The Master Gardener’s Bookshelf
Happy Cactus: Cacti, Succulents, and More, John Pilbeam, Consulting Editor
Review by Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener
Cacti and succulents are popular houseplants. If you are just getting started with these, or looking to expand your collection, check out Happy Cactus: Cacti, Succulents, and More. It is an easy-to-use book, filled with helpful advice. John Pilbeam, a respected cactus and succulent expert, was the book’s consulting editor.
Happy Cactus is a tool in book form. It starts with a “Find Your Plant” feature with numerous small photos to help readers identify cacti and succulents—plants the reader may already have or have seen at a friend’s or in a nursery. Each photo is labeled with the plant’s Latin and common names and a page reference where the reader can learn more. Next is “The Basics” with lots of general advice for selecting and caring for cacti and succulents, ranging from deciding how to choose (for example, a flowering plant or one with attractive leaves) to how to pot and care for the plant. There also are tips for when to buy your cactus or succulent (summer and spring are best) and what to avoid, including leggy or leaning plants or ones with browning or yellowing leaves.
The heart of Happy Cactus is the “Prickly Profiles” with pictures and care information for over 100 cacti and succulents. Using a uniform format, each two-page profile has a close-up photo of the plant surrounded by comment balloons detailing how it grows, how much light it needs, when to water, feed, and repot, how to grow new plants, and information about flowering when applicable.
The information on how the plant grows (short and wide, tall and columnar) includes a handy chart showing the plant’s ultimate size. Other significant facts are included in an introductory summary or highlighted in blue, yellow, or purple. For example, Gymnocalycium bruchii is a child friendly cactus with spines that curl toward the stem making it less likely to cause harm, or Echeveria lilacina (ghost echeveria) leaves may scorch if exposed to too much direct sunlight. In some cases, the profile identifies related plants that grow under the same general conditions.
Another fun feature highlights plants appropriate for specific uses, for example, cacti or succulents appropriate for small spaces or an inexpensive gift such as Rebutia krainziana (crown cactus) or hanging plants such as Epiphyllum anguliger (fishbone cactus).
If you are new to growing cacti or succulents, doing a little extra research, especially as it applies to the growing medium (if you want to make your own), potting techniques, fertilizing, and using insecticides for controlling pests, may improve your chances for success. For example, Happy Cactus recommends placing a layer of gravel in the bottom of the container when repotting cactus to improve drainage. However, other sources advise against doing this as it raises the water saturation point in the soil and may contribute to root rot. Further, if you use insecticide, while Happy Cactus directs readers to follow the instructions on the insecticide container, it is also important that any insecticide used indoors be labeled specifically for that purpose and as safe for cactus.
With its small size, and clear layout, I can easily imagine taking a copy of Happy Cactus (or the e-book on my phone) on a cactus/succulent buying trip.
Happy Cactus: Cacti, Succulents, and More (DK, 2018) is available from the Alexandria Public Library, the Arlington Public Library, and national booksellers.
Want to Learn More? Check out these cactus and succulent resources:
- Cactus and Succulents—Getting Stuck on Them! Penn State Extension, Pennsylvania State University, 2017
- Cacti and Succulents, University of Minnesota Extension, University of Minnesota, 2018
- Indoor Cacti, Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center, Clemson University, 2015
- Succulents 101, West Virginia Extension, West Virginia University, 2020