Growing Desert Gems: Information On Desert Gems Cactus Care
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Gardeners who like fun, bright décor will want to trygrowing Desert Gems. What are Desert Gems cacti? These succulentshave been dressed up in flashy colors. While their colors are not true to theplant, the tones certainly add flair. They come in a host of jewel tones, whichdon’t fade. As an added bonus, care for Desert Gems cactus is minimal andperfectly suited for a novice gardener.
What are Desert Gems Cacti?
Most cacti are green with maybe a bit of blueor gray mixed in. Desert Gems cactus plants are natural plants that turn thecolor scheme on its head. While they have been artificially colored, they arestill natural cacti and grow just like any plant. They stay relatively smalland work nicely in a combined dishgarden or as stand-alone specimens that bring a pop of color to yourinterior.
Desert Gem cacti are native to parts of Mexico and in thecactus family Mammillaria.They have soft spines but still require a bit of respect when planting. Thebase part of the plant is its natural green and a special process has beenapplied to turn the top growth into brilliant colors.
Are Desert Gems cacti painted? According to the growers,they are not. They come in blue, yellow, pink, green, purple, and orange. Thecolors are vibrant and long lasting, although new growth on the plant willdevelop white and green skin.
Tips on Growing Desert Gems
These cactus plants are native to warm, arid regions. Theyrequire well-drainingsoil with plenty of grit. The plants don’t develop large root systems andare most comfortable in a small container.
Place plants in a bright location that gets sunshine atleast half the day; however, they can still perform beautifully in artificiallight such as in an office.
Water when the soil is dry to the touch, roughly every 10-14days. Lower the watering schedule in winter when they are not actively growing.Feed them once annually in late winter to early spring with a diluted houseplantfertilizer.
Desert Gems Cactus Care
Cactus do not need to be repotted very often, as they thrivein low nutrient soil and crowded conditions. Desert Gems do not need pruning,have low water needs, and are fairly self-sufficient.
If moved outdoors for spring, watch for mealybugsand other pests. These cacti are not cold hardy and need to come back indoorsbefore cold temperatures threaten. When the plant gets new growth, the spineswill be white. To preserve the color, cut off the spines.
These are easy-care plants whose main worry is overwatering.Keep them on the dry side and simply enjoy their bold colors.
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Cacti are Succulents
Did you know that cacti are succulent plants? All cacti are succulents. Succulents are not cacti.
Many people don’t realize this and it becomes even more confusing when online plant sellers use inaccurate keywords to attract buyers. I’ve seen, for example, an Echeveria labeled “Echeveria – Cactus – Succulent.” An Echeveria is NOT a cactus!
The expression “cacti and succulents” is used everywhere in society–but in reality they are all just succulents, although I use “cacti and succulents” because it is customary. Even the CSSA uses it–they are the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.
Know the Species Name
Enabling You to Take Better Care of Your Plants
Generally when people start out with cacti or succulents, they do not care to know the species name.
I know this because, years ago, I was one of these people–I didn’t want to be bothered with any of the boring stuff, like species names.
Over the years, as my collection grew and I acquired some rare varieties, it became important to know the names. There are many advantages of knowing the species names.
You can learn about their natural habitat and place them in an optimum environment for their health.
It will be easier seeking guidance if you know the species name.
You will know when your plant might bloom, its growth cycles, pests to look out for, and more.
Knowing the species enables you to take better care of your plants. It means the difference between their thriving and merely surviving.
For some reason, I happen to love databases and created a one (using FileMaker) that contains notes on my over 200 plants.
I have a record of the dates I planted seeds, made a cutting, or divided a plant. When I find obscure information on my rare plants, I record it in this database. There’s even a record for the dead plants because losing one is usually an important lesson.
Beginners growing more common cacti and succulents can usually get by without getting into the species names. But if you’re getting more serious, and really love your plants, you’ll definitely benefit from knowing and researching them–and even maintaining records about the species.
Love and Your Plants
Think of it this way, you have a relationship with your plants because you are the caregiver. If you were in a relationship with a human, you’d learn their name, pay attention to their characteristics, their signals, their needs. Doing this is loving. So please love ’em.
Why the Species Name is Important
When I first acquired these fuzzy rare gems called Conophytum stephanii a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about them–just that I needed to have them–they had my name!
