The following article was written by Gerhard Vermeulen of Cactus and Succulent Collectors
An intriguing history
The ancient Lophophora Williamsii, commonly known as Peyote, is undoubtedly one of the most mythical of all cacti. It originates from the area between South Texas and Mexico. Here, it has played a prominent role in the religion and culture of the indigenous native American Indians for over 6000 years and is still used today for religious and healing purposes. The mind-altering psychoactive properties of mescaline, which is found in the body of the plant, is used as a vessel to transport minds to the ancestral spiritual realm.
For avid collectors of cactus, however, the peyote’s beauty lies in its plump blue-green, soft thornless skin and cute button-like appearance. The small tufts of soft, white or yellowish-white woolly hairs that grow from the cusp areoles, add to the charm of the plant. These soft white tufts of hair that give the peyote it’s charming and recognizable appearance, are actually only apparent in cultivated plants. In habitat, the tufts are ‘missing’, mostly because of wind and other harsh elements.
Diffusa 5yrs old
Williamsii 8yrs old
There are quite a few species of peyote, but only two of them are accepted and registered. These are the peyote williamsii and the peyote diffusa, which is also known as the ‘false peyote’. The most obvious difference between the two plants is the colour and firmness of the button. The diffusa is yellowish-green in colour and the body, the ‘button’ is not as firm as that of the williamsii. When people refer to ‘peyote’, they are generally referring to the williamsii, as it is the oldest and by far the most loved and cultivated peyote. For the purpose of identification, I will be highlighting the differences between the two species
Growing in cultivation, with habitat in mind.
Williamsii in cultivation
In its natural habitat the peyote is extremely slow growing. It can take up to thirty years to reach full maturity, sometimes only flowering after ten years. It seldom becomes bigger than the size of a golf ball. Because of the slow rate of reproduction as well as the excessive removal of plants from habitat, the peyote williamsii is regarded as ‘under threat’ in the wild. Fortunately, in cultivation the peyote grows a lot faster. From a seedling to a flowering adult could take as little as four years. In habitat, peyotes grow between rocks, in crevices and under shrubs and plants. In cultivation, the same part sun / part shade principle works well.
Container selection and growing medium
Peyote plants have an enormous tap root and this makes them quite prone to root rot. A deepish pot will work to accommodate this long tap root.
Williamsii showing tap root
Peyotes grow well in very gritty soil, with good drainage. They generally don’t like compost or plant matter. In order to keep the medium loose and airy, I recommend using a mixture of Pumice and Akadama. This mixture provides the ideal base for the roots, but does not provide the nutrition that the plant needs to grow. A good general fertilizer will work for feeding. Ideally though, a high potassium, low nitrogen fertilizer is preferred. This will ensure that the plant doesn’t grow too quickly, as this could cause the soft skin of the peyote to burst.
One should also avoid overwatering, as this is another common cause of burst skin and also dreaded root rot. Overwatering can also cause the plant to become elongated and unnatural in appearance. Peyotes grow in summer and as with all cactus, are dormant in winter. During this time, they should be left to rest. I personally do not water my peyotes at all during their dormant season. Initially it may be difficult to know exactly how often to water, but a good rule of thumb is to remember where the plant grows in habitat and to err on the side of ‘too little’ rather than too much.
One of the most important things to do when growing peyote in cultivation, is to keep the plant clean. Dust is like a magnet for red spider mite, enemy number one for a peyote. Red spider mite is active during the warmer months. These nasty sap-feeding mites, commonly known as red-devils can kill a plant by destroying the epidermis, which in turn creates a scab-like crust. These scabs leave horrible scars which can take years to heal. This damage also slows down the growth of the plant. Once the damage is done, there is very little that one can do to treat the plant. Fortunately, a peyote is fairly resilient and can heal itself. Actually, it is quite a good healer but it is essential to ensure that the spider mites are eradicated quickly to stop further damage. (Read more about pests and diseases here)
Williamsii 30+ years old showing earlier red spider-mite damage
A mature peyote will bloom frequently in summer with up to three flowers. The flowers grow from the woolly tuft in the centre and are magnificent shades of pink and soft white. The flowers are followed by small pink fruit. Once mature, these fruits will be brownish-white and dry and will contain the peyote seeds. The peyote williamsii is mostly self-fertile, but certain variations can be self-sterile whereas the the diffusa is always self-sterile. Propagation from seeds is possible and fairly easy with the right care and much patience. A very mature peyote may produce pups, but growth is extremely slow, especially on the williamsii.
Flowering williamsii showing 3 flowers
Williamsii showing seed pod
Collecting and growing your own peyote is an extremely rewarding experience. The intrigue and charm of a peyote never fades and the plant can be admired by all for its natural beauty and ancient mythical history.
Gerhard Vermeulen from Cactus and Succulent Collectors, is an avid collector of peyote. He is based in the Helderberg area. You may contact him on whatsapp number : 071 370 8613 or via his Facebook page Cactus and Succulent Collectors at: https://www.facebook.com/collectorsworldwide/