Enjoy Desert Glamour On Your Windowsill

You don’t need a horticulture degree to enjoy cactus and succulents and the beauty of these flowering plants. The language of botany means nothing to many an ardent gardener.

The data such as the scientific name, origin, and native habitat of their favorite flower may hold little interest for someone who nevertheless grows that species well.

Cactus growing on a windowsill in attractive white ceramic pots

Still, to learn something of a plant’s background is, as far as practical purposes go, to understand its culture better. 

Beyond that, delving into botanical history often uncovers a romantic tale of adaptations to hardships and survival against odds. During the long period that green growing things have existed upon this earth, physical conditions have slowly changed. 

Living organisms have had to adjust themselves to the changes or – as fossil records indicate – they have become extinct.

Among the most remarkable survivors of change are the cacti. Remote ancestors of present-day cacti were a far cry from the present-day representatives. 

For the gardener who grows them on a windowsill, it’s fascinating and helpful to know something of the cacti’s past.

Cactus plant collection growing on a windowsill

The old-timers – had erect stems and many branches bearing broad-bladed leaves. 

But in a region growing progressively more arid, they were forced to modify their structure if any of them were to survive.

In the economy of cacti, branch and twig have been reduced to spines. The leaves have diminished to all but invisible scales or are lacking entirely, and the function of the leaves has been taken over by the gray-green skin. 

Continued reduction of the stems and the enlargement of the pith for succulence usually resulted in strange shapes: 

  • Very spiny columns
  • Globes
  • Plants with ovoid parts
  • Plant with thick flat joints

Cacti lived through rainless periods by holding their life processes in arrested states. 

Thus they have established an equilibrium between their necessities and the water supply. Now they find desert life acceptable and thrive there in great numbers.

Also of interest is the Acanthocereus Tetragonus (Fairy Castle Cactus) formerly known as Cereus tetragonus.

Cactus Collections

Collecting and growing cacti for their strange forms and exquisite flowers has been a fascinating hobby in Europe for more than 150 years. 

In the last 70 years or so the American public became interested in its bizarre native flora and began collecting plants for window gardens.

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata] and the so-called “night-blooming cereus” – which is not a “cereus” but an epiphyllum cactus from tropical America. 

Orchid cactus flower (Epiphyllum)

The two species found in many homes, where they are grown as house plants, often without the knowledge that they are cacti and relatives of the spiny desert species.

Growing cactus requires very little attention and effort to grow a beautiful succulent plant indoors. However, many new to succulent plant care provide “too much care” and overwatering resulting in killing their succulents. 

Overwatering operates on the theory that a little water is good and makes plants grow AND a little more will make them grow better.

This theory does not work on cactus and succulents.

After centuries of adapting themselves to living in a land of little rain, they now prefer – in fact, must have – waterless periods to use up the moisture stored in their tissues. 

Otherwise, death results. In the desert, you will find cactus flowers more abundant after two or even three years of drought when little or no rain falls, than after a prolonged rainy season when precipitation amounts to several inches.

Necessary Cactus Succulent Growing Equipment

Instead of a green thumb, a pair of twelve-inch tongs and a sunny window for your plants are all that is required to grow these interesting plants. 

A small syringe is handy for watering the potted plants and prevents the soil from being washed away from the roots.

One of the most frequently ignored rules in planting cacti is that roots should be trimmed back short, leaving only three or four stubs to hold the plant in position. 

After cutting the roots back, allow them to heal over for a couple of days before planting. 

Experience will prove that a plant will re-establish itself sooner by growing a new set of healthy roots. Unrooted cacti and cuttings will grow roots when placed in a bed of pure sand, and they may then be transplanted to pots in about four weeks.

Soil Mixture

A porous soil is an absolute necessity – one that drains off surplus water quickly, yet does not dry out too rapidly. 

One of the most successful soil mixtures for growing indoor potted cactus is obtained by mixing:

  • 1 part peat moss
  • 1 part coarse sand or fine gravel. 
  • 1/10 th part charcoal to sweeten the soil
  • 1/10 th part hydrated lime (depending on the species to be potted). 

NOTE: Finely crushed egg shells make an excellent substitute for the lime.

Learn more in the PlantCareToday article and cactus soil mix recipe

Clay pots or glazed work just fine.

  • Pots should be slightly larger than the plant including the spines.
  • Place pieces of broken clay pots or coarse gravel at the bottom of the pot.
  • Add the cactus potting mix to within 2″ inches of the top.

A cone-shaped hollow should be made in the center. Holding the plant by tongs in the proper position over the hollow, fill in around the roots with a mixture of clean, coarse sand and a tablespoonful of powdered eggshells. 

A thin layer of loose gravel at the top prevents soil from washing away when the plant is watered.

Water should be withheld for a few days after planting cactus, to allow root injuries to heal. Then water should be given sparingly. 

Newly potted plants are usually established in about three or four weeks, after which an occasional thorough soaking – say twice a month during the summer months – is usually enough.

A small drink or two of warm water during the winter months keep the inactive roots from drying up. Water may be gradually increased in the spring when the signs of new growth appear.

For the amateur collector, there are some species of easy culture especially adapted for indoor growing. These may be divided into two groups – the kinds grown for their interesting spine formations, and those grown in window gardens for their flowers.

Old Man Cactus

Among cacti the “fans” like to have for their spines are the aptly named old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis care) with long white hair, and the old woman cactus (Oreocereus celsianus) with silkier, beautiful white “locks.” 

