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Thursday, 31 October 2013

Building up a collection of Succulents and cacti

(A warning: If you have any propensity towards cactus love to begin with, moving to the desert will increase it exponentially!) 

Echeveria glauca

A long-standing passion - a passion most people find utterly boring and something only a cactus-lover will understand - THE LOVE OF CACTUS. So maybe this post is not for you, but if it is, read on!

It all started in the 1980's, when my (well-meaning) father gave me three Echeverias in a pot. I couldn't turn them down and hurt his feelings, but I had NO interest in those three succulents! When I got home, I hastily stuck them in the ground in some far-away corner in the garden, hoping they would disappear.

A few months later I was working in the garden and decided to do something about that 'little lost corner' of my garden. Upon investigating, to my surprise, the three Echeverias had multiplied and there were dozens of them, all displaying the most gorgeous little pink bell-shaped flowers on long stalks. I was hooked! I mean, forgotten and neglected, NO attention whatsoever, yet they blossomed forth with the most gorgeous gifts. I felt so guilty I almost cried!

Now those spiky flat coins and furry ground knobs make me go nuts. Finding a new specie not in my collection is like striking gold - my stomach churns, my heart starts pounding and I just HAVE to have it!

I can spend hours fiddling with my cacti and succulents, removing seedlings and siblings from the garden and potting them in terracotta pots, I have displays all over the house, on various patios and in my garden shed. You'll find them on window sills, tree stumps, on little tables, in terracotta pots, jam tins, glass jars, buckets, cracked coffee mugs, on wooden palettes, on my desk, next to my computer, in fact, anywhere there is a flat surface! And heaven forbid I come across someone selling them at a market stand, I could buy up all their stock!

'They' say "It takes real guts to love a cactus!", but I have found it the easiest thing in the world!

I need to get some more!

On the left and right some Crassula and in the centre some Cacti and Haworthia in an enamel bowl on my patio table.

Succulents and cacti are such prolific growers that it provides a lovely opportunity of planting them in pots and building up a beautiful collection without damaging your garden or spending a fortune. Many succulents and cacti spread by making babies, or pups, which are easily removed without damaging the parent plants. Another method is by merely taking off leaves from your plants and sticking them in a pot in damp soil to grow.

Separating plants also gives one a chance to really study them, perhaps do some research and get names and some interesting information you might not have known before.

Echeverias in an old dog basket 

Besides using bought or brand-new pots, it's a lovely challenge coming up with some innovative ideas of what to plant them in. Old shoes, baskets, wheelbarrows, enamelware, wooden crates, hollowed out logs, tea cups, coffee mugs (if they're not going to be standing out in the rain), the possibilities are endless. Many succulents and cacti can grow in very shallow soil so even a chipped vintage saucer can be used.

Obviously one thing to keep in mind is that the container needs adequate drainage. Normally, apart from a few exceptions, cacti and succulents don't need all that much water as many of them store water in their leaves, very water-wise plants! And they are so easy to care for. As long as they have adequate sun, or enough light if you are keeping them indoors, a bit of water, maybe some dappled shade, they will provide you with years of beauty and enjoyment.

Do not use regular potting soil. Succulent plants have a need for a well draining soil, whereas most house plant soil is the opposite. Succulent soil should be approximately 1/3 regular soil, 1/3 horticultural pumice or gravel, placed right at the bottom of the pot to aid drainage, and 1/3 horticultural, coarse sand. Compost is not necessary as this can do more harm to your succulent than good. Too much compost can kill your plant.

You can find some more information on caring for your cacti and succulents at "Cactus and Succulent Society" 

Crassula Imperialis - this dainty succulent grows and spreads beautifully in the garden provided it gets enough water. They are also self-seeding.

Crassula and an aloe in a bread baking tin on the patio 

Bunny Ears cactus - a fairly new acquisition so I'm still not quite sure what its preferences are. The yellow parts is the original part and all the green is new growth over the past two seasons.

A new Rattail Cactus in the making. Just stick one of the tails in some soil and soon it will make new ones. But be careful, not matter how careful I am, gloves and all, I ALWAYS manage to get some thorns on my hands! The only thing I have found that helps to get rid of them, is scrubbing my hands with a nail brush and soap.

