Tropic Thunder
- Kevin G. Belmonte () - March 14, 2009 - 12:00am

One of my favorite movies is Adaptation, a wild ride written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. It is loosely — and I mean very loosely — based on the book The Orchid Thief by The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. The story is about horticultural love and lunacy — and in this case it’s all about orchids.

Orlean based her New Yorker article — and later her book — on the real court case involving Laroche, who was accused of poaching an orchid species in a Fakahatchee swamp, a state preserve in Florida, and his obsession over finding the very rare Ghost Orchid.

While I am a cactus and succulent fanatic, there is a scene in the movie that resonates with all plant lovers.  

Laroche asks Orlean: “You know why I like plants?”

“No,” she answers. 

He says: “Because they’re so mutable. Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.”

You figure out how to thrive in the world.

Which brings us to the subject of this column: Cacti in the topics, and how to make them thrive. Because, really, our plants know the difference between the seasons and they behave accordingly after a period of adjustment in our climate.

In the tropics, the seasons are not marked by temperature but by “the combination of trade winds taking water from the oceans and creating seasonal rains called monsoons over the eastern coasts,” according to the encyclopedia. “Several different climatic types can be distinguished within the tropical belt, since latitude is only one of the many factors determining climate in the tropics. Distance from the ocean, prevailing wind conditions, and elevation are all contributing elements. The tropics contain the world’s largest regions of tropical rain-forest climate (the Amazon and Congo basins). These lush, rain-forest regions, whose immense vegetation growth is attributed to monsoon rains, contain some of the most prolific regions on earth for a wide variety of flora and fauna.”

So how do we make cacti thrive in the Philippines? I did a talk at the last horticultural show, using as examples my own experiences and growing conditions — and pictures of my own plants, of course. 

Among other places in the world, cacti easily grow in the deserts of Mexico, extending to the Southwest US, Central America, the Atacama desert in Chile, to sub-tropical South America. The conditions are generally hot and dry, with the exception of sub-tropical to tropical patches in Central to South America.

In the wild, cacti thrive in very high, light conditions with lots of direct sunlight. These kinds of species prefer infrequent but heavy watering (as in an occasional passing rainstorm), they want as much free air circulation as possible and generally inhabit poor soils with little or no organic material, with some exceptions.

Because the growing conditions in, say, Arizona are different from the tropics, their recipes for growing cacti may result in a potential disaster in our backyards.

First of all, our climate doesn’t have the four seasons. Second, we have higher humidity, which means more moisture in the air. Third, sunlight here is more diffused than in dry conditions. And fourth, we have a lengthy rainy season, but temperatures don’t get too cold as in winter.

One of the biggest ways to care for our plants is by simply using porous clay pots instead of plastic. Use one-third sandy loam plus one-third washed river sand and one-third pumice (or lava rock). This ensures a growing medium with few worries.

Water thoroughly once a week all year round, and don’t forget to water a bit more frequently during the very hot months of summer (June and July). Use a 25-percent solution of fertilizer with every other watering from April to November.

The photos with this article show species from Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil. And as you can see, they are healthy, beautiful plants that have adapted so well to the conditions here. It’s just a matter of providing them with the right growing conditions and they will reward you with fantastic blooms.

* * *

Next week: Growing other succulents in the tropics.

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