The cotton ball cactus, Pilocereus lanatus (Espostoa), is covered with pale yellow fuzz that gives it the appearance of a fluffy ball.

The golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) is another good kind for the amateur collector. Its golden spines, glistening in the sunlight like pure gold, excite admiration. 

Golden Barrel Cactus growing in a cactus garden

Many others could be added to this list, but too many of these should not be collected by the beginner, especially if they expect a few flowers for the efforts. 

Most of them are slow growing, to say the least. It may take them half a century to reach maturity and flower! However, their unusual aspect brings its own reward.

The second group, the flowering-size cactus small enough for window gardens, requires more or less the same care. 

Some of them bloom throughout the summer. Kinds that have not only unusual shapes and spines, but colorful flowers as well.

This includes the sand dollar cactus (Astrophytum asterias), with its curious shape. The star of Capricorn (Astrophytum capricorne) with its curly paper-like spines and very large yellow and red flowers. 

The bishop’s cap cactus (Astrophytum myriostigma) with 2”-inch, brown-tipped yellow flowers. 

This last is completely spineless, and forms a perfect star with rocklike aspect.

Bishop's cap Astrophytum cactus

Easter Lily Cactus

The yellow Easter lily cactus (Lobivia aurea) has numerous bright yellow flowers appearing at Easter time and blooming all summer. 

The glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor) has not only colorful spines but large deep lavender flowers that appear throughout the summer months.

Among the hedgehog cacti are found many beautiful varieties, such as the lace cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii). This has flat comb-like spines forming a lace pattern over the body. The large, rose-colored flowers almost hide this when they are open. 

The lady finger cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus), like most of this group, blooms only in spring, but the numerous flowers last several days, especially if the weather is cool.

The Arizona rainbow cactus (Echinocereus rigidissimus) is one of the most beautiful as well as the most difficult kinds to grow. 

Related Reading: Echinocereus pectinatus – Rainbow Cactus

The brilliantly colored spines form “zones” of red, purple and tan bands around the plant, the deeper hues appearing during periods of slow growth, the lighter shades during the time of faster growth in spring. 

Flowering-size specimens, when transplanted, usually collapse and die after a year or two, so only seedlings two to three years old should be purchased and planted. 

From five to seven years are required before rose-purple flowers appear.

The button cactus ( Epithelantha micromeris) is one of the babies of the cactus family. Its small round body is covered with white hair-like spines in flower-like formation. 

The tiny clusters of pale pink blossoms at the top are followed by bright red fruit that is just as attractive as the flowers were.

The mammillaria cactus group provides many cacti small enough for window gardens, but the flowers too are rather small. However, many unusual forms are encountered here, and a few deserve special mention. 

The feather cactus (Mammillaria plumosa) is completely covered with soft white feather-like spines. 

Thimble cactus (Mammillaria gracilis) small in height, bloom in summer, perfect for the window sill.

Brain cactus (Mammillaria cristata) – a distinctive shape cactus forms tight clumps which resembles a brain or worms.

The white pincushion (Mammillaria hahniana) has long white hair over white spines, and bears small crimson flowers in a ring around the top. 

blooms on a mammillaria cactus
Flowers of the Mammillaria hahniana

Owl’s eye cactus (Mammillaria parkinsonii) is richly covered with snow-white wool and white spines. The spines turn downward. Its curious habit of repeatedly branching dichotomously gives it the appearance of so many eyes.

The Easter lily cactus (Echinopsis multiplex) and various hybrids of this group are of easy culture, requiring a little more water than the desert types. 

These night-flowering cacti are small enough for use in window gardens and will bloom when only two or three years old. The trumpet-shaped pink or white flowers unfold in early evening and close in late morning the next day. 

Echinopsis Sea Urchin cactus

The flowering season lasts from early spring until late fall. 

The numerous “pups” or offshoots that appear on the lower half of the plant may be removed when they are an inch in diameter and placed in pots where they will soon grow into blooming-size plants. These make excellent gifts for friends.

Learn more about Echinopsis cactus care.

For those who like hanging baskets, the rattail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis) makes a beautiful floral display when the numerous pendant tails are covered with showers of long-lasting crimson-pink flowers during December and January. 

The wire basket should be lined with sphagnum moss and an extra handful or two of humus added to the soil mixture for additional richness. 

rat tail cactus flowers - aka

These will take more moisture titan the desert types, and can be watered liberally. This is especially true if the basket receives full sun in a southern exposure.

More on Rat Tail Cactus Care

Dish Gardens

Dish gardens must always be regarded as floral arrangements and not as permanent plantings. Because there are no drainage holes in the dish, the plants must be watered sparingly with a syringe. 

Enjoy the decorative miniature garden during the growing season, and then give the plants a rest in a cool place during the winter. 

As the plants grow larger and become crowded, they should be transplanted into pots and replaced with smaller plants.

For healthy plants give them fresh air and sunshine.

Maximum sunshine in winter can be obtained in a window with a southern exposure. 

During the summer a porch makes an ideal location for plants to enjoy shelter from hard rains and bask in the sunshine.

 In the Southwest, desert-type cacti are grown outdoors the year round, but those native in Mexico and South America are given protection from the hot desert sun, and an extra drink of water occasionally.

By: Claire Proctor – Claire has been successfully growing and collecting cactus and succulents as a hobby for over 25 years while living in Arizona.

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