The Cactus: A Brown Thumb’s Best Friend

October 3, 2008

For all us brown thumbs out there, there is hope for vindication: the cactus, a plant that actually doesn’t want anybody to take care of it.

This plant is for all those who prefer the low-maintenance, standoffish cat to the perpetually attention-deprived, fawning dog when choosing house pets. It’s the austere plant for which The Pixies and Joni Mitchell, among others, have named songs.

“Some people are afraid of cacti because of the needles,” says Ana Luisa Moreno of Ambientes Ecológicos (2282-6573), a landscaping company in the western San José suburb of Escazú. However, in the Chinese geomantic practice of feng shui, those cactus needles are used for protection and placed at doorways to keep out bad vibes.

While cacti are not native to Costa Rica, almost any of the several hundred cactus varieties can be grown here. They grow particularly well outdoors in drier regions such as  the northwestern Guanacaste province and the Central Valley. Even in the rainy Caribbean province of Limón, you could easily grow small cactus plants inside the house and out of the humidity, says Jilma Ramírez of Proverde (2282-5600), a nursery and garden project consulting outfit in Santa Ana, southwest of the capital.

And cacti will never force you to recall those childhood memories plagued with Saturday mornings you swore you were wasting by performing such tedious chores as pulling weeds or mowing the lawn – you can grow cactus in rock and sand garden beds.

While other succulent plants originate from all over the world, cacti are native only to the Western Hemisphere, notably the arid South American pampas regions and the Mexican and U.S. southwestern deserts, where they are often used as surrogate fences and decorated as Christmas trees.

Cactus varieties range from the stout Mexican mammillaria cactus with small, bright flowers to the widespread opuntia or prickly pear, with its classic broad pads. The fast-growing, columnar San Pedro cactus is a popular landscaping choice. Other varieties include everything from the sea urchinlike rebutia to the flowering epiphyllum, including the orchid cactus with flowers up to seven inches in diameter. The wiry ocotillo cactus is used as fence posts, particularly in Mexico, and could be a considerable improvement over the eyesore that is the concertina wire commonly strung across buildings and walls here.

The only thing cactus plants require is an ample amount of light, but it needn’t be direct sunlight. Many varieties have evolved – and then been bred further – to have minimal surface areas for maximum water retention.

Ramírez recommends keeping cacti and other succulents and xerophiles, such as agave and aloe plants, apart from tropical flowers in the garden, not only to maintain a more uncomplicated aesthetic, but also to keep a more regulated flow of groundwater.

Most local nurseries, or viveros, carry cacti. The smallest desk-accessory-sized potted cacti, usually only a few centimeters high, start at under ¢500 (about $1) and can range up to a few thousand. Medium-sized plants may go for about ¢5,000 ($9), while those over a meter in height start at about ¢15,000 ($27).

 

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