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Cactus lover gets spikey in the garden

Anyone who has tried to cultivate a lawn in Cyprus can appreciate the ease with which cacti and succulents seem to grow, sprouting up in bits of wasteland and finding a home in pots outside many homes. But for President of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Cyprus (yes! we have a whole society dedicated to this horticultural sector) Mary Michaelides her growing enjoyment for them led to a life changing experience…

Interestingly, all cacti are succulents. “Cacti are just the most popular, the most recognised of the succulents,” explains Mary. “But while many succulents are native to Cyprus, all cacti come from the Americas.” This is news, because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cacti all over the world: in the deserts of Arabia, in the mountains of Cyprus… what about our prickly pears; those are cacti, and surely they’re native to our island? But no. Apparently our prickly pears are indeed cacti of the genus opuntia, but they’ve been naturalised; they just really like our climate!

There are thousands of types of succulent in the world – including several varieties which are thought to be endemic to the island. “There’s Euphorbia veneris, which is known as the euphorbia of Aphrodite – it’s very sexy!” Mary laughs. “It’s also poisonous, but it does have what we call ‘garden merit’ and is available in nurseries all over the island. Sedum lampusae, Sedum microstachyum, Sedum cyprium, and Sedum porhhyreum are also endemic, though Rosularia cypria, which was named for the island, was later found to appear all over the Mediterranean region. Which was annoying,” she laughs, “because we originally chose that succulent as the logo for our Society and only later was the mistake discovered!”

What really defines a succulent is its ability to store water. A subset of xerophytes, succulents are able to survive an irregular, unpredictable, spotty or seasonal supply of water. “And what better way to describe the climate and the conditions in Cyprus?” asks Mary. “Sometimes it doesn’t rain for five months at a time, and succulents can survive that drought.”

This, apparently, is one of the reasons behind Mary’s passion for these particular plants. “We moved to our current house in 1998, and it was the first time we hadn’t been in an apartment. We’d never touched the ground before, never planted anything!” she exclaims. “So we got a gardener in to do the usual: flower beds at the edge, grass in the middle. And then, in spring, we’d head off to the nursery to buy more flowering plants and pop them in the border. And they’d die.”
Having done this for a couple of years, Mary began to wonder. “I realised there must be an easier way, so I started driving round the neighbourhoods of old Nicosia. I figured older neighbourhoods would have older residents and older gardens – so people who didn’t have gardeners or watering systems, and plants which had flourished in the local climate. And I found a lot of these old gardens were full of succulents…”

In that succulents were “pretty unfashionable back then, and couldn’t really be found in nurseries,” Mary resorted to knocking on doors… “It was a wonderful experience! I met lots of old ladies and asked them for cuttings. I ended up with lots of pots!” And then, accompanied by a fellow succulent enthusiast, she began to read up on the plants…

“There were lots of brilliant books from Australia and California, places where the climate is similar to Cyprus, which gave us enough information not only to start our own successful succulent gardens but, in time, the Cacti and Succulent Society. And once we realised how great these plants were, we decided we needed to share this information.” In 2007, the society was formed; this year sees its tenth anniversary. And it’s changed this expert’s life…

“I used to work in IT, I had the corner office, the company car and the wardrobe full of grey suits,” she grins. “Now, I’m actually doing garden design, cooperating with landscape designers, and this has stemmed from the founding of the society.” Mary also has her own incredible succulent garden, with over 600 different varieties from around the world, including 30 species of aloe and 10 of agave. “It’s a global garden,” she laughs, “and also a circular garden; because so many of my plants have either come from or been used to propagate the gardens of friends.”

Most importantly, Mary’s garden is now easy to care for, because that’s the real beauty of succulents. “Of course succulents are easily propagated, but they’re also slow-growing so you’re not sweeping up leaves all the time. They’re easy to plant and can absorb water from very small amounts of rain, so you’re not wasting water. And you rarely – if ever – need to fertilise, so there are no unwanted chemicals in your garden. I do,” she concludes, her years of experience coming to the fore, “really believe in getting people to think about what they’re putting in their gardens. I feel it’s everyone’s responsibility to have a garden – paving your yard should be illegal, especially in the cities! Gardens – whether they’re full of succulents or not – encourage wildlife, and we need those butterflies, birds, bees, and lizards.”

Today, as President of the Society, Mary works hard to fulfil the organisation’s goal of ‘Advising and encouraging members and the general public to use these most rewarding plants in Cypriot gardens’. “Ten years on, we have over 100 members, people from all walks of life who might never otherwise have met. And my own succulent garden is a joy! People tend to think of a succulent garden as lots of empty space and stones, lots of cacti,” she says, circling back to the plant which started our discussion. “But a real succulent garden is very lush, very green. And very purple, red, yellow, grey… It’s great for the environment and, at the same time, very, very beautiful. Succulents are just amazing plants!”

For more information, visit the Facebook page ‘Cyprus Cactus and Succulent Society’, or call 97 777457

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