Throughout my gardening life there have been many plants that I tried to grow with middling success, until I observed them growing in the wild. Sarracenia (pitcher plants), venus fly trap (Dioneae muscipula), episcia, and ginger are just a few that come to mind. Seeing them in their natural habitat helped me understand something about the soil, light, moisture, or the communities they grow in that allowed me to better approximate their needs at home in my own garden and pots.
In June 2011 I travelled to Denver, Colorado to speak at the Denver Botanic Gardens. One of many things I was excited to see in the area were cold hardy cactus growing in the wild. I’ve been growing Opuntia humifusa and other hardy cacti in pots for years and had only recently began to have success with them in the ground. But I still felt that there was something that I was missing.
A pretty typical cactus garden with lots of space between plants. Note that I took this photo on the roof of one of the buildings at Denver Botanic Gardens.
It was bought impulsively; one of those corner market jobs that catches your fancy from out of the corner of your eye. And it did, and I did, while walking home slightly inebriated from a decadent restaurant meal. (Worse things have happened under the influence of alcohol, I am sure.)
It shouldn’t have been outside in such cold weather, but that’s how they get you. And let’s face it, I can’t walk past a plant display without looking, no matter where it is and no matter the condition of the plants. And sometimes because of their condition.
“I will save you poor, mistreated plant!”
I always look. Always. And if I don’t stop to look, I at least scan. I am an expert scanner and can spot a diamond in the rough from across the street. I was reared on Midnight Madness Blue Light Special and have decades of thrift store shopping under the belt.
Like all corner market plants, the variety name is unknown. No tag or ID. Not meant to last. Enjoy it while it is in bloom and then toss it once the embarrassment of its ragged condition is enough to outweigh the guilt. Which is too bad really, since they are not terribly difficult to keep and can last decades, generations if you’re determined.
Here’s how to keep a Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) and even get it to rebloom:
At least a decade has passed since I first discovered and started growing cold hardy opuntia and yet it still comes as a surprise that they exist, like some mythical unicorn come to life. And there are so many of them! Some have thick paddles like the big opuntia that produce edible pears in southern climates. Others have thin leaves and stand tall — a lot taller than you’d think possible in freezing climates.
I used to grow winter hardy cactus in pots on the old roof garden, and I had small success (and mostly failure) growing them in the barren earth next to the building; however, moving to a place with a yard was an opportunity to give them a permanent place of importance and experiment with a dry garden bed, albeit on a small scale.
Davin and I were taken with this flowering cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus)
in the Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Here’s an in context shot so that you can see how the plant was growing in a stone trough.
I looked the genus up on the United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database and was shocked to find that some species of Echinocereus are distributed around parts of Colorado and the surrounding states.
I can’t believe how much unexpected plant knowledge was picked up on our short trip. I really want to go back to this part of the United States again. There was so much to see that interested me. I can’t wait to show you more.
Yesterday we drove to Nebraska to see some fields. That was not a difficult task to achieve and is in keeping with what I expected.
But what has surprised me on this trip is just how dry it is here.
Take this picture, shot in Colorado on the way back from Nebraska. This is High Plains and Front Range land that sits in a rain shadow, and not the lush farmland I wrongly imagined.
I love it! I didn’t prepare myself much for this trip. I decided not to look at tons of pictures online or try to imagine what I would see. I came here with little knowledge, leaving open the possibility to be happily surprised.
What’s that hiding in the grass? Opuntia! Hardy opuntia grows everywhere here. I’ve learned so much about the plant by seeing how it grows in the wild and how it protects itself at these high elevations. This has been the happiest surprise so far. A dream come true.
I’ve shot lots of images of all kinds of hardy opuntia and will do a larger post when I get back home on what I’ve observed here.