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Cactus snowflake
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How Cactus Snowflakes Seduced Me

Remarkably, the spination of certain cacti suggests snowflakes, something I first noticed years ago at a succulent specialty nursery. I was there to photograph aloes in bloom, but I’d come too early in the season. I thought of leaving, and I’m so glad I didn’t! That afternoon forever changed the way I see certain succulent plants.

Cactus snowflakes

There were a lot of columnar (ceroid) varieties—you know, those shaped like fire hydrants and baseball bats—all with tapered tips. I looked down on one, was intrigued by how lower spines framed upper ones, and took a photo. Wow! I took lots more. When the images (above) appeared later in the Los Angeles Times, editors prefaced my photo essay with: “We thought we’d share our version of snowflakes with readers in colder climes.”

I hope you’ll hunt for succulent snowflakes in your own garden or cactus collection. I know that whenever I find one, it’s a delightful surprise. Now, for your enjoyment, a few from my own garden:

Cactus snowflakes

Cactus snowflake

Moon cactus

Succulent snowflakes

Cactus snowflakes

It’s a paradox worth savoring: Spines on hefty desert plants resemble delicate, geometric ice crystals. Do check for cactus snowflakes the next time you visit a succulent specialty nursery, whether you bring any home or not. To capture them with your camera, simply hold the lens horizontally above the plants.

P.S. If you search online for “cactus snowflake,” you’ll get images of succulents that look like cacti but aren’t. They’re Euphorbia polygona, the green form and silvery gray ‘Snowflake’…which has been renamed “Euphorbia horrida ‘Snowflake’. But as you can see, there’s nothing horrid about it!

Succulent snowflake

Also in my own collection is this Euphorbia meloformis. The green is new growth that happened after the plant got sunburned. Pretty cool, eh?

Euphorbia meloformis

Related info on this site:

Succulent spiral

Enjoy my article on succulents with spiral patterns: Many cacti and succulents form geometric spirals similar to those of sunflowers, pine cones and nautilus shells. Spiral leaf arrangements funnel rain to roots, and keep upper leaves from…[Continue reading].

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin
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Succulent White-Pot Pairings

White pots are a simple, effective way to display your prized succulents and cacti. Here I’ve paired colorful, geometric cacti and sculptural succulent euphorbias with an assortment of white-glazed containers. Solo or in groupings, succulent white-pot pairings would look good on your patio, deck, entryway or sunroom. Watch the 4-min. companion video: Succulent White-Pot Pairings.

#1 Euphorbia lactea variegata, crested

I usually start with a project’s largest item and work my way down, so the design flows from the biggest, most prominent element. The first plant I chose at Oasis Water Efficient Gardens (a succulent specialty nursery near me owned by Altman Plants) was a white-variegated crested euphorbia. Its coloration repeats that of the largest container, and the plant’s spiky texture contrasts with the pot’s smooth finish. The euphorbia is in scale with the pot…not too large or small. That’s important aesthetically and practically—the arrangement will look the same for years (crested plants grow slowly).

#2 Euphorbia leucodendron (cats’ tails)

I repeated the horizontal lines of the pot with the upright lines of a cylindrical cats’ tails succulent. Wherever you put it, the euphorbia provides a strong vertical element. The nursery plant had more stems than I needed, but because they were a half a dozen rooted cuttings, they easily pulled apart.

#3 Echinocereus rigidissimus rubrispius (“Red-headed Irishman”)

The pink of the crested euphorbia led me to select this magenta echinocereus (which also has white in its spines), but those at the nursery weren’t large enough to fill the bowl-shaped pot. Cross-hatching in the pot repeated patterns in the echinocereus and I liked the cactus’ clean lines, so I decided to combine several. Doing so emphasizes and repeats pleasing circles; and having five rosy, radiating starbursts creates design interest.

Compositions like these look unfinished if soil shows, so we concealed it with a topdressing of white crushed rock and white stones.

Production assistant Pat Roach pours white crushed rock

4. Melocactus azureus. 

I’d rather not put a succulent in a pot that’s deeper than the plant is tall because roots may rot in soil that stays moist. But this blue melocactus was a perfect match for our last and smallest pot. In the video you’ll see me pour pumice down the inside of the pot; that’s to absorb excess moisture. The resulting plant-pot combo showcases the plant’s geometric shape and looks good with the rest of the planted white pots, too.

