The cactus with the most beautiful flowers

10-EchinopsisNowadays, it is rare to receive a letter by snail mail. You know, the old-fashioned way that mail was sent, before the advent of personal computers and e-mail. Surely you remember. Not too long ago, there was a time when you would sit down with stationery and pen, handwrite a letter and send it off courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.

Whenever one of these old-fashioned letters comes my way, which is approximately twice a year, I cannot help but sit up and take notice. And the letter I received this week is definitely worth noticing since the plant it describes produces flowers as beautiful as any you will ever see. Moreover, it is a plant that can be grown successfully either in the ground or in containers, in both full to partial sun, and with not too much water, so that anyone who loves flowers, even if all you have is a small patio or balcony, can probably coax a flourish of blooms from its spiny and leathery coat. The plant in question is a cactus known as Echinopsis, which is derived from a Greek word meaning both hedgehog and sea urchin.

Mike Marchese, my pen-and-ink correspondent, who lives in Northridge and included a photo along with his missive, wrote as follows: “The cactus pictured is about 16 inches high and 6 inches in diameter. Last year, it put out blooms at three different times, about 30-40 blooms each time. It is doing the same this year. The blooms are about 3-4 inches wide and trumpet shaped. It also puts out a bunch of baby plants, almost all the time. Flowers are pink. As Jacques Cousteau would say, ‘C’est incroyable!’ (It’s beyond belief.) Curious as to whether you have seen anything like this.”

No, I have never seen anything like this. To see that many blooms several times a year on such a small plant is truly incroyable. It speaks both to your prowess as a horticulturist and to the astonishing flowering potential of Echinopsis, whose various species and hybrids bloom in white, pink, yellow, orange, red and every combination of those colors, may produce flowers whose trumpets are as large as six inches across. It is not unusual to see flourishes of blooms several times a year, especially where summers are hot. In order to achieve maximum bloom, you will need to fertilize monthly, from March until September, with any all-purpose liquid fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro. Alternatively, you can fertilize every time you water if you dilute your fertilizer recommended dosage by one-sixth with each watering.

The idea that all cactus types grow best in full sun is a widespread horticultural myth. Many kinds of cactus, including Echinopsis, experience sunburn when exposed to full sun for months at a time, especially in our inland valleys. Only through trial and error can you determine how much sun your particular cactus species can comfortably accept. You can grow Echinopsis in the ground but only where soil drainage is perfect. If you wish to grow Echinopsis in containers, create a soil mix that is 75 percent potting soil and 25 percent construction grade sand. Although Echinopsis can survive with only occasional watering, they will flower at full potential when regularly watered. The information on Echinopsis culture reported here, as well as other useful Echinopsis growing tips, may be found at echinopsis.com.

Cosmos is a plant that is commonly thought of an annual reaching several feet tall with flowers that range from pink to pale purple and whose foliage is finely cut. Its botanical name is Cosmos bipinnatus and you will see it blooming here and there from now until fall. However, there is another cosmos species (Cosmos sulphureus), whose flower color spectrum ranges from gold to orange, that is also worthy of consideration for the spring and summer garden. Just the other day, I saw a splendid planting of it and, if you scatter seed packets of it right now, you will see it flower for you soon enough. Both Cosmos species require all day sun to grow their best. Where sun exposure is restricted in any way, Cosmos is prone to develop powdery mildew fungus on their leaves.

Gaura (rhymes with Laura) lindheimeri is a wonderfully drought-tolerant selection that no Valley garden should be without. You can find it in white, in pink and in magenta. It needs very little water once it has established itself and begun to flower with gusto. It also self-sows so that you should witness its self-perpetuation, in the form of newly sprouted seedlings that will eventually turn into full blown flowering plants, for years to come. As an aside, I should mention that at one of the entrances to the Samarian city of Ariel, in the Land of Israel, there is a massive planting of Gaura, spread out as a welcome mat to visitors from the four corners of the Earth.

I saw Gaura blooming a few days ago in Valley Village, in the company of Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). Mexican feather grass is a dreamy plant that looks its best when its golden flowers are blooming at their utmost and a breeze passes by. Ornamental grasses such as this are appreciated not only for their heavenly flowers and for their drought-tolerance but for what garden designers have designated as their “kinetic quality,” which simply means that they sway in a breeze. This is the call of the 21st century gardener: give me drought tolerance, beauty and movement all at once. Attraction to beneficial insects or wildlife is an added bonus.

Tip of the Week

Salvia ‘Allen Chickering’ is among the toughest of California native plants. It blooms now and into the summer, requiring little, if any, water other than winter rain. Flowers are lavender and this woody perennial should persist for several years, at least, in the garden. You can find it, along with hundreds of other native plants, at the Theodore Payne Nursery in Sun Valley.

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