Several years ago before I became acquainted with the various species and forms of cacti, I saw a small, crested bare root Mammillaria species for sale on Ebay. Its unusual form, something I had not seen before in a Mammillaria, caught my fancy. I bid too much and won the cactus. When it arrived, I potted it up in an eight-inch pot, which it quickly outgrew that first summer, and after the second year, I placed it in my garden. As it grew and became even more wavy, I became interested in the reasons for cristation in cacti.
Most any variety of cacti can have a crest formation, It's been reported in 50 genera so far. Cristation occurs when the cells on the growing tip multiply erratically and form multiple growing points rather than the normal single growing point. This is a simplistic explanation, but anyone who is interested enough in cacti variations to pay $69.95, Rainbow Garden Bookshop has a book worth reading. It’s called “Teratopia: Cristate & Variegated Succulents” by G. Rowley (2006).
Some experts estimate that only one seed out of ten thousand will display a cristate form. No one knows why this happens. Experimenters have tried to duplicate nature and force such growth thorough mechanical or environmental damage to the growing tip, but without luck. Some have even tried radiation or insect infestation in order to better understand what causes the deformity.
Cristate cacti are considered more fragile than normal, and it is suggested they be pampered because of their increased sensitivity to light, drought, cold and pests. However, my Mammillaria sp. does fine in full sun and has thrived through drought as well as the record cold of this past winter.
When my Mammillaria sp. is in bloom, the crested portion has densely spaced pink flowers along each side and ends of the fanned portion. The normal globes all have the familiar ring of flowers near the top of the globe. Many cristate forms do not flower regularly and the blooms are sometimes sparse, so I'm lucky to have a good bloomer.
My Mammillaria sp. is now quite large and obviously loves its home in my garden. I’ve added several more cristate varieties to my cacti collection but all are sun sensitive, so they’ll remain potted oddities on my patio.
Gardening is an exercise in optimism. Sometimes,
it is a triumph of hope over experience.
- Marina Schinz