These are rare plants and finding particular information a particular rare species is not that easy. I hadn’t yet located a copy of the best rare book on these rare plants, which told me that they prefer a shady spot, unusual for a Conophytum.
So that explained why they did not grow bigger and were pale with a brownish tinge. After growing them in the shade for a year, they’re now a happy, pretty green. Without the species name, I could have lost the plant.
What is in a Species Name?
Genus and Species. The names of plants like Mammillaria longiana, Astrophytum asterias, Haworthia pumila, and Euphorbia obesa, are stating the genus followed by the species.
The genera (plural for genus) are Mammillaria, Astrophytum, Haworthia and Euphorbia and are properly capitalized. The second part is the species name and is properly written in lower case.
For example, Mammillaria longiana (shown in the photo on the right), “Mammillaria” is the genus and “longiana” is the species. Mammillaria is a member of the Cactaceae family–it is a cactus and one of the ones listed on my desert plant list.
Don’t Do These Things! Learning is process and sometimes when you accidentally kill a plant, you learn. Every cacti and succulent expert has killed some, at least in the beginning.
So I am going to tell you what will kill them so you know what not to do, and if you ever do any of these things I hope you learn from them. I wish someone would have given me this list when I was younger and just beginning to grow succulents.
1. Water them every day and keep the soil moist–over-watering causes rot and they will die. This is the most common mistake beginners make–don’t do it.
2. Water them when the temperature is cold (50 degrees or less). Even if they are a little wrinkled, and it’s very cold, you’d best wait until it’s warmer.
What if it’s not getting warmer for months? Well, in that case I’d water only the soil, only about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon for a 2.5″ pot (adjust for larger pots). If you get any water on the leaves or stem, use a tissue to dry it. I lost a Euphorbia in winter, that got some of the overspray on its leaves when I was misting the Lithops (Yes, it’s a plant that likes water in winter). I wasn’t paying attention–don’t do it.
3. In summer, many of these plants do not absorb water during the day, but at night when it’s a bit cooler. Watering in the evening during the hotter months is a good strategy. Also, when watering in the heat of the day, it can be something like the equivalent of boiling water on their roots–don’t do it.
4. Leave them outside in freezing weather, don’t do it.
Secret Recipe for Growing Cactus Indoors
Good air circulation, just enough water, good light, the right temperature, well-draining soil and love is what’s needed.
Place them in an airy location. Pests tend to attack plants that are stressed by less than optimal conditions.
For example, in my mother’s courtyard where the air is stagnant, her beautiful old Jade plants (Crassula ovata) are pestered by scale insects over and over again.
Proper watering, covered in the next section, is quite long because of its importance and there is no simple rule.
Light – Most cacti and succulents enjoy bright light, with or without a few hours of direct sunlight each day. Notice where it was growing in the plant nursery and try to replicate those conditions.
Healthy cacti and succulent plants not only look good, but are much less likely to attract pests and have other problems.
If you want to move your plant from a shady location into sun, do it gradually over several days. Just like you, they will get sun-burned if they haven’t been in the sun lately.
If you have a cactus that doesn’t bloom, consider giving it more light. The spectacular flowers really make enduring those stickers worthwhile.
Cacti and succulents can also be grown under fluorescent lights, as I do with many of my plants.
Move plants gradually from shade to sun to prevent sunburn and so they can acclimate.
Temperature – Many cacti and succulents cannot endure freezing temperatures. In my climate in New Mexico, I bring my cactus in for the winter.
If a freeze comes on suddenly when you’re out of town, the devastating result is what you see in the cactus photo in the previous section.
As a rule, I do not allow my plants to experience temperatures below 45 degrees. While they may survive a night of freezing temperatures, if they freeze on consecutive nights, they will die. It is best to avoid freezing all around.
Acidity / Alkalinity (pH) – The acidity or alkalinity of the soil is represented by pH. Most succulents and desert cacti grow well in slightly acidic soil, 6 on the pH scale. Limestone soil, like the soil in my yard, is very alkaline. Water that is high in mineral content, e.g., “hard water” will increase the alkalinity of the soil over time, while acid rain increases acidity. Epiphyllum, a tropical cactus, grows well in acid soil with high peat content.
If you’re just starting out, you need not worry too much about pH as long as you are growing more common plants and using the soil recipe here. For good details about soil pH, check out this website.
If you fertilize your cacti and succulents, apply at 1/3 the strength of the recommended amount, or use a fertilizer specifically for cacti and succulents (usually hard to find).
