Cotyledon Orbiculata Has Unique Flowes

Aren’t these just the neatest little flowers?


The plant, as you can see, is not anything special, but it also is not ugly. The flowers, on the other hand, are delightful and unusual. The blooms measure only a little more than an inch in length, but they are still impressive.
While there are many varieties of cotyledons, c. orbiculata doesn’t seem to be as prevalent as some others, so it might take a trip to a cactus and succulent nursery to find one. But look closely, read the identification tag, and you might hit pay dirt.
The plant has to mature before it blooms, but it is worth the wait when these little bell-shaped flowers appear. You will be glad you added this species to your collection.


Get Yourself Some Rain Barrels

We added two new rain barrels for collecting rain water-yes it does occasionally rain here-and snow, which is supposed to hit tonight, so I thought I’d share my barrel system with you in case you’d like to try it yourself.

Rain can be collected in all sorts of containers, but we chose to buy the empty plastic barrels from Muleshoe Vet Supply that contained detergents and various liquid treatments that they supply to the local dairies to clean and treat cow udders. The barrels must be rinsed out before you use them, but any residue that might remain would not be harmful to plants or animals. And being plastic, the barrels are light-weight which is a bonus when transporting and handling them, and the plastic top is easy to cut out with a reciprocating saw. And yes, the top has to be cut out because that is how you collect the rain!

Now, you could just cut out the top and let the raindrops fall where they may, but a more efficient collection method is to use a rain gutter to catch the roof runoff and direct it into the barrel. So my clever husband put up some extra gutter we had and connected that to a downspout that empties into one of the barrels. Then he drilled holes in the touching sides for a piece of PVC pipe so that as the main barrel with the downspout in it fills up, the water drains into the adjoining barrels, allowing us to collect more water. Cool, huh? It works really well, and unless we are blessed with a real gully-washing, turd-floating downpour, the barrels usually have room for all the rain that collects.

If you look closely, you can see we have the downspouts anchored above the main barrel to keep them from moving around during a heavy rain. When it rains up here, it is usually accompanied by high winds, which blow the downspout all over the place and the water runs off on the ground and not into the barrel. That may or may not be an issue where you live, but it is probably a good idea to make the downspout stay put just to be sure the water goes where you want it to.

I dip water from the open top with my watering pitcher when I am ready to water plants. If you want to put your barrels up off the ground to create gravitational pressure and add a faucet on the bottom after you have cut out the top, you could fill your watering container from the faucet or you could connect a drip line for watering flower beds, which my son has done with his barrels. Dipping from the top works for me, and my barrels aren’t close to any flower beds, so I am happy with the dip and water method.

If your water stands too long during the summer, you do have to watch out for mosquito larvae. A small drop of oil or a bit of dish soap added to the water usually takes care of it. Leaves will collect in the water if you have many trees nearby, but they can be dipped out, and those that sink to the bottom decompose, adding what I would like to think is a bit of plant food to the water. Right now the big issue is the water freezing in the cold weather, and the top five or so inches become solid ice. I have no answer for that, other than wait for a break in the weather for the ice to melt. I have also been known to fill five-gallon buckets and my watering cans before the water freezes and set those containers in the greenhouse and barn so I will have usable water during the freeze.
As you can see here and in the other pictures, the water is frozen as we speak and the low tonight is supposed to be 27, the high tomorrow around 30 as a new cold front comes through. This water won’t be usable for a few days.

I think rain barrels are a great idea for two main reasons: plants like the rain water, and conserving water just makes sense. Water is precious, in or out of West Texas, in or out of a drought, and rain barrels make a share of the water available for me to use while the rest of the rain makes it way down into the earth to replenish the water table below, which, obviously, is also necessary.

So unless you live in Colorado, where I understand rain barrels are illegal, you might want to give it a try. The process has worked well for my plants and me.

Watch Out for Mealy Bugs

By mid to late winter the mealy bugs have decided to descend in full force on plants in the greenhouse. Lack of air circulation seems to be the prime factor with these pesky little bugs because this is when I always have the most trouble with them, when they have been inside for the winter. Mealy bugs can appear at any time of the year, mind you, but poor air movement, trapped humidity, and cramped quarters seem to be what make them thrive. I don’t think they can survive freezing weather on outdoor plants, or maybe they just hunker down and sit dormant, waiting for warm weather to come back.  Indoor plants, however, provide them with a nice place to live when it is cold and icy outside.

