Old Man Cactus Care – Tips For Growing Old Man Cactus Houseplants
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
If you are looking for a houseplant with a lot of character and personality, consider growing old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). While it isn’t wrinkly or on social security, the plant does have fluffy white tufts of hair over the surface of the cactus body. The appearance is reminiscent of senior citizen pates, lightly cushioned by sparse, long billowy hair. Indoor cactus growing is most suitable in the majority of the United States growing zones. Learn how to grow an old man cactus and bring the cute little plant with the fuzzy white hairdo into your home.
Old Man Cactus Houseplants
This cactus can go outside in USDA zones 9 and 10. Native to Mexico, they need hot, dry climates and bright sunlight. The long hair is used by the plant to keep itself cool in its natural habitat. As an outdoor plant, they can get 45 feet (13 m.) tall but are generally slow growing as potted plants.
Old man cacti are mostly grown as houseplants and stay small and easily kept in a container for their entire lives. Indoor cactus growing requires a southern- or western-facing window and temperatures of at least 65 F. (18 C.). For best growth, give it a winter hibernation period in an area where temperatures are below 65 F. (18 C.).
How to Grow an Old Man Cactus
Use a cactus mix or blend of sand, perlite and topsoil for indoor cactus growing. Also, use an unglazed pot for growing old man cactus. This will allow the pot to evaporate any excess moisture. Old man cactus houseplants like their soil on the dry side and overwatering is a common cause of rot and disease.
Old man cactus needs a sunny, warm location but has few other needs. You should watch it carefully for pests, however, which can hide in the hair. These include mealybugs, scale, and flying pests.
Old Man Cactus Care
Allow the top couple of inches of soil dry out completely between waterings. In winter, reduce watering to once or twice during the season.
Fertilize with a cactus food in early spring and you might be rewarded with thick pink flowers. In the plant’s natural habitat it grows a 1-inch (2.5 cm.) long fruit, but this is rare in captive cultivation.
There is very little leaf or needle drop and no reason to prune as part of old man cactus care.
Growing Old Man Cactus Seeds and Cuttings
Old man cactus is easy to propagate from cuttings or seed. Seeds take a long time to grow into something recognizable as a cactus, but it is a cheap and fun project for children.
Cuttings need to lie out on the counter in a dry location for a couple of days to callus. Then insert the cut end with the dry, white callus into a soilless medium, such as sand or perlite. Keep the cutting in moderate, but not scalding, light where temperatures are at least 70 F. (21 C.) for best rooting. Don’t water until the little cutting has rooted. Then treat your new old man cactus houseplants as you would a mature specimen.
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old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis)
They are furry, fuzzy and friendly looking. However, they are not to be touched. Even so, sooner or later, if you have a hankering for drought-tolerant plants, you are bound to see them at the nursery and take one home. Just looking at any of them calms the nerves, not only because of their soft and whimsical appearance, but because they require the barest minimum of attention to grow.
Old Man Cactus Comes from Mexico
I am talking about three cactus species that you most likely have seen, here or there, but which you may not know much about unless you have a special fondness for growing them and their ilk. All of these cacti come from Mexico, will easily grow in the Valley, and placidly survive both droughty summers and freezing winters.
The first of this memorable triumvirate is old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). It is endowed with bearded plumage as a defense against desert heat. In 20 years, it may grow no more than 2 feet tall in its Mexican habitat, although it can grow much more quickly under cultivated conditions, and eventually reach more than 30 feet in height. When young, its silver fur grows out to 8 inches in length, but at maturity it becomes hairless. No matter how tall it gets, it never produces branches.
The old man cactus’ soft, if shaggy, beard conceals wicked spines, and thus caressing it carries considerable risk. In spring or early summer, propagate it by cutting off its top. Allow the cut-off portion to stand for a period of about two weeks, during which time it should develop a thickened layer of callus. It can now be planted in a container in fast-
draining soil mix where it will eventually develop roots and may be planted as a companion to the original.
Old Man Cactus Demands Better Drainage than Most Cactus species
Old man cactus demands better drainage than most cactus species, so add a measure of perlite to the standard cactus mix of three parts potting soil and one part sharp sand. An alternative cactus mix includes one part peat moss, one part sand and one part perlite. Of course, it is easiest to simply purchase a bag of customized cactus soil mix, available at most nurseries and home improvement centers.
Maximizing Old Man Cactus Beard Growth
To maximize beard growth, situate the old man in a bright, if not exceptionally hot, location.
Shampoo Old Man Beard with Dilute Shampoo Solution
You can even clean its hair, should it darken, with a very dilute shampoo solution.
