Let’s get straight to the point: cacti are awesome. They are extremely easy to care for, purify the air, and have a unique, funky look. When it comes to plant decor, cactus plants are all you need. However, because of their range of shapes, sizes, and colors, it can be hard to choose which ones you want to grow. To help you decide, this complete guide covers everything you need to know about cacti along with descriptions of the 13 best types of cactus plants.
Cactus 101: Begin with the Basics
There are truly no house plants that look even remotely like cacti. These bizarre beauties grow in crazy patterns, in bright colors, with their trademark adornment of needles. Not only are they a great plant to have because of their otherworldly look, they also are extremely easy to care for, somehow thriving in neglect.
No need to worry about keeping your home humid or at a certain temperature to sustain them, and if you forget to water them, no sweat, these plants store water like camels. If your plant flourishes—which is likely—it may even reward you with some strikingly vibrant blooms.
What are Cacti?
Cacti are plants within the Cactaceae family. They have succulent stems and branches and grow scales or spines instead of leaves. Their spines are what cacti are most well-known for, infamous in cartoons, movies, and the stories of unlucky friends who accidentally stumbled into them.
When growing a cactus, you should avoid touching them at all cost, but keep in mind that they aren’t all bad. They add to cacti’s otherworldly look and the areoles that produce them also produce flowers. Cactus blooms are absolutely gorgeous, producing solitary, brightly-colored, show-stopping flowers. Blooms will only occur if your plant is completely healthy and flourishing, which is a state that is easy to reach for these resilient and durable plants.
Cactus plants have adapted to survive, one of their quirks being that the process of transpiration occurs overnight to prevent excess water loss.
Cactus Health Benefits
Although when you think of cactus plants and health you may think of them hurting yours through their pointy spines, in reality, having cactus plants around provides more health benefits than risks.
Cactus plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen at night, improving your sleep quality by providing supplemental oxygen. In the process, they also can remove up to 84 air toxins, improving air quality. In particular, cacti are adept at filtering out harmful bacteria.
They also release moisture vapor into the air, helping individuals with respiratory problems breathe easier. Not only do cacti help you breathe easier, and better air, they also have proven positive mental health benefits. Caring for and being around house plants can improve your mood, helping individuals with mental health problems like depression and anxiety get through even the gloomiest winter months.
Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear is an intriguing cactus for your home, featuring bright green paddle-like pads that actually grow on top of each other. Perfect for the person who wants a bit of green in their home, but has little time or ability to care for plants. From the desert climates of South America, Central America, and the southern parts of North America, the Prickly Pear thrives in a warm sunny spot in your home. This one ships in an 8-inch recycled Ecopot.
There are thousands of cacti species out there, but don’t worry, only some of those make good house plants, and the ones that do can be divided into two easy-to-understand groups: desert cacti and forest cacti. Both groups require little maintenance, having the same ability to store water for long periods of time, and are capable of thriving indoors. However, there are some key differences to note.
These cactus plants are largely regarded as the more traditional cacti, growing in the familiar formations we all know and love from Westerns. These cacti are super easy to grow, being one of the most resilient houseplants. They typically come from the hottest, driest climates across the Americas. Keep that in mind while caring for them; they can survive in a desert, of course they can survive on your New York apartment’s window ledge.
Their flowers tend to bloom after the plant has matured to three or four years, but some plants may take longer… and some may never bloom. In other words, don’t hold your breath, but if you are lucky enough to see your plant bloom, enjoy every second of it.
If desert cacti are traditional, forest cacti are their offbeat, funky cousins. They grow in wooded forests that range from temperate to tropical, and tend to be climbing plants, growing on trees as epiphytes. Because of this, they are used to completely different environmental conditions than desert cacti, instead favoring areas with lots of humidity and moisture. The most famous forest cactus is the Christmas cactus, which blooms with bright, brilliant flowers around the holidays.
How to Care for a Cactus
Cacti are extremely easy to care for. However, you should still take a few key environmental components into account.
Desert cacti and forest cacti both originate from hot areas, so they appreciate bright sunlight. While cacti can get by on a mere three hours of sunlight exposure a day, if you live in a low-light area or have a cool climate, it’s recommended you get them some supplementary lighting if you ever want to see blooms and keep them generally healthy.
During the summer, consider moving your cacti outside. Forest cacti like bright light, but not direct sunlight, so place them somewhere with a bit of coverage. Make sure you harden your desert cacti off before moving them outside so they don’t get scorched.
When desert cacti are actively growing they prefer hot and dry temperatures in the 70 F to 85 F range, while in their rest period in the winter they prefer temperatures around 55 F. Don’t be surprised, in the desert, they are exposed to very cold temperatures at night, so they can handle them. Still, they don’t prefer cold winter drafts.
