This week we're in the desert and learn
the difference between high desert and low desert. Different
varieties of Cactus are introduced, many of which will grow
throughout the country.
We're visiting Bisbee, Arizona, once home
to the Chiricahua Apaches and their chief Cochise. A young
Army Lieutenant, Tony Rucker was chasing Apaches when he
came into the Mule Mountains and found water in the desert,
a valuable commodity. Upon closer inspection he found what
looked like a mineral strike. Since he was in the Army and
couldn't make the claim he talked a friend, George Warren,
into staking the claim. That claim, around, the 1900's became
one of the largest copper strikes ever found. Over time
that stake was acquired by various mining companies, in
fact Phelps Dodge had its' start in Bisbee.
Bisbee today draws a wide number of visitors,
not just because of its' history but because of its' climate.
It is a charming little town, after driving through the
tunnel it is like a time warp. Many consider the climate
of the high desert, perfect. The elevation in Bisbee is
over 5,000 feet, yet rises to over 8,000 feet. This altitude
fosters many different plant zones.
David Eppele has been studying desert
plants for over 55 years. He has chosen Bisbee because he
can grow a greater variety of plants in this location than
anywhere else in the Southwest. His work at Arizona Cactus
and Succulent Research, centers around educating the public
on the ease of growth of Cactus plants, the uses of Cactus
plants and the ornamental uses of these unique plants in
Bisbee is in the Chihuahua Desert, a high
desert, and receives twice the rainfall of the Sonoran Desert,
around Tucson. While Tucson may receive 6 inches per year,
this area receives 16 inches per year. That's a big difference.
High desert is anything above 3,800 feet, while the Sonoran
Desert ranges from 3,800 down to about 0. At this location,
outside of Bisbee, the elevation is 4,780 feet, Tucson is
about 2,000 feet. The difference in altitude means Tucson
gets hotter and stays hotter longer, the elevation helps
cool things down. If the temperature in Tucson is 105 degrees,
it may only be 95 in Bisbee and Bisbee has much higher humidity.
The humidity at 5 AM may be 43%, that's a lot of water and
that water isn't recorded as normal rainfall. This means
things green up more readily, certainly more so than other
deserts. And the moisture is not just confined to rainy
Many people have tried to grow Cactus
and many have failed. The single biggest reason for this
failure is over-watering, people try to water Cactus like
they would a Geranium. If growing cactus plants in pots,
they should be grown in well drained soil which requires
a considerable amount of sand, then natural garden soils.
Some growers add Perlyte. If Cactus are planted in the proper
soil and you've left an inch at the top of the pot, fill
it with water, to the top, let it drain through and walk
away. Water your Cactus twice a week in the summer, once
a month in the winter. Use well drained soils, a sunny window,
keep it simple. They need very light fertilization, Cactus
plants manufacture their own and they are such low growers
they don't respond well to a quick shot of phosphates or
Many have tried growing the cactus with
a grafted top, that is often red. This is a poor choice
and one probably doomed for failure. The top portion is
a genetically challenged plant, living on the strength of
the stalk below. The bottom plant is normally over watered,
that transfers to the top and it begins to rot, that then
transfers to the lower plant and everything dies, although
A pup is an easy way to start a new Cactus
plant. Cactus can be grown from flower or seed or break
off a section of the plant (a pup), dig a hole in half sand,
half soil, walk away and the new plant will follow. Growing
Cactus indoors isn't difficult. David grows his in what
he calls his torture chamber. It isn't heated in the winter
and isn't cooled in the summer. thus the temperature ranges
from 140 degrees to 20 degrees. Your house won't have these
extreme temperature fluctuations, thus growing them inside
your home should be fine. Keep them in a South window, which
means they will warm to possibly 80 degrees during the day
and may cool to 65 degrees at night. That is perfectly fine
for these plants, they're really tough.
In this part of the country and many parts
of the country you can "push the zone." To do
that find little isolated spots, a place where solid walls,
a tree or another type of shelter is present and place plants
in this area. Asparagus Sprygerii is a warm, almost tropical
plant yet is doing well in this environment when it shouldn't
be thriving in this zone. It is in an enclosed area, thus
protected. Don't be afraid to push the zone if you have
enclosed areas, they often provide an extra 10 degree of
warmth during colder times.