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Why Grow Paddle Cacti? DLB’s 16 Reasons

Of the dozen or so types of cacti in my garden, I have more opuntias than any other. Also known as paddle cactus or prickly pear, Opuntia species have stems shaped like ping-pong paddles. New pads grow from older ones after rains drench the roots and help fuel new growth. Typically these new pads, and flowers that turn into fruit, form along the edge of the pads and orient themselves for maximum sun exposure. For garden plants, I prefer spineless or near-spineless varieties, like Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, O. ‘Burbank’s Spineless’ and O. ficus-indica. These grow from 3 to 7 feet tall.

I also have dwarf varieties in my miniature landscape, which I designed to suggest a Latin American mountain town. Photos of it and the specimen below are in my book, Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed.

Flowers of opuntias are spectacular, and open in succession. So although the blooms last only a day or so, the show lasts a week or more.

As with all cactus, opuntia spines are modified leaves. There’s a good reason to grow prickly varieties—whether Opuntia species or others, they’re breathtakingly beautiful when late afternoon or early morning sun backlights translucent spines.

Certain varieties, such as O. Santa-rita, have purple pads. It’s been my observation that these tend to attain their best color in desert gardens; here in Southern CA, the pads stay green with a purple tinge.

I grow an intriguing variety that has beard-like white filaments, but I recently had to trash much of the plant because scale insects snuck under the threads and colonized the pads unnoticed. I did manage to keep a few unblemished ones, which I treated with Safer soap and replanted.

Opuntias are easy to start from pads; simply slice or break one off and stick it in the ground. Knock one off, and where it falls it’ll form roots.

The egg-shaped fruit of opuntias is edible and a colorful garden enhancement.

Opuntias are unique among cacti in that they have two types of spines—needles and glochids. The latter often is nearly invisible, barbed, and will go home with you if you touch it. Glochids create fuzzy polka-dots on the paddles of Opuntia microdaysis. Beautiful…but beware.

Because cactus pads are moisture-storage organs filled with a mucilaginous gel and protected by a tough, waxy skin, they’re slow to catch fire. Opuntias not only make great firebreak plants in wildfire-prone areas, they’re efficient at conserving water and need no irrigation other than rainfall.

Tender new opuntia pads (nopalitos) are sold in Mexican markets. They’re good in salads and can be cooked as a vegetable dish that tastes like green beans.

Let me know what you think. I always enjoy hearing from you! ~ Debra 

 

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Is Cactus the New Black?
Aug. 9, 2017 — Long a pariah plant, cactus is becoming cool. Spiny succulents are following smooth ones in popularity, notably in [Continue reading]

 
Succulent enthusiasts flock to the annual Cactus & Succulent Society Show at the Los Angeles Arboretum mid-August. It’s the largest of its kind in [Continue reading]
 
Recently in Baja I was showing off my knowledge of native succulents when one “got” me. The friend who was taking a video with my phone gasped when I unsuccessfully tried to set a 3-inch-long chunk of cholla (“choy-ah”) cactus back onto a boulder. It resolutely clung to my fingers [Continue reading]

 

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Succulents, Fibonacci and Spiral Phyllotaxis

Many cacti and succulents form geometric spirals similar to those of sunflowers, pine cones and nautilus shells. Spiral leaf arrangements funnel rain to roots, and keep upper leaves from shading lower ones.

The arrangement of a plant’s leaves along the stem is phyllotaxis (from ancient Greek, phýllon “leaf” and táxis “arrangement”). Mathematically, spiral phyllotaxis follows a Fibonacci sequence, such as 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc. Each subsequent number is the sum of the two preceding ones.

There’s a hypnotic beauty about spiral phyllotaxis, not to mention it’s a great phrase to impress friends with. As is the puzzling-to-pronounce Fibonacci (fee-bo-NACH-ee), the name of a 12th-century Italian mathematician.

Perhaps the best known succulent to do this is aptly name spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Unfortunately it’s devilishly tricky to grow, making it the Holy Grail of succulents. (If you can grow a spiral aloe, you can grow anything.)

Aloe polyphylla, also known as Spiral Aloe

I’m fond of spherical cacti because of how their spines spiral—in fact, I almost prefer the plants out of bloom. These are mammillarias. I show a cool way to display them in another article, Create a Cactus Curio Box. And I describe the growing popularity of these photogenic plants in Is Cactus the New Black?

mammillaria

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

Sempervivums (hens-and-chicks) also spiral beautifully. Squint at this photo and you’ll see how similar it is to the center of a sunflower.

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

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Medusa euphorbias, known for their craggy, snakelike stems, each has a spiral at its center. No two are the same, and seldom do you find one that’s perfect.

Medusa euphorbia

Have you noticed spiral phyllotaxis in your own garden? Do look for it. You may be surprised at how it jumps out at you, once you’re aware of it. For example, this common succulent (Graptopetalum paraguayense) exhibits spiraling, albeit more subtly than the examples above.

