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Cactus garden

Cacti in different hues are a big attraction for tourists at a botanical garden in Bhubaneswar.

Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital is famous for the Lingaraja temple. What else is the city known for? These days, the holy city of Lord Tribhubaneswar is drawing tourists to its 500-acre cactus garden. Located in the heart of the city, the garden has a mindblowing collection of cacti, roses and many rare trees. The 17-year-old Regional Plants Resource Centre (RPRC) is situated at the Ekamra Kanan in Bhubaneswar. Though it takes centuries to build a garden with different varieties of cactus, along with provisions to accommodate new plants, RPRC took only a decade to convert a totally barren area with stunted dry bushes and rock boulders into a lush botanical garden. Says Dr Premananda Das, the brain behind the project: “The plan was to develop this area into a plant resource centre where the city’s depleting plant genetic resources could be selectively conserved. Bhubaneswar would get a lung and its people an area of recreation.” The RPRC was established in 1985 as an autonomous organisation under the aegis of the Department of Science, Technology and Environment of the state government. With time, the centre became well-known for its collection of 900 varieties of roses. Later, the collection of cacti and succulents became its major attraction.

Cactus is an exotic plant requiring careful nurturing. At the cactus garden in Bhubaneswar too, they were introduced, propagated and naturalised. Das was exposed to this prickly plant during his student days in Kolkata in the early ’60s. Three decades ago the plant was rare in India, grown by the rich and famous for its snob value. During exhibitions, these prized collections were put on display. Leafless and thick with fleshy green stems, silver or golden hair, stalkless flowers, these brightly coloured plants captivated the public. In the past Kalimpong was the only thriving centre for cacti plants. Today, with more than 1,050 species of the finest and richest varieties of cacti and succulents grown in an area of 20,000 square feet, the RPRC has the largest collection in Asia. Many new intergeneric and inter-specific hybrids have been evolved here. Cacti can grow in adverse climatic conditions by adapting themselves to changes. They can be developed in strange shapes and forms-in columns, circles or in segments. Apart from collecting samples from different parts of the world, the centre has many indigenously developed varieties manipulated by researchers through propagation, hybridisation and the application of physical and chemical mutates. A series of poly houses covering an area of 20,000 square feet have been exclusively erected for collection, curation and propagation of cacti and other succulents.

Different varieties of the cactus are found in India. Selenicereus grandiflorus (with large sweet-scented night flowering flowers) and the O stricta are found in the wasteland as hedge plants. O elatior with edible fruits can be found in western India, while Caralluma adscendens, C umbellate are common in Orissa and the peninsular region. The Agave is in the form of an impregnable hedge. Mammillaria, Notocactus, Rebutia and Gymnocalycium are quite hardy and capable of flowering when they are still small. Echinocereus and Matucana can survive in cold climates, while Opuntias can withstand freezing temperatures. Echinocactus grusonii, Gymnocalycium, Mammillaria, Melocactus, Ferocactus, Astrophytum, Sulcorebutia, Opuntia, Parodia and Hildwintera are the prized possessions of the RPRC. Echinocactus is green in colour with pale yellow spines. It has a round centre which turns into a barrel with age. The plant blossoms once in 10 years producing small yellow flowers. At the RPRC, scooping is done for branching and the lateral growth of the plant, making it even more expensive. The plant is popularly referred to as ‘mother-in-law’s lap’.

The RPRC’s cacti collection includes many monstrous, crested and variegated freak forms which can be developed artificially by careful growth manipulation. One of these is the attractive Gymnocalycium, grafted on the Hylocereus. Sensitive to temperature variations and overwatering, the plant is tender and difficult to grow. Between March and April, the plant produces white, pink or red flowers in the shape of a bell or funnel. The plant itself is globular or crested with thousands of possible colour combinations. However, bright red is the most popular one.

At the RPRC, the Mammillaria cactus comes in 62 varieties. A native of North America, Mammillaria thrives in plenty of sunlight and grows in clusters. It has red or white spines growing straight, in a curve or in a hook shape. If embedded in the skin, it is difficult to remove them. In spring, small red, pink and purple flowers crown the bulbous plant in circles and at times in double rings.

The Ferocactus, also known as ‘fish-hook’ cactus comes in six varieties at the RPRC. The slow-growing globular cactus with fierce spine-bearing large flowers (which blossom only when the plant is six years old) can attain a height of 16 to 20 feet, and weigh as much as 10 tons! It is aptly called Ferocactus for its sharp and tough spines.

Overwatering, in fact, is the main reason for slowing down the cactus plant’s growth. During winter the frequency of watering should be reduced. Dripping water is fatal to cacti. The cactus plant cannot tolerate intense heat, sunlight or dry air. Planting should ideally be done between February and March. Two or three layers of rocks at the bottom help proper drainage of water. Sand and leaf-mould are mixed with a preventive fungicide for disinfecting. Dead or diseased roots should be removed. Cacti can be planted from seeds or cuttings. It is also possible to graft the plant. Red spider mites are the cactus’ worst enemies, tinging the plant with a lead grey or rusty brown colour. Compost mixed with insecticides can effectively remove them. Then there are wood lice, snails and slugs which destroy cactus plants. Earthworms also enter moist pots and damage the roots while nematodes penetrate the root tissues.

At the RPRC visitors can buy cacti and get valuable tips on how to tend to the plant. This hardy plant is a feast for sore eyes in barren, colourless regions.