GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2004 show8
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Show #8

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 the landscape.

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 seasons.

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 nitrogen.

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 slowly.

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.

Links ::

Canyon Rose Suites
Tohono Chul Park
Arizona Cactus Succulent Research

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