Beginners' Cacti by Robin Alabaster

(Photos by the Author)

(from the BCSS Journal Vol 14 (2), 1996
Copyright of the British Cactus and Succulent Society and the Author

Readers of the previous articles in this series will have shared with me two important `firsts'. That all important first acquisition and the first successful rootings. In the case of Echinopsis and Lobivias, most offsets will readily root in practically any medium: while attached to the plant, the offsets often show developing roots. All that is necessary in this case is to avoid excessive moisture until any flesh wound has successfully healed.

The majority of cacti can be propagated by cuttings. Sometimes it may be necessary to treat an established plant as a cutting, if for example the root system rots. In the case of all cuttings the important points to remember are firstly to ensure a clean cut with no residual damaged material remaining. Secondly the cutting must be aired for a few days to allow the cut flesh to callus over sufficiently to form a waterproof seal. Cuttings are set in a rooting mixture of two parts sand to one part peat moss, which should be barely moist. Shallow trays are preferable to pots and a plastic cover will help by preventing the soil becoming too dry. The cuttings themselves should not be buried but simply rested on the compost. Bottom heat helps and if available extra moisture in the form of occasional mist spraying can be given. June is normally the best month for taking cuttings but care should be taken to avoid excessive heat and direct sunlight until evidence of new growth appears. The rate of rooting is extremely variable with vigorous forms rooting in a matter of days, and others taking an eternity. One Ferocactus cutting of mine took well over a year and then a further season before showing signs of growth. Mixing a little hormone rooting powder into the compost may speed up the rooting process. If rooting occurs quickly pot the plants on only if a month or so of good growing weather can be expected. In other cases it is best to delay repotting until there are signs of activity in the following growing season.

The next `first' that I was to experience was that of flowering. The previous season I had rescued, from a florist's window, a much dehydrated specimen of Notocactus tabularis. After repotting it grew on a little before the winter dormant period arrived. The next spring it took up water readily once the warmer weather arrived. The growing point quickly expanded and was at first spineless. When spines started to develop so did two tufts of reddish-brown bristly wool. To this day I can recall my excited delight at this discovery. Over the weeks that were to follow I was to bore my parents to death by waving the plant under their noses on almost a daily basis. After what seemed an age two beautiful yellow flowers tipped orange with deep magenta centres appeared. At this stage I did not possess a camera and the plant was taken in flower to a local amateur photographer who was able to take a black and white close-up picture. I still have the picture in my record book, but just like my early attempts there is too much pot and background detail in the picture for it to have any real photographic merit. I would urge all collectors to try and obtain a photographic record of their achievements for sadly, all too often the film record will out-live the plant.

The early success with a Notocactus led me to concentrate on them for some years and my interest in them only declined when years later heating costs began to soar. From that point I began to concentrate on mainly frost hardy plants. Generally speaking Notocacti prefer a neutral to slightly acidic compost and only a short winter's rest. I found that if the soil was allowed to be dry for too long root loss could follow but equally the same result would occur if the plants were both wet and cold. With the aptly named Notocactus magnificus cold spots can mar its beautiful blue epidermis and its characteristic blue bloom can vanish in cold damp conditions. My best results with these plants came from using an ericaceous compost with plenty of extra grit. They were watered exclusively with rain water and given an occasional tonic of sequestrated iron.

The illustrations accompanying this article indicate only those plants which I have grown which were previously regarded as Notocactus and ignores the more recent enlargement of the genus now incorporated within Parodia. No apologies are offered, I am simply old fashioned.

Notocactus arachnites (41k) : when not in flower this plant is not dissimilar to some gymnocalyciums. It is more cold tolerant than most and less fussy regarding soil conditions. Flowers can be in various shades from yellow to reddish pink.

Notocactus buiningii (61k) : after much searching and experimentation I have at last found a plant which retains its bluish-grey epidermis whilst tolerating a cold winter. The root system of this plant is comparatively small and I grow this plant in a fairly shallow pan using the ericaceous based compost mentioned earlier in this article.

Notocactus graessneri (97k) : is unusual for its greenish- yellow flower colour. Unfortunately its fertility proved its downfall in my greenhouse. Each season it would set fruit in profusion. The fruits were difficult to remove without damaging spine clusters. However if not removed they would attract disfiguring black mould during the winter.

Notocactus haselbergii (40k) : is closely related to the preceding plant but much more striking. The brilliant scarlet flower buds develop very early in the year and are an attraction in their own right contrasting beautifully with the dense white spines. My plant was less likely to fruit and less prone to attack by mould than the previous species but, alas, did succumb in the end.

Notocactus herteri (77k) : a large growing plant which dislikes the winter check in growth and thrives best with additional heat. An acid compost and iron feed help to delay the onset of basal corking. A well grown plant is a fresh glossy grass- green, contrasting with golden yellow spines. The flowers are stunning and a most beautiful illustration of this plant in flower appears in Cacti and Succulents by W. Haage, published by Vista Press.

Notocactus horstii (87k) : not dissimilar to the preceding plant but in my experience somewhat smaller. The flowers are generally in a range of colours from orange to yellow.

Notocactus magnificus (81k) : a plant which truly lives up to its specific name. As already mentioned it does require extra winter warmth if a good unmarked show specimen is required. The plant offsets freely from the base at about the time the first flowers appear. An impressive plant can be achieved in time given enough space and tender loving care. It is another of the plants that seem to do best in an acid soil and rainwater treatment, but with plenty of root run. Care should be taken not to splash the plant with water as this can mark the stem or even wash off the grey-blue bloom that is such a feature of this plant.

Notocactus megapotamicus (83k) : an interesting form or variety of Notocactus ottonis which lacks the dark red stigma of N.ottonis. Generally speaking it is also a much larger growing plant. It appears to be undemanding of winter warmth and recovers quickly each spring after a cold, dry, winter's rest. Several crops of flowers occur from early summer until autumn.

Notocactus muegelianus (72k) : a plant said to be synonymous with Notocactus horstii but also very similar to Notocactus herteri. In my experience this was a smaller growing form and less striking. However, as Notocactus flowers are predominantly yellow its pinkish-orange blooms add interesting variety.

Notocactus ottonis (63k) : an extremely variable plant with very many collectable forms. A feature of this species is the proliferation of offsets usually produced at the junction of the body and the roots. The offsets are readily detached usually with roots. Repotting a large clump can be a problem as there is a tendency for it to break up. Most forms are generally undemanding and are unaffected by winter cold.

Notocactus roseoluteus (55k) : another interesting variation in flower colour. This plant seems to incorporate some of the features of both N.herteri and N.mammulosus. Both flower colour and spination seem to be midway between the two species. The plant can ultimately reach the size of Notocactus herteri but it flowers at a much smaller size and withstands some winter coldness.

Notocacti are excellent plants for both beginner and experienced collector alike. Most of the species are fairly easily acquired and are relatively inexpensive. All grow easily from seed and in the majority of cases begin flowering whilst still quite small. There is an interesting selection of body forms, spine and stem coloration and a wide spectrum of flower colours, with the exception of white. For the old hands there is the knowledge that plants from this genus have frequently won Best Cactus in Show awards. Any newcomer to the hobby who is considering entering the competitive arena might do well to acquire small clean plants of Notocactus buiningii, leninghausii, magnificus and scopa, amongst others for their eventual potential.