Ouch! That is my first thought when someone says “cactus”. But somehow a miniature cactus with glorious orange flowers has stolen my heart. Botanists call it Echinopsis chamaecereus or E. silvestrii, but most folks prefer the fun, common name “peanut cactus”. Research tells us that it was discovered in Argentina by a botanist in 1905. It was a fortunate discovery, since it has never been found in the wild since. Fortunately for us, because this cactus is not only cute, but it’s easy to grow, too.
Peanut cactus stems are only the size of an average finger, around a half-inch in diameter. They typically have eight lengthwise rows of spines, thankfully these spines seem to be less lethal than most. I’ve found that thin, surgical-type gloves give my fingers enough protection to handle the stems gently. Peanut cactus stems will grow erect to about four inches tall, then they will gradually tip over, becoming prostrate or hanging down the sides of a container. One of the many charming habits of this cactus is the little cactus buttons that form all along the stems. These buttons enlarge into new stems, and help form attractive clumps that will fill a pot in short order. As these new stems enlarge, they fall off the main cactus truck quite easily. Don’t panic. Just stick the bottom end of the stem into the soil where it will root and give you another plant.
There are many different Echinopsis cactus, all known for spectacular blossoms. E. silvestrii flowers may be smaller than most, only reaching about two inches in diameter, but at the peak of bloom, mid-spring, there can easily be 10 or more flowers open at any one time on a small plant. Plus, you will often have several flushes of flowers on a happy plant, extending the bloom period for several months.
As I said before, peanut cactus are easy to grow. In our hot climate it’s best to give them a lot of light, but not the hottest, direct sun. Part shade is okay, too. Their roots don’t go very deep, so a shallow pot works well. You can use a cactus and succulent potting soil, or mix your own if you have an all-purpose potting soil you like. I use one part sharp gravel (not pea gravel) to three or four parts potting soil. Turkey grit or decomposed granite can also be used for the gravel component. Keep peanut cactus on the dry side in winter, a good tip for all cactus and succulents. Spring through fall though, peanut cactus needs water. Keep in mind that they are not desert cactus. Interestingly, all succulents will tolerate freezing temperatures better if they are dry than if they have been recently watered. Peanut cactus should be hardy to about 20ºF.
Nancy Schramm is the third generation owner of Carman’s Nursery. She and her husband have lived in Gilroy for more than 30 years. Contact her at 408.847.2313 or visit carmansnursery.com.