Forest cacti are resilient and can flourish in a wide temperature range, from 55 F to 75 F. During their rest period in the winter, they not only prefer but actually require temperatures around 50 F.
Whenever the soil of your desert cacti dries out in the summer, thoroughly water it. During the winter, do the opposite. Only water your plant if it begins to shrivel. This may sound cruel but it’s what your plant wants. If you overwater your plant in the winter, it can cause it to rot, putting the plant’s life at risk.
Water your forest cacti whenever it’s soil begins to dry during the summer and when its buds start to show. During its rest period in the winter only water when the soil feels dry. Again, if you overwater your cacti you risk it contracting root rot so when in doubt, just don’t water.
You should plant your desert cacti in fast-draining cacti mix or in regular potting soil that you have mixed perlite into to increase its drainage capabilities. Forest cacti are much less picky so you can plant them in regular potting soil.
Organic Succulent and Cactus Soil Mix, Fast Draining Pre-Mixed Coarse Blend (4 Quarts)
Well draining The Next Gardener succulent potting soil helps prevent root rot and overwatering. It will not damage roots on cactus and succulents, and is pH balanced to provide the best environment for healthy, resilient roots.
When it comes to care, desert cacti are again the divas with specific needs, while forest cacti are adaptable to a wider range of conditions. Your desert cacti will need a cacti fertilizer, while forest cacti can make do with a standard fertilizer applied during the growing season.
Cacti can be prone to pests, so keep an eye on your plants. If any pests attack them, simply wash them off using water and cotton swabs. You don’t need to repot your desert cacti since they are so slow-growing, but you should repot your forest cacti at the beginning of the growing season each year to accommodate its upcoming growth spurt.
Because they are such resilient growers, it is fairly easy to propagate cacti. The hardest part? Waiting for these slow growers to produce sufficient offshoots and cuttings for you to propagate. You can either propagate by taking stem cuttings or offshoots from your cactus.
- If you are using stem cuttings, simply snip off cuttings from your plant and allow them to dry out and callous over. Eventually, the cut end will start rooting and you can plant it.
- If you are using offshoots, remove them from the plant and place them in a potting mix, cut side down. Eventually, a new cactus will start to grow!
13 Best Cactus Plants
Angel Wings Cactus
This is one of the most popular varieties of cactus and its no wonder why. Angel wings cactus plants grow clusters of pads that can sometimes resemble angel wings, other times bunny ears, and other times who-knows-what. These cacti are part of the prickly pear family so they grow evenly spaced clusters with hairs instead of spines. While as a house plant these cacti are normally kept small, their pads can grow to be up to 2 feet tall and 5 feet across. When this plant blooms it has soft, pale yellow flowers followed by red fruit that you can eat! To ensure that your plant blooms grow it in its ideal conditions, in full sun and moist soil.
The barrel cactus is the shape of a barrel and can grow to be bigger than a barrel, reaching a maximum height of 8 to 10 feet. Of course, as house plants, and slow-growing plants, they tend to stay on the smaller side. That’s okay though because they have time to grow, living for many decades. This is not a cactus you want to mess with notably long, rigid spines protecting its globular body. Its center holds liquid and is quite pulpy but you would never know that unless you find a way to get past those spines. This desert cactus prefers bright sunlight, a loose potting mix, and infrequent waterings.
These ball-shaped cacti are similar to barrel cacti in their globe-like shape but have very different care requirements. Parodia cacti are most well known for the vibrant, showy flowers that they produce in bright yellows, reds, oranges, and pinks. Of course, those flowers can take years to bloom and will only occur if you treat your parodia right, giving it indirect sunlight and frequent waterings. They come from South America and are used to moist environments so this is not a cactus you want to skimp on the water with.
One of the most popular cacti to gift to other people is the Christmas cactus because its flowers tend to bloom around the holidays. Not only is it gift-friendly, it’s also people-friendly with soft, rounded spines that lack the bite often associated with cacti needles. The crown of this cacti is the tubular flowers it produces in bright pink, orange, red, and white. Often Christmas cacti are sold already in bloom and you can get them to rebloom each year by exposing them to colder temperatures in the 50 F to 60 F range. This is one of the most well-known forest cacti, originating in Brazilian rain forests where it grows on trees. Because of this, it prefers indirect light and regular waterings.
