many seed suppliers or visit a specialist to get select varieties. Seed should be sown in the same mix as described above, but with some of the larger particles removed, especially from the surface. Sow the seed as thinly as possible, water in by placing the pot or tray in a bowl of water and keep out of full sun in about 18-24°C (about 64-75°F).

Seed will germinate after a few weeks but most species will shortly stop putting on top growth whilst they develop a root system. It may take twelve months or more before they are ready for potting on, and during their first winter they should be kept lightly moist and not too cold.

Plants which form offsets can also be propagated by cuttings. Remove an offset with a sharp knife, leave it to dry for a few days before gently puching it into a pot of potting mixture. This should be done in the main growing season and cuttings should root within a few weeks.


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