Old Man Cactus May Take 20 Years to Flower
It does not flower for its first 10 to 20 years of life but, eventually, you should see flowers in yellow, red or white.
If you purchase your old man, or any cactus, for that matter, in the winter, just set it on your patio until spring. Cactus prefers to be planted in the ground when the weather warms. In cold soil, cactus becomes dormant and any excess water can kill it.
Thimble cactus (Mammillaria vetula ‘Gracilis’ or Mammillaria fragilis) grows no more than 6 inches tall and, as its species names suggest, it has both graceful and fragile characteristics. You do not grow one solitary thimble cactus but, rather, a whole party of them since they quickly multiply vegetatively into a gregarious clump.
Planted out in the garden, thimble cactus offsets are frequently broken off by pets but, not to worry, you can easily plant the detached pieces and start whole new clumps from them.
In the manner of most Mammillaria cactuses, which is probably the most popular cactus group, thimble cactus is characterized by tubercles, which are mini-tubers or warts on the surface from which yellow spines emanate. Looking at thimble cactus, you may think it is a cute little thing and long to rub its surface. Again, you do so at your peril because the white threads that you see do a nice job of concealing its piercing spines.
One of the most popular of all cacti is bunny ears or polka-dot cactus (Opuntia microdasys). It has what appear to be innocuous, fibrous white dots on its pads, which are, once again, deceptively inviting.
Each of these dots or areoles bear hundreds of tiny, wicked, barbed threads known as glochids (GLAH-kids). They sound like creatures out of some science fiction story and, truly, are unlike any other spines or thorns in the botanical world. Unlike typical cactus spines, which may stick you but stay on the plant, glochids, which are also found on the fruit of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica), detach from their pads and, lodged in the skin, may cause a nagging dermatitis that lasts for months.
Research has shown that, if you are stuck, the most successful procedure for glochid removal involves two steps. First, pull out as many of the glochids as possible with tweezers. Next, cover a piece of gauze with Elmer’s or Borden’s glue and lay it on top of your skin where the glochids are embedded. Let the glue dry and keep the gauze in place for 30 minutes before peeling it off.
To keep free from glochids when handling your bunny ears, be sure to wear a pair of thick gloves.
Tip of the week
No tree has more beautiful foliage and no tree is more resistant to pests than the chinaberry (Melia azederach). The chinaberry has fragrant lilac-colored flowers that appear in the spring. It is deciduous and its lush, fernlike foliage turns a vivid gold before dropping in late fall.
Flesh-colored berries adorn the otherwise naked tree during winter months. Its bark is a deep shade of brown, hinting at its close relationship to the mahogany tree. In the Valley, the chinaberry is probably the most modest-sized shade tree you will encounter and it is highly drought tolerant. It produces lots of suckers so you will have to work at keeping it a single-trunk tree. Despite having a fast growth rate, it does not exceed 40 feet in height, while its canopy expands to 25 feet. A relative of the neem tree, from which the neem insecticidal products are derived, its leaves and bark are powerful pest deterrents. In 30 years of Valley plant watching, I have never seen the chinaberry affected by pests of any kind.
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The Steps To Growing Cactus From Seed
1. Acquiring the seeds
The first step to planting cactus seeds is purchasing them. Most garden supply stores will have the seeds, and you also have the option of buying online. The good thing about buying online is you can select your preferred species through a simple click on your laptop and delivery is done to your doorstep. Some stores will even sell the seeds in packets of different species.
The other option would be to pick your own seeds from already blooming cactus in case you grow them. The seed pods are usually some brightly-coloured off-shoots that bear flowers. Once the flowers fall off, what is left is the pod.
Sowing your seeds in late winter or early spring is the best time because it will give the seedlings ample time to grow during summer.
2. Harvesting from the pods
As mentioned, if you decide to harvest the seeds yourself, then you need to remove the pods. It is recommended to remove the pods when they are still damp but not wet. The seeds are usually inside the pod.
Once you remove all mature pods from your cactus, you need to remove the seeds. Using a knife, slice the pods and scrape off the seeds. Note, seed color varies from different species. Some are usually black or have some reddish dots. They also vary in size some are extremely small.
3. The soil you plant the seeds in is significant
One thing about cactus seedlings is that they are intolerant to poorly draining soil. You need to protect your seedlings from common cactus problems such as bacteria and molds, which means the soil needs to be sterilized.
To sterilize the soil, you can bake or microwave the soil mix.
There are various ways you can sterilize your soil before using it to plant the seedlings.
