By Prof. Serapion S. Metilla

What is Xerophytic Gardening? From the word “xerophytes,” meaning dry plants, or those that have adapted to survive conditions in which they receive less than average watering, the term “xerophytic gardening” refers to the hobby of growing cacti and other succulents that usually thrive in deserts and arid regions.

Cacti and other succulents are not only cultured just for aesthetics or as curiosities but for many other uses. Grown for food are the young pods of Opuntia ficus indica, commonly called “malpal” among the Visayans, and “dilang baka” among the Tagalogs. They are eaten as vegetables by Mexicans and South Americans. The tender pods, already cleaned, are sold in vegetable markets and you can order cactus soup, cactus salad, and/or grilled cactus from restaurants.

Opuntia with fruits.

The attractive fruits of Hylocereus undatus, commonly called “dragon fruits,” are already commonly sold in fruit stands, mostly in supermarkets. Most cactus fruits have a slightly acid taste. An attractively flavored strawberry jam is made from the fruits of strawberry cactus while the fruits of bilberry cactus (Myrtillocactus) are eaten fresh or dried like raisins. Barbados gooseberry is taken from Pereskias while the fruits of the Epiphyllum anguliger are said to taste almost like real gooseberries.

From the large spherical cactus such as the Golden barrel (E. grusonii), water can be extracted; this has saved many travelers in the desert from hunger and thirst. Its flesh can also be candied. Intoxicating drinks can be prepared from the fruits of the giant cactus Carnegia gigantea. Candies and sweets can also be made from the flesh of Ferocactuc wislezenii and these are sold as cactus candy and acitron.

As medicine, the jellylike flesh of Aloe vera (scabela) have been used for treating wounds, burns, and stomach ulcers. Also made from Aloe vera are beauty cream products which are now popular, especially as ingredients in shampoos and even in detergents. One of the products of the Forever Living company is Aloe vera Gel believed to improve well-being and helps maintain healthy digestive function. A daily diet of Opuntia pods is good for diabetics.

Aloe vera.

In earlier times, cosmetics were produced from insects that grew only in Opuntias. Called “cochineal insects,” (which referred to the red scales), some of the byproducts were used as lipstick, red ink, paints, and wood varnish. Large plantations of Opuntias have been developed in Central America and Canary Islands just to rear this particular insect. When these insects matured, they were harvested by being brushed off from the plants, killed, then dried. It is estimated that one kilogram of dried products consist of 140,000 pieces of scales. These were exported to Germany, England, and other countries. These types of business flourished in the 1880s to 1890s.

As tools, the spines of certain species of cactus have been used by birds, particularly the barbed spines of the Galapagos Opuntias, to remove maggots from rotten wood. Spines have been used as toothpicks by the native Indians of the Peruvian highlands; they also used the spines of some columnar cacti as needles. The hookshaped spines of Mammillaria bocasana have also been used by natives as fishhooks.

Firewood and lumber or building materials for houses are also gathered from the stems of large columnar Trichocereus by the natives of Argentia and Bolivia living on the frontiers. As hedges or living fences, some types of cacti and Euphorbias are not only artistic but practical, especially as protection from burglars and thieves as well as unwanted animals. Before World War II, the so-called sisal fiber from maguey (Agave sp.) was in demand, like abaca fiber. It has been used in ropes, clothing and textiles, paper products, and some handicrafts. But probably because of synthetic fibers, the demand has gone low.

In November 1994, about 150 houses were burned to the ground in the artist colony of Laguna Beach in Southern California. Murray Parks, whose house was one of those that survived untouched, said that the reason his house was spared was because of the succulent plants he planted surrounding his house. Parks added that some years back, he planted moisture bearing ice plants (Lamparanthus of the Aizoaceae family) right up to the walls of his house, including the rooftops. “We tried to get our neighbors to do the same but they did not. If they did, their houses would still be standing.”

