Succulent plants have a unique adaptation that enables them to tolerate harsh and dry desert like conditions. Their thick, fleshy leaves and stems allow them to retain water over extended periods of time. Shallow surface roots are adapted to absorb water quickly; hence they can do without frequent watering and special care. Their beautiful blossoms and unusual shapes make them very attractive plants.
Cacti, a group of plants within succulents, have a tough, thick skin and usually have their leaves modified to spikes to reduce water-loss. Another feature is the presence of small, round, fluffy cushion-like structures called areoles on the body of cactus, from which flowers and spikes grow. If a succulent does not have any of these noticeable features, then it is not considered a cactus. Considering cacti as a bad omen is misplaced as they are a part of flora and fauna created by nature.
Succulents do well in a temperature range of 15ᵒC- 45ᵒC. Cacti, in particular, thrive well in hot regions, with day temperatures being 35ᵒC and above. Plants like Adenium, Agave, Nolina, Aloe and Euphorbia prefer full day sunlight. Succulents growing at higher altitudes prefer cooler, semi-shaded areas. Sedum, Haworthia, Echeveria etc get scorched if placed in direct sunlight for long.
Some of the succulent species thriving in the Delhi and the NCR region are Haworthia, Jade, Sedum, Crassula, Kalanchoe, Euphorbia, Echeveria and Aloe. Amongst Cacti, species of Opuntia, Mammillaria, Pachypodium, Echinopsis, Gymno, Cereus are commonly grown here.
Soil and Containers:
Succulents need porous, well drained soil to ensure that excess water does not rot the plant. The soil should be nutritious as well in order to sustain healthy growth.
The following soil composition is considered healthy for the plant:
40% washed, and sieved coarse part of badarpur or cinder
40% matured cow dung manure or kitchen compost
10% bone meal
10% neem khal
A small amount of garden soil, coarse charcoal and fungicide powder are added to the above composition and mixed thoroughly. This mixture is left for two weeks to mature before being used.
Both cacti and succulents can be of varied size, ranging from a few centimetres to about 20 metres in height when grown in the ground. They have a slow growth rate.
Small sized pots are used for succulents so as to limit the amount of moisture around the roots. Terracotta pots provide the best aeration but one can also use ceramic and plastic ones with several drainage holes.
In summers, succulents need deep yet infrequent watering. The top layer of the soil should dry up to an inch or more before being watered again. In winters, they may not need watering even for upto 10 days and should be protected from dew collecting on them. Heavy rains and hailstorms can damage and scar these plants. During the rainy season, pots can be tilted to avoid accumulation of water and thus prevent root rot.
The best time to propagate succulents is in the spring or autumn season.
In the wild, seeds provide the best method for propagation. However, it is a very slow process requiring much patience, for this reason gardeners prefer other means of propagation.
Echinopsis and mammillaria species can be easily propagated by their offshoots or lateral shoots. The pups can be carefully twisted off from the mother plant, left for a couple of days for the scar to dry and then planted in moist soil. The new plant should be left in a shaded place until roots are formed. The pot may then be moved into sunlight gradually and watered sparingly.
The best way to propagate Opuntia is by twisting off or cutting a healthy pad from the mother plant. A neat cut is made with a sharp, sterilized tool. The wound is allowed to dry and callus over before planting the cutting in a good porous soil. The new roots develop on the pad in 2-3 weeks. The same method can be followed for stem cuttings which offer the easiest and most common method of propagation. Over a period of time, pups start emerging from the base of the cutting.
Grafting requires an experienced hand for it to be a success. It involves taking a cut piece of a cactus and attaching it onto another severed cactus. The two parts should be placed intimately and tied up to avoid water seeping into the joint.
Frequent repotting of succulents should be avoided. If required, it can be done during the spring or autumn season. Repotting is necessitated when no space is left for pups to grow, roots start emerging from the bottom hole of the pot or the pot begins to crack due to a lack of space.
Liquid manure can be fed once a month. Alternatively, a 1-2 tsp mixture of manure, bone meal and neem khal can be given to the plant depending upon the size of the pot. Sarson khal can be added to the liquid feed in winters.
Organic preventive measures like spraying with neem oil, soapnut solution and/or bioenzyme at regular intervals should be adopted to keep plants healthy.