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Cacti and succulents at La Trobe’s Cottage

Sandi Pullman

Sandi Pullman

February 3, 2013

It is funny how your garden tastes change over time. I wasn’t keen on succulents until one day at Burnley Gardens I walked past the huge old fig (Ficus macrophylla) where there is a rock wall lined with succulents under its canopy and it just clicked. I haven’t been a big fan of cacti either they just didn’t do it for me. Maybe I had seen too many bad 1960s and 70s gardens with scoria rock mulch and the old moth eaten cacti still standing.

Fig tree & succulents at Burnley Gardens

Fig tree & succulents at Burnley Gardens

Barrel cactus in Melbourne's RBG

Barrel cactus in Melbourne’s RBG

However, my attitude towards cacti began to change when I saw the fabulous barrel cactus Ferocactus sp. at the Volcano in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, designed originally by William Guilfoyle and updated by Andrew Laidlaw who is the RBG’s Landscape Architect.


La Trobe loved cacti and wrote to his daughter Agnes in 1850 (she was sent home to Switzerland because she was becoming too much of a tom boy) that “All the fine cactus tribe of which I have a great variety are going out of flower on the rockeries“. So, I knew I had to track down some for the garden.

I know absolutely nothing about genus of cacti, so I started by trawling through the nursery catalogue of James Dickson of Hobart – 1845 to find species which I could ask cacti experts if they are still available.

Cereus hexagagonus pieces bought from Andrew - Cactusland

Cereus hexagagonus pieces bought from Andrew – Cactusland

I tried the Collectors Corner at Garden World and they put me onto an absolute genius Andrew Thompson – of Cactusland who has a stall at Victoria Market. He was able to find some from the above list. I was so excited, that I left my wallet at home and had to go back home to get it to pay for them. Andrew also has been able to source for me 2 succulents that I have been looking for over 2½ years Sedum reflexum Blue Stone crop and Sedum seiboldtii October Daphne, stonecrop

Andrew found the following: cacti:

Cereus hexagagonus pieces bought from – Cactusland Cataceae
Aporocactus flagelliformmis Rats tail cactus Cactaceae
Parodia ottonis syn. Notocactus arechavaletai Indian head Cactaceae
Echinopsis eyriesii Pink Easter Lily Cactus Cactaceae
Ferocactus horridus Cactaceae

Ferocactus horridus

Ferocactus horridus

If only I could build a rockery like the one La Trobe had…….. I am dreaming…., so I planted them in the Succulent bed because it is nice and dry. As you can see from the picture the Cereus hexagonous were pieces cut off the main plant. All I did was leave them 7 days in the air and then planted them at the cottage. I planted the stems about ¼ of their length into the soil and watered them. And, so far so good.

Aporocactus flagelliformis - Rats tail cactus

Aporocactus flagelliformis – Rats tail cactus

At present, they are small and do look a bit silly in such a large bed, but I can’t put them in pots or hanging baskets because they would be stolen, as we don’t have a boundary fence like other Trust properties. The rats tail Aporocactus flagelliformmis would look much better trailing over rocks or a basket but I have to work with what I have got.

They are safe and sound under the possum proof netting….. although I didn’t think I would have any trouble with possums eating them, but one day I found the Parodia ottonis and Echinopsis eyriesii lying on the ground. Ummmm…. I don’t think it was the possums so was it people trying to pinch them???? Hopefully it was their spikes that convinced them not too.

Parodia ottonis syn. Notocactus - Indian head

Parodia ottonis syn. Notocactus – Indian head

A Clever Tip: Andrew showed me a very clever way of handling cacti, get some polystyrene and push it gently onto the spikes and wallah you can pick them up without injury to yourself.

Another time I arrived to discover that the parodia was developing a flower. I was very excited although there was a thought in the back of my mind, I hope it is not flowering as its last hurrah because it was dying due to being out of the ground for a couple of days. Time will only tell.

While still not a huge fan of cacti, they are working their magic on me and I am going to try and find some more for the garden at the cottage, if only I could put them in pots and create a stand of cacti, I think that would look great. But not too be……

And don’t be fooled cacti and succulents don’t need to be water, they do, especially over summer and while they are developing flowers.

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Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

Ferocactus horridus has got to be one of the best plant names around. What an interesting story. Your search for plants with good providence for the La Trobe Cottage garden should be good inspiration for anyone managing or rebuilding a historic garden. I hope you get your rockery one day! Maybe even just a few stones or boulders around the cactus bed would give an impression of one, as well as retain some heat through the night?

Sandi Pullman
11 years ago

Hi Catherine
It is a great name isn’t it. I laugh because it is like Queen Elizabeths Annus horribilis – horrible year. Will think about the rocks, as they are all cacti, according to Andrew of Cactusland, that will survive in Melbourne.

11 years ago

Nice to see a fellow afficionado of the succulent! The Frosty African Spear (Sansevieria Suffruticosa Cylindrica) is a relative of the garden variety Snake Plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata), but with a twist – I think you’ll love it! I certainly do. Please look it up.

Other interesting succulents growing on my Brooklyn NY windowsill: Star of David (Stapelia) and her cousin, Carrion Flower (Huernia), Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia), Red Spine Barrel Cactus (Echinopsis Soehrensia Korethroides or Boyuibensis), Peruvian Apple Cactus – Night Blooming or San Pedro (Cereus Peruvanius), Dragon Bones Cactus / False Cactus / Candelabra Cactus (Euphorbia Lactea Cristata). This last one is quite dramatic as it creates spectacular ruffled growths, apparently as a reaction to a nick / injury / bite – Each ruffle different and spectacular in its own way. I cut the head off mine because it was just growing straight and almost immediately it began growing what is not a monstrous head. I think I’m going to have to cut it off, it’s so big. It is said that the “milk” from this cactus is poisonous, so do not touch the sap and keep away from pets.

Sandra Pullman
10 years ago
Reply to  Maria

Sorry so long to reply
We call that plant in Australia Mother-inlaws- tounge which I know is degrading but I didn’t like the plant until just recently when I thought umm okay. The prickly pear you are growing, I definitely can’t grow it because some species here are a noxious weed and at the cottage I don’t want to encourage anyone planting them.
Kind regards Sandi

lana hosking
lana hosking
10 years ago

I really love the succulents . My friends enjoy your website too . We plan a visit soon. kind regards. Lana.

Sandra Pullman
10 years ago
Reply to  lana hosking

Hi Lana
The cottage won’t be open on Sundays until spring, but you can walk past the garden any time. Also if you are interested in July the tours of Government House start again, where you start at La Trobe’s Cottage then go onto the big house. Just google Government House tours and you will get all the right links if you are interested.
Bye Sandi