In another fire incident, the house of Hollywood actor Tom Selleck was spared because he planted fire resistant bushes and shrubs in addition to ice plants surrounding his Malibu home. According to Selleck, part of the fencing were destroyed but did not go beyond the moisture resistant plants. Because of the findings from this particular incident, Edgar Lobst of Oakland, California, who was the botanist at the Los Angeles garden center, said more and more people have been “firescaping” their properties with the use of cacti and other succulents as fences, accents for the landscape, and as ground cover.

Golden Barrel.

As a result, Fire Department officials of California are now recommending to homeowners through brochures what plants to use outside their homes. Apart from their being useful in the prevention of fires, the cacti and other succulents can help minimize the use of water because they can withstand less watering for days or weeks.

As flower arrangements and/or dish gardens for indoors, one advantage is that they do not need plenty of watering and can stay indoors longer than most other plants. Scientists recommend cacti and other succulents for indoors because they give off oxygen and in return absorb carbon dioxide and other VOCs (volatile organic chemicals) that are pollutants. Without these plants, people will be inhaling the VOCs that contribute to ailments such as cancer. Bear in mind that cacti and other succulents like all other ornamentals are the real air cleaners. It is therefore highly recommended that homeowners grow cacti and other succulent plants both indoors and outdoors, most especially in urban areas.

That is why the Cactus and Succulent Society of the Philippines, Inc. has been organized for xerophytic hobbyists. Once a month, the members meet and discuss, using lecture demonstrations, the care and propagation of succulents not only for the sake of collection but also for other purposes. It works to share with all Filipinos the art of cooking with cacti out of a certain variety of Opuntia and how to use some types of succulents as medicine, a source of important vitamins, and as beauty aids.

Becoming popular are the dragon fruits of a rambler type of cactus, Hylocereus undatus, now sold in many fruit stands.

Sanseviera.

The xerophytes are composed of cacti and other succulents. By the way, cacti are succulents but not all succulents can be called cacti. For example: many people call the Euphorbia lactea a cactus when the plant belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family. Under this family, not all are succulents (for example, poinsettias and the crotons or what is locally called “San Francisco”). The poinsettia is scientifically called Euphorbia pulcherrima while the San Francisco is the Codiauem variegatum belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family. The Sanseviera trifasciata “Hahnii” and the Haworthis are usually referred to as cactus when they are actually under the Liliaceae family.

All members of the Cacteceae family are succulents, unlike in other families, which have only a few succulents. Under the Aizoaceae family, the most common are the Lithops and the Mesems. In the Amaryllidacacea, the succulent types are the Agaves. Sisal fiber is produced from a certain variety of agave and the famous Mexican tequila is produced from a blue variety of Agave.

The succulent types under the Apocynaceae family are the Adeniums, Pachypodiums, and the Plumerias. The only succulent under the Araceae family is the Zamioculcas. Under the Asclepiadaceae family, there is the Huernias, Carallumas, Hoyas, Hoodias, Tavarisias, and Dischidias, among others. Dyckias, Tilladsias, and Crypthanthus are the succulent types under the Bromeliaceae family. Under the Compositae family (Daisy family), the succulents are some varieties of the Senecios. Most members of the Crassulaceae family are succulents. However, many of them can hardly be cultured in the Philippines. There are also the so-called caudiciforms that are considered succulents. Caudiciforms are plants with enlarged basal parts or parts of the roots. Some of them are under the Vitaceae family like the Cissus jutae and the Turbinas and Merremias under the Convolvulaceae family.

Propagation and Care 

Euphorbia sp. used as fence.

Succulents can be propagated with seeds, cuttings, and separation of offsets. Cuttings or separation of offsets should be done during the dry months and during sunny days. Seeds, however, can be done any time of the year. All propagation should be done in a very sanitary way to prevent fungal infection. Use a very porous potting mixture such as a mixture of one part of loamy soil, one part fine rive sand, one part coco coir dust, one part rice hull, and one part burnt rice hull, just barely moist and not wet.

When newly cut from the mother plant, let the cut portion dry first for about three to five days before planting. Give it just enough water to keep it moist and not wet. When rooted, you may water well down to the bottom of the pot but let the soil dry before watering again.

Although some succulents can survive in open areas, most others have to be housed with plastic roofing so that they can be protected from being too wet during the rainy season.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2018 issue.