Frailea are very small cacti that rarely reach 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. The plants are native Brazil. These little cacti are quite interesting in their form but their life cycle is even more surprising. There are several species of this genus available for home growers, but the plants are considered threatened in their native habitat.
Rounded, flattish mounds of solitary to occasionally divided chocolate, purple-brown or greenish brown Fraileas make interesting contrasts to other succulents. This genus is named for Manuel Fraile, who once was in charge of the cactus collection of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Growing Fraileas is not difficult and these little plants are super starter plants for the novice gardener or just for someone who travels consistently but wants to come home to a living thing.
The majority of these plants grow as solitary little flattened domes. The spines are extremely tiny and arrayed along the ribs. The body of the plant may range from chocolate to reddish green with several other color variations possible. Often, the plant will produce a fuzzy white fruit that dries to a fragile, membranous capsule filled with large seeds. This fruit is often a surprise as flowers are rare and are cleistogamous, meaning they don’t need to open to produce fruit and seed.
If you are lucky enough to observe a full bloom, the flower will be larger than the body of the plant and rich sulfur yellow. Growing Frailea is easy from seed as germination is quick and reliable.
Growing Conditions and General Care
Frailea perform best in full sun but be cautious about placing them too close to a southern window where the flesh can burn. The tone of the cactus is darkest when it enjoys a full day of sunlight.
This is a short lived plant that rarely exceeds 15 years before it dies back. Here’s a fun bit of Frailea information. If plants are growing where no water is available, they have the interesting ability to hide in the soil. Don’t be shocked if your plant seems to have disappeared, as it is simply retracted under the soil just as it would do in the dry season in its native region. Once sufficient moisture is available, the plant swells and is again visible on the top of the soil.
Caring for Frailea is a balancing act between sufficient moisture but periods of soil drying, so water is the biggest challenge in Frailea cactus care. Choose water that is free from heavy minerals. Water well once per week in summer, but in spring and autumn water only once every 3 weeks or when the soil is quite dry to the touch. The plant experiences no growth in winter and does not need water.
Once per month during the growing season use diluted cactus food. In summer, you can bring your indoor specimens outside but be careful to bring them back indoors before any cold temperatures threaten.
Repot every few years with a good gritty succulent soil. Plants rarely need a larger pot and are quite content to be crowded. If you spot a seed pod, crack it open, sow seed in a flat with cactus mix and keep moderately moist in a sunny location.
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