Not all cacti are creatures of the desert: Think Canada

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2004

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) It's easy to get stuck on cactus, particularly if you have a bare patch of yard where nothing wants to grow.

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net

But you needn't live in the desert Southwest if you want to add a cactus garden. Any well-drained spot will do. Some varieties are known to survive in temperatures ranging to 40 degrees below zero.

''We've had some growing for years in a cast iron pot in our front yard,'' says Joe Colasanti, president of Colasanti's Tropical Gardens in Ruthven, Ontario, some 25 miles southwest of metropolitan Detroit/Windsor.

''They can take extreme cold, down to (USDA) Zone 3,'' Colasanti says. ''We often have 20-below readings.''

Colasanti raises and sells several varieties of cacti from his 35-acre operation, preferring hardy plants from the Opuntia family.

''They're low- or no maintenance,'' he says. ''The trend today is to get into plants that don't require a lot of water. And there's nothing prettier than a pot of cactus in full bloom.''

Cacti are succulents, native only to the New World, from Canada to Argentina. Approximately 250 of the recognized 3,000 species are found in North America, according to horticulturists with Colorado State University.

Mexico is the cactus hotspot, plant population-wise, but cold-tolerant varieties are common in the arid, high plateaus of the Rocky Mountains and extending well into the plains of Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

And then there's Canada, where at least four species are native to the western provinces and Ontario.

Those cacti able to shrug off extreme cold prefer full sun, good air circulation and excellent drainage.

Plant your temperature-tested plants, cuttings or seeds in exposed areas, preferably in raised beds directed toward the South. Give them at least six hours of su stressing out a great convenience for absentee gardeners or anyone living in drought-prone areas.

''Throw the bloody things into the ground and they grow every year,'' Colasanti says. ''Each year they keep sporting new growth as long as they're not over-wet. You can give them a good wetting but not every day.

''All bloom eventually.''

Recommended reading:

''The Complete Book of Cacti and Succulents'' by Terry Hewitt, DK Publishing.

On the Net:

For more about growing cactus, see Colorado State University Cooperative Extension: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PTLK/1028.html; www.colasanti.com



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