With all the time in our hands right now, most of us are turning to plants to keep our mental health in check.
One of the recent planting trends right now would be growing cactus and succulents because they are easy to grow, they require minimum care requirements and with much attention and patience, they will bloom bright-colored flowers that will definitely cheer up any space.
If you love cactus or gained a newfound love for plants out of them, here’s everything you need to know about the different types of cactus and why you might want to plant one now.
Related: Desert Plants
What is a cactus?
With its value in home aesthetics and design, you must have wondered about the plant classification of a cactus or generally what a cactus is. With more than 170 variants and 2,000 species and counting, cacti are not trees, not flowers, not herbs but are definitely plants.
The cactus belongs to the family Cactaceae. They are not flowering plants but they will produce flowers They are not trees but they can grow as tall but without woody stems.
They are considered succulents because they can store water in their stems for a long time but that is much it and that is why there is a need to differentiate cacti from the rest of the succulents. Its name comes from the Latin word kaktos which means spiky plant.
Related: Where to buy succulents and cactus?
As interesting as it already is, here are some other fun cactus facts that you should not miss.
- Cacti spine protects them from being eaten by predators and helps them to stay insulated during heavy drought.
- Their ribbed and waxy surface help them in retaining water in their stems.
- For cacti, photosynthesis happens at night and they do so with their stems because they do not have leaves.
- Not all cacti are prickly. Forest cacti have bristles instead of spikes.
- Wild cacti can last for more than a hundred years while indoor cacti could last for 15 years, max.
- It is native to Mexico, Brazil and the rest of central and Latin America. It extends to British Columbia and Patagonia.
Identifying the Cactus Family
Cacti grow as trees, shrubs or vines; some species of cacti are epiphytes. Many cacti have ‘spines’, although ‘spines’ are actually the leaves of the plant, which have evolved to survive the environment. Many cacti ‘spines’ preserve and protect the evaporation of water from the plant. Cacti often have colorful blooms which flower at various times of the year. Cacti grow in all shapes and sizes.
How Cacti Survive With No Water
Cacti grow in dry, desert areas where rainfall is minimal; consequently, many cacti are xerophytes (a plant able to survive with little or no water) and/or succulents. Cacti maintain water through Crassulacean acid metabolism; Crassulacean acid metabolism is a process which takes place at night and stores carbon dioxide for release during the day, unlike the traditional process of photosynthesis. This process reduces potential water loss for cacti.
Uses of Cacti as Food and Medicine
Cacti are an ancient plant species which have been utilized for food and medicine by early natives such as the Native Americans and later by Hispanic pioneers to the Americas. Some cacti possess hallucinogenic properties, so it is important to identify cacti species correctly. The fruit and the seeds of cacti were eaten as food, in particular the species of Opuntia.
Common Cacti of the Cactus Family
Some of the common cacti family members include:
- desert Christmas cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis) – not to be confused with the Christmas cactus
- agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)
- barrel cactus (Ferocactus echinocactus)
- saguaro (Carnegia giganta)
- rose cactus (Pereskia grandifolia)
- prickly pear (Opuntia)
- ocotillo (Fouquiera splendens)
- mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera).
The Cactaceae Family
The cactus family is an ancient and fascinating group of plants which has evolved to survive the often harsh environment in which cacti grow. Many cacti species were taken back to Europe when explorers began ‘discovering’ the Americas and today cacti plants can be found in greenhouses and homes throughout Europe. However, cacti have the greatest chance of survival in their native surroundings and are a common sight across the deserts of the Americas.
The difference between succulents and cacti
In a phrase, the difference between succulents and cacti could be settled by the phrase, all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.” First of all, the term succulent is not a botanical name.
It is just an umbrella term for all plants that share these characteristics: drought-tolerance, fleshy stems or leaves, and the ability to store water in their stems. Given this, the term succulent will encompass all plants and trees that have these characteristics, hence, including the cactus.
On the other hand, the name cactus/cacti is an official scientific name for plants belonging to the botanical family called Cactaceae.
There are two other defining characteristics that set cacti apart from succulents. Most succulents have fleshy leaves while cacti don’t have leaves at all. Not having leaves makes them survive better in harsher areas because they have long stems where they could store more water.
Other than this, cacti have areoles or branch-like structures where their flowers bloom while succulents don’t.
Types of indoor cactus
Indoor cacti are always a sight to behold. They are grown along the windowsills, placed in bedrooms or the bathroom to absorb carbon dioxide, purifying the air at night. Here’s some indoor type of cactus that you can grow.
1. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera)
It is called as such because it blooms from November to January. It is a coastal cactus native to Brazil and it tends to grow wildly on top of big trees or rocks.
It grows beautiful pink, white, yellow or deep purple flowers throughout winter.