You can steam the soil using a pressure cooker. Pour in a few cups of water into the pressure cooker and place shallow pans of soil (not more than 4 inches deep) over the rack top. For each pan, cover it with foil paper and then close the lid. Steam for about 30 minutes.
In case you don’t have a pressure cooker, pour an inch of water into a sterilizing container and place soil-filled pans (usually covered with foil) on a rack on the water. Cover the container and steam for about 30 minutes.
For both methods, after steaming, allow the soil to cool while wrapped with foil until you are ready to use.
If you decide to use a microwave, fill microwave-safe containers with moist soil and covered with a lid. Don’t use foil here. Ensure there are ventilation holes on the lids to prevent pressure buildup.
Heat your soil for 90 seconds. Leave the soil to cool by covering the ventilation holes with tape.
The other option would be putting two pounds of moist soil into a polypropylene bag. Place the soil in the microwave with the top left part open to allow ventilation. Heat the soil for about 2minutes 30 seconds full power. Once you are done, close the bag and allow it to cool.
For the oven, you need a container that’s specific for oven use. Put soil about 4 inches deep into the container and cover it with foil. Using a thermometer, place it at the centre and heat at 180F for about 30 minutes.
Once the time lapses, allow the soil to cool and remove the foil only when you are ready to use the soil.
When coming up with a soil mixture for your cactus seedlings, you need to find the right proportions for your seedlings to germinate. You will need
- Pumice or granite stone
- Cactus soil
First, the base of the soil mixture should be pumice stone and the cactus soil. Start by removing any chunks in the cactus soil because they may potentially be a breeding place for bacteria as well as not drain water well.
Once you sift the cactus soil, mix with the pumice or granite stone. In case you don’t find pumice stone, you can use limestone screenings, which is also a cheaper option. Make sure the pumice is more by about 10% than the cactus soil.
Pour the mixture where you intend to plant the seeds and avoid packing it in, let it stay as natural-looking as it can. Since seedlings are quite small, using a 2-inch pot is sufficient. You can even use existing materials to act as pots for the seeds.
In the case that you are reusing pots, make sure you clean them thoroughly to prevent potential pests from killing the seedlings even before they germinate. To clean them, you can use bleach water and rinse thoroughly.
What these seeds need is a high-drainage soil. Make sure you moisten the soil but make sure the water drains completely.
Spread your cactus seeds on top of the soil, don’t force them into the soil. You can then cover them with a thin layer of either sand or cactus soil. The reason for not burying them deep in the soil is because they only have small amounts of stored energy which may not reach deep into the soil before running out.
Make sure to label your containers once you spread the seedlings. It is crucial especially if you plant species by species in different containers are they are great so that you can take specialized care on each species. You don’t want to have difficulties when growing them because some species are too similar to each other and you may confuse one for the other.
4. Exposing the seeds to the sun
After soil moistening and covering the seeds with sand, you need to cover them in a transparent lid or plastic wrap. Place your seeds in a strategic location, preferably indoors, where they have access to the right amount of sun. Consider placing them on a sunny windowsill.
Don’t place them outside because they don’t like intense sunlight. The purpose of the transparent lid retains moisture and helps the cacti sprout as well as allowing light to reach the plant.
Monitor your seedlings carefully. If they start turning purple or becoming red, the chances are that they are getting sunburned. Reduce the amount of light access.
During the initial stages, as much as the seeds need sun, they need the heat more. Warm areas of the house like the kitchen are ideal. However, you can also purchase a heating mat that you place under the seed containers is a way to boost germination.
Heat and light are essential as the cactus grows to avoid retaliation where the plant grows thinner and soft such that it breaks when touched.
In most cases, cacti need a temperature of between 70F and 90F for germination.
5. What to do when germination starts
Like earlier mentioned, cacti grow slowly, and you need the patience to see them through the whole process. After planting and having the right light and temperature, you should see your seedlings start germinating. It could take a month or more before they do.
Tiny spines start forming at this stage. This is your cue to let the plant breathe away from the plastic wrap or transparent lid. However, do it gradually, leave the top open for a few hours during the day and then go increasing the hours.
Keep doing this until you establish that the cactus doesn’t need the wrap.
Keep in mind that when you uncover the cactus, water evaporates much faster, which will need you to have a watering schedule to avoid the plant dying.
Fresh or distilled water is ideal for preventing the growth of bacteria and algae. If you feel your tap water tastes like chlorine, don’t use it on your cacti. Since the roots are quite tender, using water with chlorine will burn them. This could end up in killing the cactus.