Similar to the Christmas cacti, Easter cacti bloom around the holidays, but in this case, spring holidays. The bright blooms of the Easter cacti are just as colorful and eye-catching as its holiday-cacti counterpart, coming in brilliant colors like peach, lavender, pink, orange, and red. The unusual shape of Easter cacti is also noteworthy, with a stacked appearance that resembles the stems of more common houseplants. This forest cactus has softer spines than typical desert cacti, if “soft” is a word you can apply to spines. It prefers bright, indirect sunlight, moist soil, and humidity.
African Milk Tree
African milk tree cacti are extremely easy to grow, thriving off of neglect. With little help, these cacti can grow to be as tall as 8 feet. Don’t worry if you are planning on growing this plant indoors, inside it will have trouble passing 4 feet tall. They also tend to be slow growers, but with life spans that last over a decade, they have time. Between the spines of this cacti grows small leaves that are sometimes a greenish color and sometimes a reddish-purple color adding a beautiful, unusual accent to the plant. African milk tree cacti prefer well-drained soil, bi-monthly waterings, and bright sun.
Rat Tail Cactus
Rat tail cacti make awesome container plants, just don’t bump into this prickly plant with your head. It’s fast-growing for a cactus so also make sure you plant it in a sizable basket. This trailing plant grows wonderfully in the air, but it should be positioned near a light source because this desert cactus does prefer direct, bright light. If you treat it well enough it will produce amazing magenta blooms. A fun fact about those flowers is that they aren’t just beautiful, they are also useful! They have been used for years in Mexico to treat heart problems.
When you imagine huge cacti stretching up against a barren desert landscape, you are probably thinking of a saguaro cactus. These monstrosities can grow to be as tall as 40 feet and live for as long as two centuries. Because they are in no rush, it can take decades for them to actually flower.
Because they are so slow to grow you can safely keep one inside for years without it out-growing your home. To keep it growing, expose it to direct, bright light and water it sparingly, sometimes only once a month.
This cactus also goes by the name sea urchin cactus and starfish cactus. It’s on the smaller side, only growing to be between 2 to 6 inches across, so people often incorporate them into their succulent or cacti gardens. While its size might not draw attention, its beautiful yellow or white blooms certainly will. Its look is understated, with a greenish grayish-brown skin that is dappled with white dots and fur. The only downside of this cacti is that it’s popular—too popular, perhaps—so its wild population has been threatened. Make sure that if you buy one it’s from a plant nursery that grows them from seed or propagates in-house rather than harvesting the endangered wild cacti.
Old Lady Cactus
It’s obvious where this quirky cactus gets its name! Old lady cacti are covered in grayish-white hairs and bloom a crown of small white-pink flowers on their heads in the spring or summer. This halo of flowers will only occur if you keep your plant healthy, exposing it to bright light, watering it on a bi-monthly basis, and planting it in a sandy potting mix. This beautiful cacti grows as a sphere, with dark green flesh beneath its spines and abundant hair.
Fairy Castle Cactus
Fairy castle cacti are an absolute dream, with a whimsical growing pattern that really does look like the silhouette of a castle. Your castle could grow to be up to 6 feet in height, but you will definitely have to bide your time because this cactus is a notoriously slow grower.
Also, unfortunately, fairy castle cacti rarely produce flowers, to the point that it has become common for companies to attach artificial blooms to them. If after at least 10 years your cacti does bloom it will produce real, large white flowers that might not be entirely worth the wait but will definitely be stunning.
This desert cactus prefers full, direct sunlight and well-drained soil.
Moon cacti have a very unique look probably because of their Frankenstein origins. This hybrid plant is actually two cacti grafted together, which is why their lifespans can be short compared to other cactus types, but still as long as a few years. The top of moon cacti’s are a spherical, brightly colored cactus from South America. These shocking plants come in vibrant pinks, oranges, reds, and yellows, the only catch to their coloring being that they can’t produce chlorophyll which is necessary for plants to complete photosynthesis. Because of this, they are grafted onto a cactus species that can produce chlorophyll, which feeds them.
These plants love bright, indirect sunlight, frequent waterings, and well-drained soil.
The bishop’s cap cactus is also a well-named plant, with an odd, crown-like shape that can be topped with a beautiful golden flower when this cactus blooms. The coloring of this cacti is unique, being a light-green-grayish color that has a subdued quality to it. This coloring plus the white coating on the plant adds to its understated charm. These desert cactus thrives in full sunlight and with infrequent waterings.
Hopefully, now you know which cactus you want to prick… I mean pick, along with all the necessary care tips to ensure your plant thrives and produces beautiful blooms. Of course, don’t limit yourself to one cactus. Nothing looks more beautiful than a whole garden full of different cactus plant varieties!
I hope you found this guide helpful! If you did, be sure to share it and comment below with any cactus questions you may have.