Windsor Garden Club hosts cacti and succulents presentation

By Calla Vassilopoulos - Staff Writer
Windsor - posted Fri., Sep. 13, 2013
Ruth Craig holds one of the succulents from the University of Connecticut's greenhouse on display at the meeting on Sept. 9. Photos by Calla Vassilopoulos.
Ruth Craig holds one of the succulents from the University of Connecticut's greenhouse on display at the meeting on Sept. 9. Photos by Calla Vassilopoulos.

The Windsor Garden Club hosted its first meeting of the year on Sept. 9. The meeting featured a “Cacti and Succulents for the Windowsill” presentation by Matthew Opel, Ph.D., a horticulturist in the teaching and research greenhouses in the University of Connecticut Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

As he began the presentation, Opel explained the difference between cacti and succulents, which he said is as simple as cacti is one family of succulents. He said succulents is a more general term for plants that survive extended periods of drought.

“One of the old-timers in the Cactus Club used to start off his talks by saying a succulent is any plant that you go on vacation for two weeks and it's still alive when you get back,” said Opel.

The first cactus Opel passed around to the group was a golden barrel, an extraordinarily rare plant in the wild. He said the natural habitat is in the hillsides of Mexico, but most of the area has been wiped out by flooded reservoirs and hydropower development. However, he said they are extremely common in cultivation and are made by the thousands, maybe millions, in California nurseries each year.

Another plant he spoke about was the mammillaria, which is known to be a large cactus family also found in Mexico. On the cactus are white hairs, which he believed helps the plant adapt to surviving in a hot desert environment and also reflects away sunlight.

“Those white hairs are like you wearing a white t-shirt in the hot sun; it keeps the plant cooler and probably prevents a certain amount of dehydration,” said Opel.

He said though the hairs are soft and harmless, there are spines underneath, which, like most cactus, can be painful if touched.

Opel also mentioned the prickly pears, which are native to the northeast and Connecticut. He said they have little fuzzy hair-looking pieces on the surface of the pad, which are considered modified succulent stems.

“It kind of looks like hairs, but you find out very quickly if you're growing them, they are not hairs, they are tiny spines,” said Opel.

He said they are actually held loosely in the pits and can break off easily, causing them to get under the skin if touched. A good way of getting them out of your skin, he said, is duct tape if there are many, and tweezers if there are just a few. Opel said when transplanting any cactus, it is best to use newspaper or barbecue tongs; however, cactus gloves will work, too.

One of the more unusual plants he presented was called "opuntia fragilis," which can be found in extremely cool, dry environments such as parts of Canada. He said the succulent plant is the most northern-growing cactus known.

Opel obtained a degree from Cornell University in biology and received his doctorate in botany from UConn. He is known as a specialist in South African desert plants, but has a general interest in many aspects of botany and biology. He has traveled to the American Southwest and South Africa multiple times to conduct botanical research and has had one of his finds, "tylecodon opelii," named in his honor.

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