Even as the seedlings sprout and seem to be doing well, the truth is, below the ground, the roots are still at a tender position and can’t adequately absorb enough nutrients. Keep the seedlings in the plastic wrap until they overgrow. The high humidity is what facilitates nutrient and water absorption in the roots until they are strong enough.
Some species don’t have spines, so an indication of growth is when the seedlings sprout. Make sure you don’t leave any water on the soil. Keep checking for signs of overwatering. No standing water should be in the container. You can dip your finger into the soil to feel how dry or wet it is.
When germination occurs, keep the same timetable you had when you started watering them. Be on the lookout of certain signs such as seedlings thinning, which could be a cause of poor light. The algae may be top of the soil, which could be a cause of overwatering. A fungus infected cacti will start having black spots.
When the seeds are overgrown, it is now time to repot. Choose your potting container wisely as you need one that drains quickly. You need one with drainage holes so that during watering, the excess water drains to avoid root rot.
Terracotta and unglazed ceramic pots are some great examples of good drainage pots. However, other types of containers can also work, but the key is getting one that drains water quickly and doesn’t leave the soil clogged with water.
Even as you get the ideal container, how much you water the cactus also contributes to whether your plant rots or not.
Naturally, as cactus grow slowly, they may take even a year to reach the size of a marble. At this point, you need to repot to give it room to thrive well. Get the right pot size because getting small-sized one prevents the plant’s proper growth.
Once you remove the cactus from its previous plastic wrap, using the same formula you used for its last soil, make a new mixture. After making it, place the plant in the container then pour in the soil mixture.
Water the mixture after 3-4 days and make sure you don’t use any plastic wrap or lid to cover the plant.
7. Recovery time after repotting
Once you repot, allowing the plant to take in the new changes helps it avoid any problems. Repotting can be stressful to plants, and they need recovery time. If you previously placed it near a place with ample sunlight, try keeping it in the shade for a few days until it recovers. You can then re-introduce it to the sunlight slowly until it can fully take on the heat.
Unlike other potted plants, cacti have low water requirements. They are succulents, and they often store water to use when the soil dries up. A general rule of the thumb is to wait until the soil dries before watering the plant again.
Once your plant grows, you can even water monthly. During winter is when their water requirements are low for most species. At this time, only water when the plant needs it. You’d rather have an underwatered plant than an overwatered one because it is easier to deal with insufficient water than excess.
During the growing months, use a cactus fertilizer to help in the growth process. Cacti generally need a lower amount of fertilizer than the rest of the plants.
The above process should help you grow your cactus seamlessly from seed. If you want to experience the joys of watching it grow from the seeds all the way up, you can do this effortlessly.
Peruvian Old Man Cactus Pests or Diseases
Because of its thick coat, Old Man Cactus may tend to harbor pests such as scale and mealybugs.
The best way to avoid problems with this is to keep the cactus healthy by avoiding overwatering.
Examine the plant periodically to be sure there are no problems lurking under its luxuriant coat.
Is Snowball Cactus Considered Toxic or Poisonous to People, Kids, Pets?
Espostoa lanata is not toxic, but it can be rather dangerous due to its hidden thorns.
Is Espostoa Cactus Considered Invasive?
Espostoa lanata is not considered invasive.
Thursday, August 22, 2019
The Peruvian Old Man Cactus
This is the Peruvian Old Man cactus, Espositoa lanata, not to be confused with The Old Man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis. The old man cactus has stiffer "hairs" that stick out and give it a more unkempt appearance in contrast to the soft whispiness that surrounds the Peruvian Old Man cactus.
I spotted this sitting on the windowsill while visiting my friend and plant-appreciator, Suzy. at her house the other day. It is growing well in its own naturally amusing way. She's had for a long time in great light and allows it to dry out thoroughly before watering it.That's the recipe for successful cacti growing!
This living wonder with its snow-white cottony hair is indigenous to Columbia and Peru. It will eventually grow to about 3 ft. (or 1 meter) high. I will have to remember remember to let Suzy know that.
- Direct sun.
- Water when dry 1" (about 2-3 cm) below the soil surface for plants in a 6" (15 cm) diameter pot.
- Water when dry about 2" (5 cm) below the soil surface in an 8" (20 cm) diameter pot.
- A moisture meter for indoor plants van be a great way to monitor when your plant will need water. The meters should be easy to find online or at your nearest garden center.
- It is tolerant of drying out more, if you should forget.
- Fertilize occasionally.
To see video clips on plant care from my 90's TV series, click below