These aren’t very appealing pictures to begin a story with, but this is what mealy bugs look like, if you have never had to deal with them. The very first picture is a good portrait of them at the top of their game. The next three pictures are of slightly older groups of the bugs. This is what mealy bugs look like-NOT to be confused with white spots that are supposed to be on certain species of cactus, especially on astrophytums, like these next two pictures-
Notice how the spots-white trichomes, if you want to get technical- form a pattern on this astrophytum capricorn, and the smaller one below;
You can scrub and scrub on these spots which are slightly raised and nubby to the touch, and they aren’t coming off. In fact, you don’t want them off. This flocking, as it is called, is part of the plant.

These are the tools I use to fight mealy bugs: soapy water, a child-size soft toothbrush, and a wooden cooking skewer. And many times my fingers and fingernails.
Mix up a teaspoon or so of liquid dishwashing soap-I use Dawn-and water in a spray bottle, and saturate the infested areas with the spray. If I can get to them, I try to physically wipe or scrub the bugs off the plant first and then spray again to wash away what I have loosened that is still on the plant. The soft toothbrush is handy to scrub firm plant surfaces and to get in between spines and in crevices of the plant. I use the skewer to get down into deep ridges that the toothbrush might not reach, but be careful to do that gently or you will damage the epidermis of the cactus.

As far as I know, there is no rhyme or reason for the plants they seem to attack the most. The majority of my plants have never had mealy bugs; others seem to send out engraved invitations. Be sure to check the underside of leaves and keep dead dried leaves cleaned out under plants. I would spray all plants at least once a week, just for good maintenance, and infested areas every couple of days until you see evidence that you have stopped them. Sometimes the bugs will get down below the surface of the dirt and in the roots of the plant. Then you have to take more drastic measures if you want to save the plant. Take it out of the pot, wash all the soil away from the roots, let the bare roots dry for a day or two; then repot in clean soil. And still spray the plant regularly with the soapy water.

The trick to mealy bugs is to catch them early when you see just one or two. This, of course, means you have to check your plants regularly, which you do anyway. Adding a fan or two for air circulation would probably help as well.

Just so you know, the soapy water will work or regular foliage plants as well.

Be diligent in your inspections, and you will be rewarded. Mealy bugs can be sent packing!

Keeping Your Cactus Warm

When I started this, we had had below freezing weather for too many days in a row. I lost count, but suffice it say I have worn my long underwear under my jeans to stay warm in and out of the house. I probably don’t need them in the house, but it saves having to dress and undress when going outside to check the greenhouse, walk the dogs, whatever. My little greenhouse has insulation, but when it drops into the low teens, like it will tonight and has done for several nights running, I turn on two heaters full blast to keep it warm.
Now those of you living in Wyoming and Minnesota and such aren’t phased by a puny 8 or 18 degrees; I understand that. I can hear you snorting and rolling your eyes already. But it is all relative. And still darn cold. And still an issue. So cactus lovers must do what’s necessary to protect their collections. One medium-sized space heater has worked in the past, but when we have several days when it doesn’t warm up even during the day above freezing, it’s time to drag out the second heater.
Rest assured I do know that I break every safety rule recommended for space heaters. I use one of those industrial-size orange extension cords to get power to the second one. They both run all night and part of the day unattended. I do check on things during the day and at least once before bedtime; so far, so good. I think the plan is to install a gas heater next year. I’ll let you know how that works.

I have been told by the experts that simply keeping the temperature above 32 degrees and keeping the plants dry will work just fine. I’m not comfortable with that; anything in the 30s just seems too cold. I am much happier with the warmth between 40 and 50 degrees, and the plants seem happier.
It must be working; this senecio cephalophorus is blooming, several mammillarias are ringed with pink flowers, euphoribia milii is blooming, and the kalanchoes are getting ready. You heat your greenhouse to a temp that makes you happy. But do give them some heat, or you will be replacing plants in the spring.

