Tag Archives: Cactus

How the Angel of Grief turned into a Cactus Garden

Angel of Grief
Angel of Grief

A friend of mine who attended Stanford University told me that the next time I was on the campus I should check out the famous Angel of Grief marble statue. Tucked in the trees behind the mausoleum that houses the remains of Leland Stanford, his wife and son, this statue was commissioned by Jane Stanford in honor of her deceased brother. It’s a duplicate of several others that are in places like Costa Rica, Canada, Luxembourg and Cuba and is actually the second on this site after the original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

cactus_garden_path.1280It is indeed moving to stand in front of this massive white marble statue. Nearby is a cactus garden that is equally impressive to this horticulturalist. Alive with hummingbirds and songbirds, the flowers hummed with activity. In these days of designing drought tolerant gardens I’m always on the lookout for tough plants that combine well making a garden a delight to stroll and enjoy. I came away with lots of ideas. Here are some succulents that would work well in a drought tolerant garden in our climate.

senecio mandraliscae

On a hot day, the color blue makes everything feel cooler. Plants with blue foliage or flowers can serve to calm a riot of color, connect different color schemes and make a space seem larger. One such succulent that serves this purpose well is called Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandraliscae. As a ground cover this beauty spreads 2-3 ft wide but only 12-18” tall. It’s very drought tolerant in full sun or light shade but will also tolerate regular irrigation and is hardy down to 20 degrees. The blue-gray foliage really stands out when paired with burgundy or pink.

Another favorite succulent that I like to use in drought tolerant landscapes is the Ghost plant which is a much easier name to remember than graptopetalum paraguayense. The colors of their 3-6” wide rosettes are what really catch your eye. Ranging from lavender blue to light pink and pale blue on the same plant, this colorful succulent will spread wide but only about 1 foot tall. It’s very hardy to winter lows of 20-25 degrees and will even rebound from being frozen if temps drop below that.


The Stanford cactus garden has milder winters than us so not all the plants there handle our cold and potential rainy winter weather. But another plant that does great in our climate is calandrinia grandiflora. Brilliant purple, poppy-like flowers rise out of a rosette of succulent gray-green leaves to make a colorful show from spring to fall. Beside being so showy- especially in a large group- this plants needs only very occasional water and is hardy down to 15-20 degrees. It’s super easy to grow and spreads quickly suppressing all weeds as it grows. Maybe that parking strip out front or bare hillside would look great planted with some calandrinia.

euphorbia lambii

As I strolled through the many winding pathways in this cactus and succulent garden I was amazed when I came across a tree euphorbia taller than I. It really does look like something straight out of a Dr. Suess book. It would need a bit of protection here when temperatures drop below 25 degrees but if you like unusual plants this is the one you’ve got to have. Between the long yellowish-green leaves and the bunches of greenish-yellow flowers-really bracts- it’s a show stopper.

barrel cactus

Besides the massive barrel cactus in the Stanford cactus garden, there are many, many varieties of aloe, agave, hens and chicks and yucca to name just a few. I was reminded by the huge Joshua trees of my years living in the Antelope Valley. This garden was originally planted around 1880 and many of the original historical plants are still there. Volunteer restoration work began in 1997 and is ongoing. With approximately 500 cacti and succulents it’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.

The World of Cacti in the San Lorenzo Valley

Argentine_GiantThere are species of cactus that grow all over North and South America and have been naturalized in Africa, Asia and Australia. One type of opuntia, the familiar prickly pear, thrives just 700 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Professor Michael Loik told me as he gave me a tour of his cacti collection at his home in Felton. Professor Loik has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for 18 years but it wasn’t until he and his wife moved to their present home in 2010 that he decided to combine his research, which focuses on the adaptations of desert and montane plants to light, drought, freezing and heat, to his own landscaping.

In his Felton front garden, Professor Loik grows 70 individual cactus specimens which represent 20 different species. He has a few succulents mixed in but says he is more fascinated with cactus. He told me that his love of this plant family started when he was 16 and saw some prickly pear cactus growing out of the snow in the Grand Canyon. “I was hooked”, he said. He ended up doing his PhD thesis on cactus adaptations from this early interest.

Professor Michael Loik is an internationally recognized expert on how plants cope with freezing and heat wave temperatures as well as rain, snowfall pattern and drought. He has done research in the Great Basin, the Mojave, Chihauhaun and Sonoran deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada as well as Costa Rica and Australia. With a weather station in the back yard, Professor Loik continues his research in his own front yard in Felton.

Standing among dozens of large prickly pear cacti, we spoke about all the colorful fruit they displayed. Those are actually a modified short Engelmanns_prickly-pearstem, he told me, and the large prickly paddle is really a long stem. The real fruit of the cacti is buried well within the flavorful pod.

At this time of year, none of the cacti were blooming but Professor Loik told me just a few weeks ago he had 11 blooms measuring a foot across on a Trichocereus pachanoi cactus. This species is bat and moth pollinated and has only a short time to attract a pollinator.

How does this garden grow? What’s his secret to keeping it alive and thriving in our area through drought and freezing?

When he first moved to Felton, Professor Loik took out the dying lawn and worked up the existing soil. After laying down weed block fabric he spread a 4” thick layer of course, well drained soil. Topping this is about 2” of half-inch California Gold crushed gravel.

Rainbow_hedgehog-Echinopis_sppProfessor Loik uses gray water from the laundry to hand water every week or so during the growing season of July to September. Cacti are use to this highly pulsed “rainfall” he told me, often receiving large monsoon rain periodically during the summer in their native range. He uses a liquid fertilizer occasionally during the summer.

Winter freezes affect only some of his specimens. Most of his collection are from areas of high altitude and can withstand our cold snaps. For those that are sensitive to freezing temps he covers them with towels and rags even soaking a towel with hot water to keep them even warmer during the night.

I had read that some plants produce chemicals that act like antifreeze but Professor Loik told me that according to his research “There is no particular antifreeze that we have identified. The plants that are tolerant of freezing where they live are able to withstand a certain degree of freezing within their stems (but outside of the cells). They are able to tolerate the loss of water from cells that goes along with extracellular freezing. Upon thawing, the cells take up the water they lost to intercellular spaces during freeze-dehydration.”

Professor Loik shared other ways that freezing temperatures can affect cactus Red_Torch_cactusplants. These range from damage caused by ice formation within the plant itself which can cause cells to break open and even kill the plant outright. Freezing temperatures make cacti vulnerable to bacterial and fungal diseases especially in their roots. Third, freezing temperatures combined with bright sunlight can lead to “photoinhibition” whereby chlorophyll absorbs light but the rest of the photosynthesis machinery in the cell cannot process the energy and leads to something akin to plant sunburn.

I learned so much visiting Michael Loik’s cactus garden and hearing about his work. His long-term fascination with the stem shapes, flower colors and spine patterns of cacti is evident in his incredible garden.


All photos were provided by Professor Loik.