2. Fairy castle cactus (Acanthocereus Tetragonus)
It is a whimsical cactus with stems that grow in various heights in one pot, resembling the towers of a castle. It is slow-growing and rarely produces flowers.
It can grow at a maximum height of 6ft.
Read also: How to grow and care for Fairy castle cactus
3. Star cactus (Astrophytum asterias)
Because of its clustered, concave stems, it is also called the sea urchin cactus or starfish cactus. It is a good indoor cactus because it does not really grow tall, only achieving a maximum height of 6inches. And its small, yellow flowers on top are real showstoppers.
4. Barrel cactus
It is named as such because it is barrel-shaped. It cannot grow very tall but it can grow very wide. It is also fondly called the mother-in-law cushion. It loves plenty of sun and infrequent watering.
5. Old lady cactus (Mammillaria hahniana)
It is recommended for beginners because it does not need frequent watering even on its first planting years. It is categorized as a powder puff cactus with white spines all the way down, hence, the name old lady.
6. Moon cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii)
This one is loved for its bright, red-orange, full-moon shaped bloom because it truly adds color to pale indoors. It is actually a hybrid from grafted cacti and is good for beginners. However, it has a relatively shorter lifespan than other cacti.
7. Lady Finger cactus (Mammillaria elongata)
It is also called the gold lace cactus because of its tiny, golden yellow spines. It grows five tube-shaped stems in one pot, hence, the name lady finger. It only grows 6 inches tall and is topped with small, white flowers during spring.
8. African milk tree cactus (Euphorbia trigona)
This one is a relative of the poinsettia and botanically, it is more of a succulent than a cactus. While it has a ribbed, long and fleshy stem like cacti, it will grow maroon leaves on the top inch spikes along the stem. Skin contact with this one is said to cause redness and irritation.
It is also a small-growing cactus with a maximum height of 4 inches and a diameter of 6 inches. It is notable for its large, yellow bloom with dark yellow center during spring. Unlike other cacti, it requires more water and less sun.
10. Bunny ear cactus (Opuntia microdasys)
Its extended stems are literally shaped like bunny ears, hence, the name. It is also called angel ears, by the way, and is a favorite of beginners. Instead of spines, it has small, red dots on it called glochids, which by the way, are as prickly as traditional cactus spines too.
11. Feather cactus (Mammillaria plumosa)
It gets its name from the small, white ‘feathers’ covering the plant from top to bottom. The bristles may look soft and fluffy but they actually just cover the prickly spines of the plant so think twice before touching it.
12. Saguaro cactus
This cactus can only be found in the Sonoran Desert stretching from Baja California to Mexico. It makes a good indoor plant because it only grows half an inch for its first 8 years of life. Expect it to live for more than 200 years just like the ancient Saguaros in Sonora.
13. Blue columnar cactus (Pilosocereus Pachycladus)
It is a beautiful indoor cactus loved for its blue-green stems and contrasting soft-grey spikes. It is good for beginners and is best kept in a bright, cool space. Its spikes are a known skin irritant so stay away from it if you must.
14. Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri)
Unlike most cacti, its stems are shaped like succulent leaves and bright colored, full-wide blooms of deep pink color and yellow-white center during early Spring in time for Easter. But even without the blooms, its deep-green, segmented stems are appalling on their own.
15. Bishop’s cap cactus (Astrophytum myriostigma)
Imagine the segmented, concave cap of Roman Catholic bishops and that is exactly the shape of this cactus. It makes a great indoor plant because it is slow-growing and does not need much water. It will grow small, yellow flowers briefly in the spring.
16. Powder puff cactus (Mammillaria bocasana)
It is native to Central Mexico where it wildly grows below bushes or in rocks. It is a fast-growing cactus known for producing small offsets around the mother plant. It has blue-green stems, reddish spikes, white bristles and yellow, white, pink/red flowers during spring.
17. Balloon cactus (Notocactus magnificus)
It is a very rare cactus commercially sold as seed rather than plant. It has a sphere-shaped, blue-green body and golden yellow spines. It can grow offsets branching from the mother plant or just grow solitarily. It will bloom soft yellow flowers in the spring and summer.
Types of outdoor cactus
They are either too prickly, very fast-growing or could grow very tall making them fit for outdoor cultivation. Outdoor cacti are often found in xeriscaping as they also produce bright-colored blooms that are definite showstoppers in any desert landscaping.
18. Arizona barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni, the fishhook barrel cactus)
It is also known as the fishhook barrel cactus because of its barrel-shaped body and fishhook-like, long spines that cover the entire body. Its stem is segmented with thick, leathery ridges. It blooms cup-shaped flowers in the spring and yellow berries in the summer.
Related: Arizona backyard landscaping ideas
19. Queen of the night cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum)
It is also called as the Dutchman’s Pipe cactus because of its pipe-shaped stem. It is native to Brazil and usually grows in large trees. It is called such because it only blooms white flowers in the night.
