Patricia and John Eldridge in their greenhouse. Picture by Robin Crossley.
GARDENING AT THIS festive time of year, an East Cowes couple’s thoughts turn not just to the Christmas cactus but to the 700-odd other specimens, large and small, in their twin greenhouses.
Patricia and John Eldridge have had a prickly relationship for years — not that they don’t get on, of course, they just have cacti in common, lots of them.
And their message, as they cut down the number of pots they maintain as the years advance, is people who say cacti and succulents need little attention are, quite frankly, fibbing.
"Although we are cutting down, it remains pretty much a full-time job," said Patricia.
"Although I am disabled and we both suffer from aches and pains, we find it very therapeutic."
She was moved to write to me in the summer by a beautifully flowering echinopsis hybrid I featured and by the Pineapple Lily (eucomis), of which they have a wonderful potted example.
Patricia said: "We have both echinopsis and the hybrid echinopsis multiplex. The hybrid may not be a pretty shape but it flowers two or three times a year, in white and pink.
"My husband and I have a greenhouse each and we have masses of colour in both — not just cacti and succulents but cyclamen too in many colours."
They have the night-blooming cactus Hylocerus undatus, more commonly called cereus, stretching to the roof of one of the greenhouses. This is an unusual cactus commonly grown as a houseplant. It looks unassuming during the day but when it blooms at night it is impressive indeed.
It, like the Christmas cactus, is moderately easy to look after, rewarding care with magnificent blooms, which last for just one night, filling the room or, in Pat’s case, her greenhouse, with scent which in the desert would attract night-flying pollinators.
Patricia becomes a tad irritated when people who discover her and her husband are cactus enthusiasts tell her anyone can grow them.
"I must say it still upsets me when people say: 'Oh, you don’t have to do anything to them’," said Patricia.
"I always tell them both cacti and succulents need a great deal of looking after.
"In the early spring, after hibernation, each and every one has to be examined for the cotton wool-like mealy bugs.
"They need water and food and, like all living things, they need to be tended.
"Give them light and feed and they will double the amount of flowers they give you in return."