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Cuckoo cacti

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Published on Friday, September 1, 2023


By Victoria Torley

I happen to like low-growing gardener-friendly succulents, but if you like something more assertive, even aggressive, you might want to try a nice prickly cactus.

When I think of succulents, I don’t usually think of cacti but they really are the ultimate water-storage units. Even their leaves have evolved into something un-leaf like. Yes, those pointy spiny needles are actually leaves (how they got that way is for the evolutionary botanists).

Speaking of spines, take a look at the prickly pear cacti or Opuntia, which have an interesting array of spines in a variety of colors. Spines come in yellow, gold, cinnamon, red, black and white and are a wonderful contrast against the platyclades. 

And just what, you may ask (I did), is a platyclade?

If you are into cacti, you are going to need new words. The platyclade are that, and this is right from the dictionary,– “flattened, photosynthetic shoots, branches or stems that resemble or perform the function of leaves.” So, true leaves became spines and those trunk-like structures that look like green leaves are actually branches. 

And, no, not all platyclades are flattened or paddle-shaped, some are wavy and some are quite round. Either way, they are the part of the plant that performs photosynthesis for the cactus.

Now that platyclades are out of the way, taking their spines with them, let’s look at the prickly pear flowers because these cactus flowers are in profusion. Gold, shocking pink, orange, yellow, bi-colored, purple, the list goes on. Flowers form at the tips of the platyclades so that they look as if they perched there like little birds.

We have a lot of rain in Costa Rica and the Opuntia like it dry with a maximum of about 35 inches of rainfall a year – less than a meter. This is a problem for a lot of us who get up to four meters a year or about 160 inches.

What to do? Plant your cactus in pots and move them undercover in the rainy season, always taking into account that some of the prickly pears can get ten feet tall about three meters. Awkward. Still, there are small Opuntia that will fit well in pots and be easy to move.

If you live near the beach, you have great weather for cacti and can probably plant larger Opuntia directly. Simply make sure that you have the right garden mix for cacti. Well-drained soil is a must – mounded soil works well, and a sprinkle of gravel. Easy on the fertilizer, prickly pears don’t need much.

Did I mention that the fruit of some of the Opuntia is edible? So are some of the platyclades!

Plant of the week. This is the Dichorisandra thyrsiflora, a variety of blue ginger, even though it is not a ginger. In addition to the wonderful deep blue flowers, it will also produce orange seeds. 

Grow your blue ginger in moist soil and in light sun to partial shade. Enjoy it in the garden, where it can grow to eight feet tall – 2.5 meters – or as a cut flower.

Find more amazing stories about gardening in Costa Rica on 
the AM Costa Rica Garden website. Regarding questions on this article, Ms. Victoria Torley, gardener columnist, can be reached at victoriatorley1@gmail.com.

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