Plants for the beginner
- Kevin G. Belmonte () - July 11, 2009 - 12:00am

(This week Succulentophile gives way to an article by Peter A. Bangayan.)

A  beginning cacti and succulent collector usually has a wide variety of interesting and unusual plants to choose from and at times this can become quite confusing. There are several thousand species from the many different plant families that can be considered succulents and the best known of these are plants belonging to the cactus family. Members belonging to other succulent plant families such as Agave, Aloe, Asclepiad, Euphorbia, and others are also readily available in plant shops. Usually the beginner uses trial and error and experimentation in choosing which plants to grow. Sometimes this can be very discouraging because the plants die or do not grow as nice-looking as the ones they see in books. 

In a lot of cases (as in business and marketing), one of the most important things to consider is location. The Philippines is located at about 13 degrees longitude north of the equator and therefore has a tropical climate. The temperature usually ranges from a high of 30-something degrees centigrade during the daytime to a low of about 18 degrees during nighttime in many high-altitude areas. In terms of altitude highlands can be defined as places that are about 1,000 ft. or more above sea level and the lowlands below 1,000 ft. altitude. In the highlands the temperature difference between day and night is usually 10 degrees or more, while in the lowlands it is about five degrees. The island groups of Luzon and Visayas usually experience typhoons and the weather can become extremely wet and humid during the wet season from July to November while Mindanao hardly ever experiences typhoons. Being closer to the equator, it is hotter and has more or less uniform weather throughout the year. 

Plants have evolved for thousands of years to adapt to specific environments. To grow any plant successfully one must try to look at their native habitats to get a clue as to where a plant should be placed and how it should be treated. Most succulent plants live in dry, desert environments although a small number can be found in dry forests. Many deserts and dry forests experience occasional heavy rains and flash flooding.   Some succulent plants grow under the full sun, while some in semi-shade under larger desert plants or grass. A little research on a plant’s habitat can give you a good idea of where to situate your plant, either in a sunny location or semi-shade. The appearance of a plant can also give a good clue as to where it should be situated. Very spiny cacti like Ferocactus or Echinocactus will appreciate full sun for most of the day; these plants have evolved heavy spines to provide it with shade and protection from herbivores in the open desert. Likewise epiphytic cacti such as Rhipsalis, Epiphylum or Hylocereus, which have minuscule to almost invisible spines, can only grow well in semi-shade. 

Another important factor to consider when growing succulents is the temperature differential between day and night. In the desert the daytime temperatures are very hot while during nighttime, temperatures are quite cold. Because of this many desert plants have evolved to utilize what botanists call Crassulean Acid Metabolism or CAM for short. In CAM, the plants gather the sun’s energy during the day and use the energy during the night to metabolize. Their stomata close during the day to conserve water and open during the cool evenings to transpire. In some studies made on cacti, metabolism peaks when the day and nighttime temperature difference reaches about 15 degrees centigrade. This is why many cacti do very well in the highlands.

Since most of the succulent plants come from the desert or dry forest, protection from the frequent rains during the wet season is a must. Plants may be situated under the eaves of the house or they may be placed in a greenhouse or under clear polycarbonate or fiberglass roofing. Plants that need plenty of sun should be given at least five to six hours of sunlight for them to develop a compact body and more natural-looking spines and color while plants that normally grow under semi-shade in the wild can do with one to two hours of morning sun or 50 to 60 percent shading if grown under full sun.

Although succulent plants grow in many different kinds of soils in the wild, surprisingly, most plants are not fussy when it comes to the growing medium. As long as the soil mixture is fast-draining, contains enough minerals and nutrients and gives good support, the plant will most likely flourish in it. The standard soil mixture is one-third good garden loam, one-third gritty sand and one-third well-composted organic matter. The last ingredient should be chosen with care: the compost must be well rotted with a good, earthy smell. Some people add charcoal bits, bone meal, pumice, Perlite, etc., which can give the soil mixture added nutrients (as in bone meal) or more drainage (pumice, Perlite, crushed charcoal). (To be continued)

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