The Latin plural of cactus is cacti, which makes Shirley Selvey of Eureka an inveterate collector of cacti. Or, if either of the English versions is preferred, she's an inveterate collector of cactus or cactuses. Whatever the plural, Selvey estimates she has about 75 of them, all potted and arranged on the porch, near the entrance of the garage, and on the backyard patio.

The Latin plural of cactus is cacti, which makes Shirley Selvey of Eureka an inveterate collector of cacti. Or, if either of the English versions is preferred, she's an inveterate collector of cactus or cactuses.


Whatever the plural, Selvey estimates she has about 75 of them, all potted and arranged on the porch, near the entrance of the garage, and on the backyard patio.


When she started collecting cactus, she says a friend asked, "'How'd you get into a dumb collection like that?'"


Selvey replied, "It wasn't hard."


Actually, the independent cactus is a practical plant for a woman of 81 who doesn't get around as well as she once did and a collection of cactus in central Illinois isn't as dumb as it might sound.


"It's shocking to see in the Midwest, but you'll find them growing wild," says Bob Streitmatter, manager of Luthy Botanical Gardens.


During the past few decades, as average temperatures have risen, some cactus have slowly migrated north, Streitmatter says.


"People don't realize there are native cactus that will grow pretty readily in their own gardens. Some are even hardy to zone three, we're talking Minnesota."


Varieties of the prickly pear, or opuntia, can do well in central Illinois' zone five region.


Streitmatter remembers a homeowner near Princeville whose backyard soil was inundated with cinders leftover from earlier owners' years of burning coal for heat. "They couldn't get anything to grow except cactus."


If the soil is rocky, gravelly, sandy, and most importantly, with good drainage, cactus are going to survive, according to Streitmatter. "It's really interesting the way they've adapted themselves to very harsh environments."


Thick skin helps them retain water, the waxy coating prevents water loss. The thorny spines, which are their leaves, also help reduce water loss. The thorns can deter animals looking for water, some can be allergens that further repel animals, including humans. They have a short growing season, a long dormant season and a shallow root system that can spread quickly to collect water after a rain.


Cactus' low-maintenance qualities also make them the ideal houseplant for people with limited time and/or limited abilities, which gets back to Selvey and her cactus collection.


She used to grow petunias, geraniums and other common-place plants - and water them almost daily - until she discovered cactus. "I went to cactuses and the next thing I knew I was getting rid of my African violets."


Potted cactus plants cut her work in half, she says. She waters them about every two weeks, even less when the weather is humid or foggy, as it has been lately, because cactus readily absorb moisture from the air.


She brags that she's "going green," but the real reason for her attachment is less ideological. "I just really enjoy them because they're so different."


Selvey bought her first cactus about three years ago at a garage sale.


"It looked like Mickey Mouse ears to me," she says. "I fell in love with it and it went from there."


That particular plant, placed in a sunny area right near her garage door, looks like it might be a member of the prickly pear family.


Selvey is the first to say she's no cactus expert. She doesn't know specific common names of many of her cacti. But the ones she does know highlight the cactus plants' diverse adaptability.


There's the candle cactus, the balloon cactus, the barrel cactus, and the saguaro her grandson gave her. There's a tiny thimble cactus, a paper spine, a caterpillar and the crown of thorns cactus. All of them resemble their names. There's the montrose, which she calls a monstrosity, and another equally gnarly-looking cactus she calls "the brain" because she doesn't know what it is but it looks like a brain. There's the small coral, an unusual white cactus with purplish hues that fans out reminiscent of a coral reef, a pencil cactus and a tiger's tooth.


Selvey also has interspersed a few other succulents among them, such as a hanging burro's tail, a jade plant and aloe.


Many of her cactus don't get hours and hours of full sun, she says, but they seem to do "OK." The small ones winter in the house, the larger ones go to the garage, where she plugs in a small electric heater to maintain the temperature at about 50 degrees so they don't freeze.


"The only thing you've got to worry about is moving them," Selvey says. "You've got to be careful so you don't get stuck."


Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com.