Succulents: A good drought-resistant solution for Mediterranean gardens

Often it is the amateurs – in the true sense of the word – who are the most passionate about their subject, and this certainly applies to Kimon Mangos, who, as a former roving sea captain, became interested in plants on his travels abroad. An early fascination with orchids, which he found did not adapt easily to the climate in an apartment in Athens, soon gave way to what has become a 20-year occupation with succulents after his wife bought a cactus. It was the first step toward a personal collection that in the last few years has, Mangos says, «got out of control.» The founder of the Hellenic Society for Cacti and other Succulents, which publishes a high-quality journal twice a year, Mangos is also involved in the conservation of this large group of drought-resistant plants, many species of which are under threat of extinction in many parts of the world. «It is not only collectors who are destroying the plants in their natural habitat, but developers,» Mangos explained. In one incident in Mexico, the home of most of the world’s species of cacti, a rare Mammillaria scheinvaria was saved from extinction by a group of conservationists led by R. Foster and V.C. Glass, who managed to convince the authorities to let them gather plants from a large valley due for inundation for dam construction. Propagation by grafting To ensure the survival of species, Mangos favors propagation by grafting, a method that speeds up the growth process considerably, providing new plants quickly. Instead of waiting for a plant to flower in order to collect seeds and waiting again for them to germinate, a small cut is made in the plant, which then secretes a liquid that seals the «wound» where new plants will grow, a process that often happens in nature. In his own collection, he has two samples of a Mexican succulent, Aztecium Hintonii, of exactly the same size – one had taken root on its own and the other had been grafted onto a Pereskiopsis velutina. The grafted cutting grew in two years to a size that took the other plant 12 years. This is a method practiced abroad, particularly in countries where the plants are becoming rare. Some flower only rarely, or inhabit environments where there are few insects to aid in propagation, so they have evolved ways of propagating on their own. These include the South American Opuntia, the classic cactus shown on Western movie posters. The Opuntia species Tethrocactus articulatus has branches that break off very easily but will send out roots from any part that is in contact with the ground. Meanwhile its rounded shape enables it to be blown across the ground by the wind to take root further afield from the mother plant. Greece’s species As for Greece’s own native succulent species, strangely enough it is on the slopes of more mountainous areas – particularly in northern Greece and the mountains of Crete – that they are found, rather than on the hotter low-lying areas. Sempervivum, a vigorous plant that can survive under snow and is found on Mt Olympus, Sedum and Euphorbia are the most common species. No cacti grow in the wild here – these occur in nature only in North and South America. They are not much in demand locally. «I am ashamed to say that Greeks are not very interested in their own country’s succulents,» said Mangos. However, the lack of widespread interest, particularly in the rarer species, has its positive side – there has not been the same decimation of plants in the wild that has occurred in countries more well known for their cacti and other succulents, such as Mexico, where poverty and lack of awareness make the indiscriminate sale of plants from the wild a lucrative business. Mangos’s fascination with this group of plants has necessarily gone far beyond the borders of his own country – North and South America, the original home of all cacti – and he is a member of several societies abroad, such as the Mamillaria and Euphorbia Societies and the Chilean Society, who focus on all succulents that grow south of Panama. «When I get involved in something I take it very seriously,» he said. Mangos spends a lot of time reading about plants and has built up an extensive library which covers early editions such as Britton and Rose’s «Cactaceae,» a lovely 1899 edition of W. Watson’s «Cactus Culture for Amateurs,» and a collection of German lithographs. The Hellenic Society, now four years old and with about 170 members, holds regular meetings with lectures, slide shows, plant displays and exchanges. Often commercial outlets donate plants for raffles to help defray the cost of the journal, which is published in full color. Care of succulents Succulents are ideal drought-resistant plants and can be successfully combined with other Mediterranean plants that do not require much water. As their enemy is damp, never plant them on flat ground as in the first heavy rain they will rot unless the ground has been properly prepared and constructed so as to drain freely. Water only when the soil has completely dried out. They do better when planted on a south-facing slope so they get plenty of sun. Succulent nurseries in Attica: Poulimenos Brothers, Kapandriti, tel 22.950.52200/52103, Firfilis, Aghia Marina, 6932.899.333. Further reading: (in Greek) «Kakti kai alla pachyphyta» (Cacti and other Succulents), by Yiannis Altiparmakis, Agrotypos Publications; (in English) «Succulents for Mediterranean Climate Gardens,» by Diana Morgan, Rosenberg Publications. The Hellenic Society for Cacti and Other Succulents (EEKAP), Kimon Mangos, Dimokritou 27, 16451 Argyroupoli, Athens, tel 210.994.3319.