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by Pernell Gerver

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"Easy-to-Grow Indoor Cacti & Succulents"

House plant cacti and succulents are an interesting group of plants. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. A succulent is a plant that stores water in its stems or leaves. The stored water is used by the plant during prolonged dry periods. What makes a cactus a cactus and distinguishes it from a succulent is a tuft of fine spines called an "aerole." The aerole ranges in size from barely noticeable to up to a quarter of an inch across. The aeroles are usually arranged in rows on the cactus' stems. This is where spines and flowers grow. Spines are the cactus' natural defenses against predators in the wild.

Rattail CactusThere are many different types of house plant cacti. They are divided into different categories based on their individual shapes including flattened and segmented, candelabra, columnar, cylindrical with leaves, pendant, clustering, star shaped, globular, globular with "chins," and pincushion. Rattail cactus is an example of a pendant shape. Long, slender, trailing stems hang gracefully downward on this handsome cactus. Soft, white spines line its gray-green stems. In spring, its stems bear dozens and dozens of fuchsia-pink tubular flowers that stand perpendicular to the stems. The flowers are up to two inches long and are in bloom for weeks.

Moon cactus is an interesting cactus is actually two plants in one. The colorful upper portion of the cactus is a species of globular with "chins" cactus that has no chlorophyl, allowing the other colors to show through, typically red or orange, but because it contains no chlorophyll, it can't survive on its own. It's grafted onto a columnar cactus that allows it to grow and thrive.

In addition to different plant shapes, cacti also have different types of spines. Some have long, thin spines that radiate from the center. Another spine shape that's quite interesting resembles a comb. The spines are arranged up and down along a long, thin aerole. Another, almost dangerous-looking, type of spine comprises a small group of short central spines with one long, hooked spine coming straight out from the center. Some cactus have a small cluster of long, pointed spines that grow straight out from the aerole and are held almost sword-like on the plant. Not all spines on cactus are long and pointed, though. Many are fine and hairlike, like those that cover the "old man cactus," giving it a soft, furry look. Some types of opuntia have a tiny cluster of very short, almost invisible, spines that cover the aerole.

The term "succulents" is often mentioned in the same breath with cacti. When you consider how many different types of cacti there are in the world, and those are all classified as succulents, plus those succulents that aren't cacti, then you realize what a large group of plants succulents is.

Some of the most unique, diverse, or odd succulents include sedum, aloe, kalanchoe, jade plant, and lithop.

Burro's TailSucculents are a diverse group of plants in various shapes. Even within the same genus there are many variations. In sedum there are many types including burro's tail, a trailing, pale-green-leaved succulent good for hanging baskets. Also called donkey tail or horse tail, its long stems carry cylindrical, fleshy leaves that are pointed on the end. The leaves are just under an inch long and less than a half inch wide. The leaves are held closely together on the stem and overlap each other. The leaves are pale green and covered with a whitish coating, called "bloom." It's an ideal candidate for a hanging pot.

Aloe veraThere are many different types of aloe including Aloe vera commonly used to soothe and heal skin burns. Aloe vera is often added to skin care products, but growing a plant of it on the kitchen windowsill is a handy place to have it in the event of a skin burn. Just simply break off a leaf, split it, and spread the juice over the burn.

Kalanchoe pumilaKalanchoe also has many forms in various shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Kalanchoe pumila has thick leaves that are silver and covered with a powdery coating called "bloom." The leaves are about an inch long and carried in rosettes on the stems. It bears clusters of silvery-pink flowers that are carried on thin stems that rise above the foliage. The flowers appear in mid winter at a time when flowers are needed most indoors! The flowers remain colorful for weeks.

Jade PlantOne of the most popular succulents is the jade plant. There are at least a half a dozen forms of jade plant, each one of which is handsome. The common jade plant has thick, rounded dark green leaves attached to a swollen trunk. Old specimens can get rather large and take on a tree-like appearance. Jade plant also blooms.

Many succulents are considered oddities of the plant world.

Lithops, often called "living stones," are a curious lot of succulents. They have actually learned to mimic stones so that they don't get eaten. These succulents are short and stubby, less than an inch or so wide and tall. Its succulent leaves are flat topped with transparent “windows” that let light into the plant. Small, white flowers appear in the center split in late summer and through fall. During winter, new leaves form within the center of the plant. As the new leaves grow, the