All About Cacti with @eleanorhurlock
Introducing our new ongoing series that puts an individual family in the spotlight and allows us all to learn from some of the most knowledgeable UK houseplant enthusiasts.
We begin with the Queen of Flowering Cacti herself, Eleanor. Since we first began our journey into the world of houseplants she’s been the most amazing support and source of knowledge for all things cacti. Here she explains her passion and love for cacti, shares some of her know-how and attempts to select her top cacti for beginners.
What is it about cacti that appeals to you?
I like the variety – there’s a type of cactus for everyone, whether it’s small or large; columnar or rounded; long-spined, short-spined, spineless, or even hairy; colourful and dramatic or plain and classic… and of course then there’s the amazing flowers on top of all that! They are also just fascinating plants from a biological perspective, with the way they have adapted to survive in such extreme conditions. There are some cacti that survive in places where it never actually rains, their water comes from small amounts of mist/fog which condenses on their spines and drips down to the roots – how cool is that?
What’s one thing that you wish people knew or would remember about cacti?
Just because the garden centre stuck a label on the pot saying ‘cactus’ doesn’t mean it is one – this is commonly noticed with Euphorbia, Haworthia and Gasteria – all of these are other types of succulent, but they are not cacti.
What are your top tips for cacti care?
- Cacti tend to need a lot of direct light to avoid etiolation (that weak stretched out growth) – if you’re growing indoors and relying on natural light, if it’s not on a windowsill, it’s probably a bad idea!
- Well draining soil is essential – there are many suggestions for cactus soil mixes out there but at least 50% drainage material is a good idea. I use baked clay cat litter for my drainage material (low dust, non-clumping), and pumice is also a nice option if you can find a good source. Some people like perlite, although I’m personally not a fan (white stuff in cactus pots makes a sneaky mealybug harder to spot!).
- Pot type is not important as long as it has a drainage hole – I have plants in terracotta and plastic pots. Desert cacti are not ideal for terrariums – they need airflow and drainage, so even though it might look trendy at first it will make having a healthy plant that bit harder.
- Cacti have the reputation of being easily killed by overwatering, but you can also kill them by underwatering too so don’t just completely ignore them! If your soil mix drains well then it’s harder to kill them by overwatering – just make sure the soil has dried out fully before you give any more water. My plants get watered every week to two weeks throughout the growing season, depending on what point of the season we’re at, how hot it’s been and whether they look like they need it.
- Don’t assume all your plants have the same needs. There’s plenty of variety between different types of cactus, so you may find that some need a little more or less water than others. The pot size and type they are in will also influence how quickly the soil dries out.
- Keep an eye out for pests – mealybug (several different varieties) and root mealybug do love hanging out on cacti, and red spider mite can also be an issue. If you have particularly densely spined plants it can be difficult to spot them if they are hiding under the spines, so just be vigilant!
If you had to recommend a top five cacti for beginners, which cacti would you recommend?
This is tough because there are so many interesting ones! I’ve tried to include a variety and mostly go for more commonly available ones that won’t take up crazy amounts of space – a cactus collection will quickly expand to fill all available space if you’re not careful!
- Mammillaria – there is an incredibly wide variety of different species of Mammillaria and the majority are ideal for beginners . They are also fairly cheap and easy to get hold of and make lovely rings of flowers without needing to be too old, usually pink but can be white or yellow. Some species can form huge spectacular clumps over long periods of time but it’s easy to keep them manageable for smaller spaces.
- Rebutia – there are plenty of different species of Rebutia to investigate, and also increasing numbers of pretty flowered hybrids available. Rebutia are fairly easy to care for, with a few exceptions that can be fussier. The flowers don’t last as long as Mammillaria overall but tend to be more colourful and showy. Rebutia often form offsets for a bit of propagation opportunity, and although they can form big clumps over time the individual heads of the plant tend to stay small, which is great for limited space.
- Schlumbergera – the Christmas cactus or Thanksgiving cactus (depends on the species) – easy and cheap to get hold of the basic varieties, they have a wide variety of flower colours and can grow into some spectacular hanging specimens given time and care! Because these grow in different types of habitat to most cacti, they have different care requirements – higher humidity, more shade and slightly more frequent watering than the ‘desert’ cacti. They are a great introduction to the world of ‘jungle’ cacti.
- Espostoa – I wanted to include a columnar cactus in this list for a bit of variety. I don’t grow too many columnar cacti myself but I do have one of these – they are lovely hairy cacti which are not demanding to grow. Don’t expect to see flowers for a long time on these though!
- Last but definitely not least, Echinopsis! Most plants in cultivation are hybrids of some kind, hybridised over many years – If you’re interested, look up the history of the Paramount hybrids or the Schick hybrids. A lot of modern hybrids have these older hybrids somewhere in their parentage! For most of the year, Echinopsis don’t do a lot other than grow, but when they get to flowering then they are difficult to beat!
Anyone who follows you on Instagram will have seen all of your amazing cacti in flower throughout the growing season. How can people achieve this with their own cacti?
It depends on the cactus – some need to be older than others before they will flower (some need to be very, very old).
If you do have a plant which should be mature enough to flower though, my number one tip is to give it a good winter rest period from late October until March. For me this varies slightly depending on when the weather starts to cool down and then warm back up again, and whether the plants are indoor or outdoor – the indoor plants get a slightly shorter rest than the outdoor ones.
It’s a good idea to gradually reduce watering over the time leading up to the winter rest, and also don’t suddenly drown the plant when you’re waking it back up again – just a splash at first, then build it up.
If you can give a cold rest then do, but I have Mammillaria and Rebutia indoors that flower quite happily without getting overly cold.
I do give some fertiliser (approximately every other watering during the growing season) – anything that is low nitrogen but higher in phosphorus and potassium is a good idea.
If you had to pick just one, which cactus in your collection would you save in a fire?
Ooh, saving the hardest question until last! I can’t even manage to narrow it down to a top ten, because I have plants that I love because of the history I have with them and then other plants that I love because of their spination or their flowers. I’d probably burn to a crisp while trying to decide!
Check out more of Eleanor’s amazing cacti collection through her Instagram @eleanorhurlock