Flowers blush in Cactus garden

By Times Of India on 27 Mar 2018 | read
By: Anamni Gupta & Sakschi Verma

Cactus. The name calls to the mind a plant that pricks. However, a visit to Asia’s largest cactus garden might change your opinion. To see how love and compassion can turn even species with spines into a beautiful sight, come to Dr J S Sarkaria National Cactus & Succulent Botanical Huda Garden and Research Centre in Sector 5, Panchkula.

Doctor’s dream

Dr J S Sarkaria, founder of garden, developed interest in these desert weeds after his voluntary retirement from Punjab Civil Medical Service (PCMS) in 1974. The military doctor once admitted that he was more comfortable curing and grafting plants than operating upon humans. He came back from

an American Cactus Society lecture searching for new varieties of Indian cacti, the first of which he discovered in 1977.

In years of extensive travel and exploration, he added more cacti to his collection. When his health started failing with time, he now started looking for capable hands to preserve this assortment. Haryana Urban Development Authority (Huda) volunteered to do the job. In 1987, Dr Sarkaria gifted his collection of cacti to the department, and the latter used it to build a cactus garden over 8 acres. The garden was opened to the public in 1992 and renamed after Dr Sarkaria after he passed away in 2004.

Fittest survive

Sushil Kumar, junior engineer at this cactus garden maintained by Huda’s horticulture department, said its 3,500 species had been gathered from around the globe. On the garden’s 25-odds mounds, nearly 800 species of cactus have been naturalised. The other varieties are inside glasshouses to provide these with favourable weather conditions. The nine glasshouses also shelter a number of baby cacti, which are planted outside once they are resistant and acclimatised enough. Garden manager Nidhi Bhardwaj says: “We keep experimenting with introducing new varieties of cacti. Some survive, some don’t.

The survivors stay on and grow in number. A few varieties that used to survive well till a few years ago have become feeble and started to die. The environment is changing rapidly and so are the needs of these plants, so our collection keeps on changing, too.” The cacti absorb moisture and retain it for long, which helps them survive even in the driest of deserts. The plants need water once a week in winter and on alternate days in summer, but can go the entire monsoon without water.

Gentle touch

Every monsoon, almost 10% of the cacti decay due to excess water retention. We replace these with new plants of the same variety. We grow and preserve all varieties in our glasshouses all year, so that we can compensate for our losses,” says junior engineer Sushil Kumar. The 19 regular staffers include 17 gardeners, a junior engineer, and a manager. Most of the gardeners are here since the opening of the garden in 1992. They work from 8am to 5pm. During monsoon, when the cacti need extra care, the garden hires maintenance workers on contract.

The soil in which the cacti grow is mixed with a porous, granular blend of grey sand and cow dung in a precise proportion. A bulk of it is stored for use when required. Bonsai collectionThe garden’s small bonsai collection includes 75 varieties gifted by Dr Sarkaria. The cactus gardeners are trained in taking care of this collection as well. These plants need re-potting once in three years.

Plants for sale

The garden also grows cacti for sale. “It’s a myth that cacti bring misfortune. Many people come to us to give away their cacti after some tragic incident in the family. But the new-age belief is that like the cacti absorb moisture, they soak negative energies as well. Hence, families have started keeping them near the entrances to absorb the negative energies of visitors,” says garden manager Nidhi Bhardwaj.