You may even see it on nonorganic items, like book bags. 

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If you enjoy gardening,you’ve no doubt experienced how it can be a form of meditation and a treat for all the senses. But have you considered how simply looking at certain plants induces a feeling of serenity? You can discover this simply by enhancing a sitting area with succulents that incorporate geometric patterns and spirals…[Continue reading]
 
Long a pariah plant, cactus is becoming cool. The first edition of my book, Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2007) showed few cacti—mainly golden barrels. A decade later, the completely revised second edition devotes 15 pages to numerous varieties of spiny succulents in gardens large and small. [Continue reading]


 

Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Learn more about Debra Lee Baldwin, garden photojournalist, author and succulent expert

 


 

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I Come Out as a Cactus Lover

GD Cover & DLB annotated_resized

When profiled by Garden Design magazine, I took the opportunity to come out as a cactus lover.

Well, I had to. They asked about trends in the world of succulents. I believe my progression is fairly typical. Most of us start out loving succulents that look like fleshy roses—echeverias, graptoverias and the like. As people gain appreciation for the lines, textures and shapes of all succulents, they inevitably arrive at those that exhibit elegant simplicity at its best—never mind that they have spines (in fact, sometimes because they do).

Note I’m not talking about common prickly pear—the plant most of us have bad childhood memories of. (Ow!) There are SO many other kinds of cacti.

The article’s portrait shot (above right) shows me surrounded by columnar cacti with spines that glow yellow-orange in the late-afternoon sun. Yep, I wore turquoise on purpose.

Herewith, I offer a dozen reasons why cacti are the coming thing…in waterwise gardens and in Garden Design.

Cacti in square pot

In a word: symmetry. Mammillarias in particular have it nailed.

Poodle opuntia

They offer astonishing textures. I mean, c’mon, fur? Opuntia sp.

Echinocactus rubrispinus

Endearingly, cacti don’t take themselves too seriously. Echinocactus pectinatus rubrispinus.

Cactus snowflakes

Some think they’re snowflakes.

Cactus flower looks like waterlily

Others, waterlilies (Trichocereus hybrids at left)

Mammillaria elongata crest

And brains (Mammillaria elongata crest)….

Succulent looks like bird

Or birds. (Cleistocactus strausii)

Cactus flowers look like roses

A few are in touch with their feminine side (roses at left, opuntia at right).

Lophocereus

Others, not so much.

Mammillaria fragilis

More than a few are darn cute. Each of these thimble cacti is less than an inch in diameter.

GD Cover & DLB annotated_resized

But here’s what I like best about cacti: How they’re haloed by the sun. The spinier the better.

Are you a formerly closeted cactus fancier too? If there’s enough of us, I may organize a pride march.

Mini Succulent High Desert Garden video

View how I assembled the container garden shown in the article. 

 

Related info on this site:

Why Cactus is PopularCactus designBizarre succulents

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

 

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Lophocereus schottii (Totem Pole Cactus)

Recently at his nursery in Fallbrook, CA, succulent expert Don Newcomer showed me a rare columnar, spineless cactus from Mexico: Lophocereus schottii (totem pole cactus).

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It can be chubby and lumpy, tall and skinny, or columnar and spiral-forming. Lophocereus (Pachycereus) schottii has spines. The monstrose form has club-shaped trunks with spineless protuberances. There are three monstrose varieties: fat (obesa), spiral (spiralis) and skinny or totem pole (mieckleyanus). Here’s the spiral form:

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Don told me that these monstrose forms of Lophocereus schotii date to The Cactus Ranchito in Tarzana, a suburb of Los Angeles. Owners Ed and Betty Gay, who introduced Don to succulents at age 14, were instrumental in salvaging unusual cacti that otherwise might have been destroyed by livestock in the plants’ native habitat. This photo of the couple is from the archives of the Los Angeles Cactus & Succulent Society.

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Thirty years ago, after Ed passed away, Don bought the nursery’s inventory from Betty. He opened Serra Gardens in Malibu, where clients included Barbra Streisand, who bought cactus to surround her property to keep paparazzi at bay. Seven years ago, Don and wife Beth moved their home and nursery to Fallbrook, a rural community north of San Diego, where it occupies three acres.

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Listen to Don tell about the monstrose forms of Lophocereus schottii in this 4-minute video I made for YouTube. His sense of humor is delightful: Don Newcomer’s Favorite Cactus

Do visit Serra Gardens if you get a chance—it’s a great destination nursery, with many more rare and unusual cacti and succulents than this. They also sell mail-order at www.cacti.com.

Related Info on This Site:

Bizarre succulents


Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin