Sharp dressed cacti!

CHITRA RAMASWAMY | Updated on March 10, 2011

lf11cactus2.jpg   -  Chitra?

lf11cactus1.jpg   -  chitra?

Get introduced to a mind-boggling variety of prickly plants at the Cactus Garden in Panchkula, near Chandigarh.

Panchkula, a satellite town of Le Corbusier's verdant and immaculately laid-out Chandigarh, is home to the Cactus Garden, believed to be the largest outdoor landscaped turf of its kind in Asia. Also called the National Cactus and Succulent Botanical Garden and Research Centre, this seven-acre verdure is a major crowd-puller with its sheer variety of prickly greenery. Going around the garden we are struck by the realisation that these shrubs of thorn and bristle, which we largely associate with dry and barren deserts, actually take on such lush and beautiful forms!

Thorns with flowers

The garden has more than 2,500 species of cacti and succulents. While some species sport blossoms of varying sizes, mostly in shades of red and orange, many others are characteristically leafless; some species, we learn, are endowed with medicinal properties and these attract visits by practitioners of Ayurveda and Unani. This month, tourist influx peaks as the garden hosts the annual Cactus Show.

The security guard, who doubles as our guide, provides several informative nuggets. Contrary to the common belief that cactus flower once every few years, several varieties in fact bloom every year. The labels attached to the plants are very informative too. Right at the garden's entrance is the gigantic pipe organ cactus, beaming a welcome as it stands majestically on a rosette of sword-like blades with barbed edges and needle-tips glittering with gold flowers.

A cactus by any other name

As we amble along the well laid-out paths, we find ourselves chuckling at some of the names given to the cacti. Mother-in-law's Cushion, a Mexican variety, immediately grabs attention. Elsewhere we chance upon the saguaro, the humungous desert species that can grow to heights of 20-50 ft. Cacti that resemble fluted columns come in several shapes and sizes. The octopus-like ocotillo, with its many arms bearing flame-coloured blossoms, appears coy with a bent head. Some of the rare species on display include the genus caralluma, of Indian origin, which we learn is a threatened species. We come upon names such as pincushion cactus, Englemann's prickly pear, goat's horn cactus, ester, aloe, golden lily, barrel cactus, cholla (skull-head in Spanish), buckhorn, fish-hook cactus and plenty more. We are a bit confused when we come upon similar-looking cacti but with different names. A closer inspection, however, proves that they are indeed different, even if by a whisker!

The garden has three greenhouses that nurture rare and endangered cacti native to India. The clock-face prickly pear and cow's-tongue prickly pear are very similar, except that the former is perfectly spherical while the latter is elliptical. There are some barrel-shaped cacti that distinctly resemble a yellow pumpkin, minus the spikes of course. The Senita cactus is also known as grandfather cactus, thanks to the bearded grey spines adorning the crown of each branch.

We learn that most of the cacti displayed in the garden are gifts from across continents, including a major chunk provided by the garden's architect, Dr J.J. Sarkaria.

Published on March 10, 2011

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