Echeveria glauca cascading out of an old piece of found concrete 

Echeveria glauca growing in my wooden wheelbarrow 

Echeveria glauca planted in an old printers' tray 

Echeverias in a wheelbarrow enjoying the companionship of the Nasturtiums 

Haworthia and cacti in an enamel bowl 

Gasteria - these no-fuss little succulents need shade or dappled sunlight, so are often found in the wild growing under bigger plants for protection

Haworthia in a terracotta pot

Haworthia Cymbiformis in pots in the garden

Old Man (or bearded) cactus - I still need to gather some info on him. But I do know he likes sun and a fair amount of water.

Euphorbia in my bathroom where it gets morning sun - also a recent acquisition and I need to do further research.

A collection of succulents on a plant stand under some trees awaiting a perfect space 

Sympervivums and Crassula in miniature terracotta pots 

Crassula on my potting table

Echinopsis cactus in my garden with lots of babies ready to be harvested!

A transplanted baby Echinopsis cactus 

Echinopsis cacti in full flower - these large flowers completely dwarf the cactus and unfortunately only last a day or two.

One of my Rattail cacti before flowering 

 One of my Rattail cacti in full flower standing on a white-painted log on the patio. I bring them inside every winter and as soon as I take them outside in spring, the flowering starts.

My other Rattail Cactus in full flower on the patio table. These cacti tend to get a bit messy-looking, with spent flowers (and seeds) sticking to the tails, which also sometimes die on their tips, so I usually do a good clean-up at the end of summer and early spring by removing spent flowers with a pair of long tweezers and cutting off any dead pieces.

My Barrel cactus in the garden before the shade over-took it


After a severe winter about two years ago, the main barrel seemed to be dying because it was now in too much shade. After transplanting it (with great difficulty!) to a sunny spot, lots of pups started  forming on the head. They are extremely slow growers and a four year old barrel can be only 3 inches high and 2.5 inches wide. I have had my Barrel for about 10 years and they can get to a massive size. I would have liked to have seen that... They can also live up to 130 years old. 

One should approach a Barrel Cactus with extreme caution. A puncture to human skin from one of the spines is considered a 'dirty wound'. If the puncture is deep enough to draw blood, antibiotics may be needed; and could take several months for the wound to heal properly. Barrel Cactus plants are one of the more dangerous Cacti.

My Barrel Cactus now completely covered in new babies - hmmmm, now how on earth can I steal one to start a new one...?

Using an old table outside 

"Reach for the stars, even if you have to stand on a cactus!" 

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Monday, 28 October 2013

Aloe ferox

The aloe seemed to ride like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew. 
- Beauchamp

 A. ferox

This past winter my aloes put up the most spectacular show and in August I noticed that the Black Sunbirds were all visiting the Aloes (Aloe ferox, Bitter Aloe) in my garden, and the reason was soon apparent - it was fairly dripping with nectar! The flowers always seem to produce the most nectar just as they're getting to the end of their life-span and as winter is at its harshest. It's their special gift to nature just when she needs it most.


This hardy plant, indigenous to South Africa, and with its succulent leaves, can survive the harshest conditions. When damaged by man or animal, the plant seals off any wound with a sticky, dark liquid that prevents infestation by virus, fungus or insect. This dark liquid has been successfully used by ancient inhabitants as a traditional remedy for many ailments. 

The white inner gel of the leaf has the ability to hold and store moisture through hot, dry conditions and months of drought. Traditionally the local inhabitants use it to soothe burn wounds, cuts and abrasions. Today those same qualities are still the being used in a wide range of moisturisers and rejuvenating creams and gels. 


The nutrient rich leaf is filled with the goodness of the earth and contains no herbicides or pesticide making it an ideal source of nutrients and helping your body to cope with modern day living in a gentle and natural way. 


The bitter aloe is most famous for its medicinal qualities. In parts of South Africa, the bitter yellow juice found just below the skin has been harvested as a renewable resource for two hundred years. The hard, black, resinous product is known as Cape aloes or aloe lump and is used mainly for its laxative properties but is also taken for arthritis. 

"Schwedenbitters", which is found in many pharmacies, contains bitter aloe. The gel-like flesh from the inside of the leaves is used in cosmetic products and is reported to have wound healing properties. Interestingly Aloe ferox, along with Aloe broomii, is depicted in a rock painting which was painted over 250 years ago. 

The Aloe is winter-flowering and did you know that they flower in mid-summer in France, when it's Winter time here in South Africa? Isn't nature's clock just amazing...? 

Camera : Fuji Finepix 2800Zoom – taken in my garden 



 In full flower, mid-winter

After flowering, early summer

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Friday, 25 October 2013

Summer's colours

summer’s colors

bending light

finding beauty

taking flight  

- unknown 


The season's first Marigolds have appeared after we had our (late) spring rains a couple of weeks ago. They are always first to add bright splashes of colour to the garden and it's amazing that these, often regarded as simple, little flowers can provide so much pleasure. And not only do they fill empty spots beautifully, they also keep all sorts of harmful insects at bay. Farmers and gardeners have long known that marigolds make important companion plants all over the garden. Not only does the scent of the marigold (Tagetes spp.) repel animals and insects, but the underground workings of the marigold will repel microscopic worms and other pests for up to 3 years.

No annual is more cheerful or easier to grow than marigolds. These flowers are the spendthrifts among annuals, showing a wealth of gold, copper, and brass into our summer and autumn gardens. Marigolds form the backbone of many plantings because of their diversity and adaptability. Use them freely in beds, borders, edges, pots, and boxes. They grow in almost any soil but do need lots of sunshine. Seeds sown directly into the garden about 1-inch apart sprout within days in warm weather and plants bloom in about 8 weeks.

But be warned! Their seeds are dispersed by the wind and if you are a fussy gardener, you might not be pleased that they suddenly appear all over the garden where you might not want them. Since putting in a few seeds a couple of years ago, I have never bought or planted marigolds again!


All the deciduous trees are also now dressed in their finest greenery and the soft green of the new Celtis africana (White Stinkwood) leaves look beautiful against the backdrop of the darker Karee lancea (Black Karee) leaves. The Acacia karroo (Sweet thorn) also pushed out their brand-new little leaves the day after our first shower.

Celtis africana (White Stinkwood)

Acacia karroo (Sweet thorn)


The thorns of the Acacia karroo are always an indication of how much water it gets - during the rainy season my thorns are always huge and fat. The sweet thorn gets its common name from the gum which is exuded from wounds in the bark. This pleasant tasting gum is eaten by people and animals, including the Lesser Bushbaby which feeds exclusively on insects and gum from trees, particularly acacia trees. And that reminds me, I haven't seen any Bushbabies for years, they used to be regular visitors to my garden... The same with Chameleons...

Flowers of the Acacia karroo usually appear early summer or after good rains, so I'm looking forward to these lovely little puff-balls!

The sweet thorn makes a beautiful garden specimen. The bright yellow flowers look very striking against the dark green foliage. The rough, dark brown bark is also most attractive. The flowers are sweetly scented and are renowned for attracting insects which are essential to any bird garden. Birds also like to make nests in thorn trees as the thorns offer them some protection from predators. Caterpillars of 10 species of butterflies are dependant on the tree for survival. These include, the club-tailed charaxes (Charaxes zoolina zoolina) and the topaz-spotted blue (Azanus jesous).


Flower of the Echinopsis cactus

Echinopsis are cacti native to South America, sometimes known as hedgehog cactus. They are fairly ball-shaped and can spread fairly fast, forming clumps of individual cacti that can be lifted and transplanted. They are renowned for their amazing flowers, often giant … 5″-6″ in diameter … and frequently dwarf the cactus that they grow on. Mine carry pink flowers but they come in reds, violets, oranges, yellows and numerous mixtures. Such a shame they only last a day or two after opening, though I guess that really makes them all the more special.

Lots of babies from just two mother plants


Pic taken 5am this morning

 It's amazing how one can water the garden every day for weeks and then just 20mm of rain and everything springs to life!




Geranium flower

 Nasturtiums

Arum lily

Naturtiums and a couple of leaves in a bottle of water hanging from a tree - don't keep your flower arrangements for just inside the house - they complement the garden beautifully if hung or placed in strategic spots.

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