They were my kind of plants – they thrived whether I watered them once a week or forgot for a month, and were so slow growing they never needed pruning or cutting back. Some were hairy, some were spiky, some had deadly hooks that would embed themselves in your fingers if you weren’t careful, and would be the devil to remove. I also had a spider plant – this was a bit more needy, requiring regular watering, and now and again it would shoot out ‘babies’ when I wasn’t looking, which needed trimming off before they took root themselves in the soil of the cacti next door to it.

Now I am living in Portugal, where cacti grow easily in the hot sun and do well outside - some even growing in the wild, and doing nicely, thank you very much. I have some in pots that I have cultivated from cuttings or have bought from the supermarket, or in a wild moment, have splashed out on from a garden centre. I even once toured a very impressive private garden where every plant was a cactus or a succulent, some were enormous towering giants that must have taken years to grow so tall.

But now I have to be ultra careful, as I have dogs who barge around the bushes and plants, exploring smells and, um, lifting their legs (if you get my drift), and I would hate to have to extract any of those hooked barbs from any important little places. In addition, one dog is blind, so I don’t want him getting thorns in his eyes either.

So I have settled for succulents, and what a pleasure they are! Agave Attenduata Nova is a favourite, soft spineless leaves that grow in a rosette, a lovely blue-grey colour, an absolute giant of a plant.

Graptopetalum (there are several different types), mine has a delicate yellow star shaped flower, which is really pretty. Aeonium Arboreum, sometimes called Irish rose, has showy rosettes of green that turn a pink-red colour, with a tall woody stem that is so easy to grow. The stems can be snapped off and planted, and even some of the ones I have removed and thrown away on the compost heap have taken root!

Some nice things about succulents – most don’t have spikey bits (these get a ‘tick’ from me), thrive on neglect (tick), love the sun (tick), don’t need much watering ( tick). They store water in their thick fleshy leaves and stems and just get on with their merry little lives, some throwing a flower up now and again, and these seem to last for ages. They are all slow growing, and if they get too big they can be trimmed down to let newer growth take over.

But one that needs some special care is a Sedum, I think it’s called Lemon Coral - it is as fragile as blown glass. You only have to touch this and a bit falls off to take root, and before long you will have a carpet of them growing around the ‘parent’ plant. But they have a lovely fresh green colour, which contrasts nicely with the blue/grey of other succulents, and it is easy to pot up the fallen tips as gifts for friends who are interested in plants.

There are so many species of cactus and succulents, I would be hard-pressed to identify most of them! But they are cheap to buy, easy to grow, easy to take cuttings from, and generally, the soil just needs to be well-drained with some sand, pumice or perlite mixed in, although I have to say mine are doing just fine in potting soil. Just keep those spikey, thorny, hooky ones out of reach of your pets!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan