While most Indian homes detest the idea of growing cactus in their gardens, these two people just love it. Not just this, they are also trying to spread as much awareness about the benefits of growing these plants, and working towards busting the myths related to these.
Meet Dr B P Saxena and Meena Singh, both of who have maintained huge cactus gardens in their respective homes. While Dr Saxena has been nurturing cactus for the over five decades now, Singh has been doing so for the last 25 years.
Well, out to dispel the myth that cacti bring ill-luck to its owner, Dr Saxena has named his home in Sector 30 'Cactus House'. Even the lane that leads to his house is bordered on both sides by cacti of different kinds, which he has planted. "These plants give beautiful flowers and many of these have medicinal properties," he says. Singh too maintains several varieties of cacti and succulents at her home in Sector 40.
We know of many cactophiles, not only in India, but also across the globe, who have lived a full, long, happy and successful life surrounded by cacti. So calling these plants unlucky is incomprehensible, they say. "It's all bullshit. Tell me how can one plant, that cannot even speak and is at our mercy for its food be bad for us powerful humans," asks Dr Saxena, a bit angrily. "Cactus is bad according to Vaastu experts, but Vaastu is an Indian science while cactus is not a native of India. So, how can the principals of Vaastu apply to it," points out Singh.
"Moreover, Vastu Shastra finds its origins in the Staptya Veda, a part of the Atharva Veda, compiled around c. 3500 B.C. long, long before cacti was ever heard of in India," she adds. "Abroad, people keep these plants for ornamental purposes. But these plants are very beneficial for controlling desertification of land," says Dr Saxena.
"Each plant of suguaro cacti can conserve about one ton of water during ¼ inch of rainfall," he says. Dr Saxena formed the Indian Society of Cacti and Succulents (ISOCS), in 1986, of which Singh is also a member. Members include both Indian and foreign nationals. The ISOCS members meet on the last Sunday of each month at the home of one of the members.
"We initially had 250 members, today there are over 600 from over 20 countries," says Dr Saxena. Similarly, in the beginning the annual membership was just Rs 10 and life membership fee was Rs 250. Today the annual membership is Rs 500 while the life membership fee is Rs 5000.
"In Noida there are just about 15 ISOCS members. I feel more people should join the society. These plants too have beautiful flowers just like others. It's really sad these should be denigrated in such a manner," adds Singh. The society brings out four journals a year on this plant, and distributes it in over 60 countries across the globe. It holds talks on importance of these plants, how to grow them besides holding annual shows in Delhi, in March every year.
"For initial 17 years we held the shows in Pragati Maidan, then we moved to YWCA, Blind School and Janaki Devi Mahavidyalaya. Later, Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit gave us space in Dilli Haat where we have been holding this show for the last four years now," says he adds.
"Since I am retired my entire day is devoted to these plants," says Dr Saxena, the former head of Zoology Department at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University. Singh too spends at least two hours per day tending to her cacti. "These plants have certainly brought me a great deal of joy and happiness and enduring friendships of people from across the world," she says.
An avid plant-lover, Meena was introduced to these plants by a friend, while for Dr Saxena it was his professor who gifted him a cacti that started it all. "My husband was in Army and every time he got a transfer, I was forced to leave my plants behind, since plants native to one region cannot survive in another. Then a friend advised me to have cacti as these could be removed from the pots, wrapped in a newspaper and taken along and can be re-grown in the new city without much bother," says Meena.
"I am glad I took her advice," she says. "I saw the blooming cacti for the first time at my professor's home and haven't been able to take my eyes off them ever since," says Dr Saxena.
Procuring seeds and plants:
Most growers share seeds amongst themselves. "Getting seeds and saplings of cacti is very difficult since people are very wary of having these plants," says Singh. "All over the country there are hardly a few nurseries that sell these plants. These are in Bombay, Shirdi, Calimpong and one on Mumbai-Poona Highway from where I got my double-petaled adenium," she adds.
These are low maintenance plants. What's more, they are perennial plants which means they keep growing year after year. Cactus should be sowed in pots having good drainage, and placed under adequate sunlight. Mix gravel in soil before potting a plant so that water can be out drained easily.
Cacti need little water so water them only when they dry out. They are quite friendly to the chill weather and during the winter they should be watered less with no fertilizer application. Generally, these plants need bright sunlight and high temperatures.
These plants need low nitrogen fertilizers. Rose mixture is a good fertilizer for cacti. Healthy, unpampered cacti plants are the least prone to diseases and pests. Medicinal properties of cacti Euphorbia Nivulia leaves when heated in mustard oil and applied on the fore head can cure colds and headaches.
The massage of a paste made from Euphorbia Fusiformis rootstocks ground with ginger in mustard oil help in recovery of paralysis patients. Euphorbia Tirocaculli (abundant in south India) has hydrocarbon in it from which petrol can be produced and many help prevent (hold your breath) ageing.
Jatropha Curcas stems are used in many places as a 'datun' (Toothbrush) to relieve a toothache. The sap of aleovera can remove all blemishes from the skin. Coleus Aromaticus helps in stomach-ache, Cyssus Quadriangularis works efficiently in bone fractures. Solanum Nigrum can treat hepatitis B.