We visit again with Russ Buhrow, the Curator
of Plants at Tohono Chul Park and again look at desert plants.
If in an area and you see Cactus there is a good chance
you're in one of the American Deserts. Most American deserts
have Cacti. Those Deserts can be found from the central
United States all the way down to almost the tip of South
America. Many equate Cactus with stickers and not too pretty
plants. Those people haven't been around when Cactus are
in bloom. It often seems the ugliest Cactus have the most
gorgeous flowers. When the Cactus are in bloom it's glorious.
We look at several wonderful desert plants.
First is the Ocotillo. That is a Mexican
word and it is a semi-succulent shrub. It holds a lot of
moisture in its leaves and stems and can live several years
without water. If one were to take the stems and put them
into the ground, they'll make a living fence, no animals
will go through. It has a bark like substance on the outside,
but has little green rivers running through it. When the
plant gets distressed, during drought, it throws away its'
leaves. It strips to the Petiole and what is left is a nasty
spine, which is actually a leaf petiole. These plants look
great silhouetted or backlit or against a flat wall. They
produce bright red flowers, all point upward and are great
at attracting Hummingbirds.
The Prickly Pear is native to the Western
United States, even Canada and Florida. The plant we view
is the Santa Rita Prickly pear. It's normally a blue color,
the pads turn purple. It's striking, very ornamental with
a great contrast between the flowers and the pads. Their
stems are flattened and on each leaf are Areoles, little
harpoons or barbs numbering 200-300 on each Areoles. They
will get under the skin, if big they can be removed with
tweezers, if small some put Elmers glue over the effected
area, let it dry and pull them out that way. The fruit is
edible, especially the Engelmann Prickly Pear. It tastes
like slightly under-ripe watermelon. They have trip wires
for stamens. A bee will be working inside, the thing snaps
shut, makes him buzz around and shakes pollen off on him
so he'll carry it to the next flower.
Cholla is a close relative of the Prickly
Pear. This is a Cane Cholla, Opuntia Spinosia and is in
bloom. The buds can be eaten when young but the spines and
glaugets must first be removed.
The Jumping Cholla has especially big
spines. They have a barbed sheath that once into you won't
easily pull out. When they do pull out, the sheath breaks
off in the skin and festers.
Saguaro Cactus is the state flower of
Arizona. They grow fast if near water, but slow if dry.
This plant could be anywhere from 60 years up to 100 years
old. The holes in the main trunk indicate abuse, possibly
a bullet hole. Woodpeckers also make holes. The fruit is
edible and taste something like a Banana. The red part in
the middle tastes like watermelon, like other Cacti. It's
legal to eat the fruit but not legal to cut or harvest the
plant itself. They can be purchased if they have state tags.
The state has a program designed for salvaging the Saguaro
before development destroys them.
Agave sends up a really large flower shoot
then dies. Agave Desert Simplex is a succulent native to
the low mountains and desert. Agaves range in size from
tiny, the size of a fist, to as large as 20 feet across.
It provides a strong element, a striking plant in the landscape.
It is a great accent plant. The leaf impressions are spectacular.
This occurs when the spines press into the leaves. They
like well drained soil, can tolerate a little wetter ground,
yet if too wet the base leaves will start to rot and can
be lost. They are fibery and can be used for rope, their
threads are quite strong. All Agaves can be fermented and
used to make alcoholic beverages.
Cactus are tough, durable plants and they
have a lot of uses as well. David Eppele teaches classes
on cooking with Cactus. Latin people have used Cactus as
a staple food for a long time. These plants have recently
come to the attention of nutritionists as well as the general
public. Cactus is loaded with nutritional value. According
to David, one Prickly Pear pad has 10 times the Vitamin
C of any citrus product. Clean the spines off a Prickly
Pear pad, cut it into small strips, mix vinegar and oil
and one has a wonderful salad. By themselves the pieces
taste like peas, a little tart but good.
Thanks this week to David Eppele, El Jeffe,
of Arizona Cactus and to Russ Buhrow of Tahona Chul Park.
We appreciate your both guiding us through these desert
plants. We feel emboldened to try growing desert plants
in our homes and gardens. Thanks to both of you.
Canyon Rose Suites
Arizona Cactus Succulent
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