Fertilizer – I fertilize my plants very rarely, only during their active growing period, and usually only if I have not repotted them in the last year or so.
When the soil is refreshed during repotting, more nutrients are available to the roots. If you must fertilize, do so sparingly and at 1/3 the strength of what is recommended for regular house plants. Consider their natural habitat where they don’t get a lot of extra nutrients. There are many growers who like to fertilize them more than I do.
The secret recipe is not really a secret. Good air circulation, just enough water, good light, the right temperature, well-draining soil and love is what is needed.
How Much To Fertilize Succulents
Since you usually just buy general-purpose fertilizer for your succulents, you’ll have to adjust the dosage to meet the needs of your succulents and cacti. Since they need less fertilizer than other plants, you’ll have to dilute it significantly.
Since we fertilize every time we water, we use very small amounts of fertilizer – about 150 ppm (parts per million). That’s roughly 1 lb of fertilizer in every thousand gallons of water, which is really not a lot of fertilizer.
It’d be very difficult to scale this down for a home grower who might only use a gallon or two of water for all their plants. You’d need an eye dropper to get the proportion right!
That’s why we recommend just diluting your fertilizer to 1/3 or 1/4 the recommended dose when you apply it.
Be careful not to use a high concentration of fertilize or you run the risk of harming your plants. Fertilizer that isn’t sufficiently diluted is somewhat caustic and can cause fertilizer burn, which will damage or kill roots.
Fertilizer can also change the pH of water in high concentrations. The ideal pH for most succulents and cacti is around 6.5. When properly diluted, fertilizer shouldn’t significantly impact your soil or water pH.
Desert Cactus (numerous species)
Cacti are among some of our most popular – and fascinating – houseplants. Many first-time gardeners – especially children – start their gardening and growing experiences with cacti, despite their spines.
This is probably down to the fact that cacti are very forgiving, and can go for months if not years without watering and feeding and can suffer all manner of neglect and abuse. However, if cared for, watered and fed when growing, they are more likely to grow well, flower and produce a fabulous display of blooms.
There are numerous different species and types of desert cacti, including prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) and Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea).
There are also the so-called ‘forest cacti’, which don’t live in deserts but in jungle woodland attached to trees, such as Easter and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera).
If you’re keen on cacti and want more information on them, visit the British Cactus & Succulent Society website. There’s even a Mammillaria Society.
How to grow cacti
Indoors, desert cacti need a brightly lit position, preferably a south-facing or west-facing aspect or grown in a conservatory or heated greenhouse with good, all-round light. They ideally need 4-6 hours of direct sunshine in summer.
They are not cold or frost hardy, but can be moved outside to a warm, sunny patio in summer. Make sure you bring them back indoors before the weather turns cold in early autumn.
Cacti need a minimum spring and summer temperatures of 18°C (65°F), but prefer cooler temperatures in autumn and winter of 7-13°C (45-55°F) while they’re dormant. Keep them away from sources of direct heat, such as radiators.
There are literally thousands of species and varieties of desert cactus. Some of the most popular to grow at home include Brachycalycium, Chamaecereus, Echinocereus, Echinopsis, Epiphyllum, Ferocactus, Gymnocalycium, Mammillaria, Mammillopsis, Notocactus, Rebutia and Trichocereus.
Desert cacti must have a very well-drained compost, so either add extra grit to a John Innes Compost or, better still, use a compost specifically recommended for cacti and succulents.
Add a topdressing of gravel or pebbles on top of the compost to produce a natural, finished look and to help prevent the base of the plant sitting in wet compost, which could lead to rotting. This will also help weigh down the pot and help prevent tall plants falling over.
Suggested planting locations and garden types
Houseplant, indoor plant, summer patio plant.
How to care for cacti
Many people think you don’t have to water desert cacti. While they can survive extremely long periods of drought by storing water in their stems – which is how they survive dry, desert conditions – they grow and flower much better if given adequate supplies of water during their growing season.
Water plants regularly but moderately when plants are in growth (from March/April to September), but more sparingly when dormant – watering once or twice a month or even less frequently may be sufficient in autumn and winter. Allow the compost to dry out slightly before watering again.
Feed with a balanced liquid feed once a month during the growing season from late spring to late summer.
Cacti will flower better if kept in small pots, so only repot when absolutely necessary and into the next size pot in spring.