20. Strawberry cactus (Mammillaria dioica, California fishhook cactus)
It is known for its cylindrical shaped stems that could grow to up to 4ft. As it grows, it will branch out from 15 to 100 small stems sprouting from the main stem. It will bloom small pink flowers in the spring and sometimes during fall.
21. Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia)
It is a cacti genus with various species including the famous Indian fig prickly pear and the beavertail prickly pear. Like the bunny ears, it has prickly glochids after shedding its spines. It will grow yellow, pink and purple flowers during spring or fall.
Read also: Propagating Prickly Pear Cactus
22. The old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis)
It is native to Eastern Mexico and it is called as such because of its silk-like coat of white hair covering the length of its stem. It takes 10-20 years before it could bloom its first flowers and when it does, it only blooms at night.
23. Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
It will officially look like a barrel when it reaches its mature phase at 3ft tall and 3ft wide. It gets its name from its golden yellow needles which makes it very prickly because they grow in clusters along the ribs of the plant.
Types of cold-hardy cactus
These cacti can thrive both in full sun and partial to full shade. Most of them are slow-growing, making them fit for both indoor or outdoor planting. These are the ones that could tolerate some frost and lower temperatures.
24. Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)
It is a slow-growing, low-lying cactus which got its name from its short, spiked stems which resemble hedgehogs. It grows in clumps with ten to sixty stems per clump. It will bloom bright pink flowers in the spring.
25. Club cholla (Grusonia clavata)
It looks like clustered corals complete with a rounded stem but with sharp spines running along the stem. It needs a lot of sun but not so much water. It blooms orange or green flowers in spring or fall. It has more than 20 species.
26. Beehive cactus (escobaria vivipara)
This one is known for its extreme longevity albeit its short height. It gets its name because it is a creeper and forms beehive-like colonies. It is often confused with Coryphantha robusta but its small, exotic looking, purple or magenta flowers make the distinction.
Frequently Asked Questions
Cactus info does not stop here and there are some FAQs that need to be answered to settle everything out and finally be in your way to planting one.
For example, you still need to know some light and temperature considerations for cacti species. Do they survive in the cold? Can they tolerate shade? What do they symbolically stand for? If you are in for these, read these FAQs.
Is a cactus a tree or a plant?
As have been mentioned briefly when we introduced what a cactus is, the cactus is a plant but it is not a tree. Of course, it is a plant because it is botanically acknowledged as one.
Scientifically, it belongs to the plant family called Cactaceae. However, it is not a tree although it can grow as tall as one. It has no woody stems like the tree, it does not have a bulky foliage, let alone solitary leaves, like trees and it definitely does not have woody branches like trees.
Cactus meaning and symbolism
Universally, the cactus is symbolically recognized as a representation of endurance and grace because it could thrive and bloom in the harshest environments. Aside from this, it also stands for adaptability because it could survive well even when it is suddenly in new environments.
It also remains unfazed and still blooms flowers in stressful living conditions. While it has ribbed, hard exterior, its stems store water inside which practically makes it soft inside. Thus, the cactus also stands for inner beauty and innocence.
Can cacti grow in low light?
There are some cacti variants that could tolerate low light but most do not fare well if they do not get more than four hours of bright light. This is the reason why cacti are often kept in indoor spaces where they could get full light, both natural and artificial.
Can cacti grow in shade?
Generally, cacti get sickly when they are kept in the shade. Hence, during winter, cacti are transferred indoors where they must get 10-14 hours of indirect artificial light. However, there are still specific species that could tolerate the shade.
Most often than not, cacti that could grow in partial to full shade are also considered as cold-hardy cacti.
Can cacti survive in winter?
We have well-established that cacti are not the same. We may have known them for being just sun-loving plants but take not that there are a lot of winter-hardy species.
As a matter of fact, cold-hardy cacti can tolerate a temperature of up to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Non-cold hardy cacti cannot tolerate anything below the freezing point.
Nonetheless, you have to understand that while cold-hardy cacti could survive negative temperatures, too much frost or being exposed to ice could still have a negative effect on their growth in the long run. Some of its effects would be stunted growth or not being able to bloom flowers in a while.
There are a lot of things to know about the cactus, that is for sure. But have a knowledge of one does not mean a full-knowledge of all because as we have established, not all cacti are alike.
Some have peculiar growing requirements, some strikingly do not love much sun, some can tolerate the shade and thrive in the winter frost but some will die when temperatures drop at 15 degrees. It is very important to know the types of cactus because while it is highly adaptive, your location might not be cut up for some cactus species.
Other than that, some cacti may cause skin irritation and others. And if you are very specific about the blooms, all the more that you need to know the types of cactus. With all of these, I think we could all concede that cactus love is here to stay.