The Quintessential Fat Plant

The most impressive fat plants in my collection would be my pachypodium lamerei and pachypodium geayi, commonly known as Madagascar palms, since that is where these two pachypodiums occur in nature.

P. lamerei has a wide, graceful leaf. This plant had grown tall enough that it was hard to get it through the door jam when it had to be moved in for the winter, plus that made it too tall to see and appreciate the pretty tops of the branches, so I chopped it off one Spring and waited patiently; eventually it put out three crowns, and these two developed into new branches.
P. geayi has a more rigid, longer, slender, pointed leaf with a white line down the middle. 

As you can tell, these pictures were taken outside during warm weather, as it happens, a couple of years ago. Those same pachys are much taller now and are still doing well. Fat plants, as a rule, and this species in particular, are pretty forgiving and will be around a long time if you take care of them. They love to be outside in filtered sunlight during the warm months and need to be brought in during the winter. Mine tend to lose some or all of their leaves during the winter inside, but once outside new green leaves burst forth quickly. I have noticed that the older they get, the fewer leaves they drop. Feed them maybe once a month during the summer, water about once a week, and they should do just fine.

I bought these plants as little seedlings at The Living Desert back when it was in Bee Cave (“A Good Place to buy Cactus,” August 24, 2014). They were maybe six inches tall with a trunk about as big as my little finger, and now they are about five feet tall and had been way taller than that when I cut them off. I bought them back in the days before I bothered to keep track of purchase dates, so I can only estimate that they are at least ten years old, maybe closer to fifteen. They are really fun when they are small to use in dish gardens because they look like tiny little palm trees and lend themselves to interesting landscaping in the dish. I don’t have any pictures of them as babies; you’ll just have to use your imagination.

And babies grow! Eventually they like their own big pot, but they can stay in a large pot for basically the rest of their lives and be happy. So if you purchase one, be advised that you are signing on for a long-term relationship. 
Your tree will become a member of the family! And that’s not a bad deal, I must say.

More Fat Plants

As promised, the other fat plant, pachypodium baronii, that was due to bloom, did, and this is what it looks like. Similar to the pachypodium lealii saundersii, but a whiter flower and some difference in the spines. And you can see the thick body that qualifies it as a fat plant.

Another fat plant is the adenium, also called a desert rose. This slender-leafed variety is from Somalia and hasn’t bloomed for me yet. 
But you can see its fat trunk where all fat plants hold water for times of drought.
Most other adeniums have rounder leaves but still have the fat caudex.

The caudex of this adenium obesum is sitting higher in its pot and has some of its roots exposed, which is often done with adeniums to add interest. And this is what its bloom looks like.
Another fat plant is the ponytail palm, beaucarnea recurvata, which can grow very large and live a long time. Mine are not that big yet. They are fun to watch grow and fill out, but you might want to put them out of the reach of your cat. My cats seem to think the tips of grass-like fronds taste pretty good and can wreak havoc with the looks of the plant.
Another form of fat plants are pachycaul trees that have the caudex for water and nutrition storage and few branches and can get really big, like, well, trees. My bombax elliopitcum, aka pseudobombax ellipticum, is about 25 years old and has bloomed several times in the spring before putting on new leaves for the summer. And it is as big as a small tree!

There is one more group of fat plants I want to tell you about, but I think I’ll save that for the next blog. Stay tuned.

Pachypodium Lealii Saundersii

The most easily recognized pachypodium is probably pachypodium lamerii or p. geayi  the so-called Madagascar palm; this is not that pachypodium! Madagascar palms are from Madagascar; this pachypodium is from South Africa, but has the necessary fat body pachypodiums are know for. These plants grow more like a bush and so far, at least, mine is not as big or tall as the palms and has bloomed fairly regularly, which the palms so far have not.
Pachypodiums are caudiciforms, a category commonly known as fat plants, because they do have a fat body where they store water. The body is technically a stem, but I have seen it referred to as a fat trunk, and that is what it looks like. I didn’t take a picture of this one’s fat trunk because I really couldn’t get a good shot of it. But I have another one, p. baronii, that is on the verge of blooming, and its caudex-the fat body-is easier to see. So stay tuned.

But for now, enjoy this flowers on this one.