Cactus Type Category
Introduction to Cactus Plants

Introduction to Cactus Plants

Haageocereus Espostoa

Cactus plants are a family of succulents that mostly store their sustaining resources such water and nutrients in the stems of the plant. Most of the popular cactus plants are from Mexico. Although, there are many species that grow both north and south of Mexico. Each community of cactus plants has their own particulars as to the best way to grow them. Some are easy to grow and can tolerate treatment not normally provided by their native enviroment. Others are very particular about the enviroment they are in, and are best center to the advanced collectors. Most are summer growers, but there are exceptions. However, most are warm season growers as indicated bynew root and spine growth during the warm season. Most have no leaves, as the succulent tissue is in the branches, trunk, and/or the roots of the plant. However, some of the ancient species such as Pereskia are evolutionary ancestors that do have leaves and stems like conventional plants. Cactus plants are known for many different sizes and shapes. Here are some of the primary shapes that we have had experience with.

Type 1 - Hedgehog Cactus. Thick, upright stems forming a mound.

Typically, these are the Echinocereus, which have stems from two inches to 24 inches tall that grow from a single base. The first part of the genus name Echinocereus comes from the Greek word for 'hedgehog', while the second part 'cereus' comes from the Latin for 'large candle'. They can be found from the southwest USA down into Mexico. Many of the species from the USA are very cold hardy. There are other species of cactus and succulent plants that grow in the same hedgehog fashion. Some examples are Opuntia invicta and Euphorbia horrida.

Size: Most species of Echinocereus form a mature clump of 2-3 feet wide. However, some of the rare species, such as E. minima or E. viridiflous v. davisii never get more than a few inches wide in habitat. At the other extreme, some species such as E. triglochidiatus v. mojavensis can form a mound of several hundred stems reaching 2-3 meters wide.

Flowers: Many hedgehogs are prized for their flower displays, mostly occuring in the spring. The flowers are typically large in proportion to the stem size; as a single pedal spread can each four inches wide on some species. The flower colors are typically spectacular. Many are pink, but you also have yellow, red, green, brown, and mixes represented. If pollinated, the flowers are very short lived. However, you can prolong the flower opening by sheltering it from the bees.

Echinocereus engelmannii Echinocereus dasyacanthus Opuntia invicta Euphorbia horrida

Echinocereus engelmannii

Echinocereus dasyacanthus

Opuntia invicta

Euphorbia horrida

Type 2 - Barrel Cactus. Single fat stem that is globular or columnar.

Barrel cactus are some of the most eye-catching plants because of the unusual size and shape. They don't look like any other plants in there habitat, with their fat round bodies; and they can become quite large. Barrel cactus take on a globular shape when young, which could be more than 30 years. Then, most will become columnar. It is possible to have a barrel cactus that is two feet wide by seven feet tall.

Two of the most popular genera of barrel cactus are Echinocactus and Ferocactus. Most people have heard of the Golden Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), which can grow to be 24 inches wide the 36 inches tall. However, there is Echinocactus platycanthus, which can mature at 30 inches wide and 84 inches tall. We have all heard of the Fish Hook cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni). But what about Ferocactus diguetii that can reach up to 12 feet tall (3.6 m), 3 feet in diameter (90 cm).

As with hedgehogs there are also contrasts in size with barrel cactus. Some of the smaller ones are Echinocactus texensis, E. horizonthalonius, Ferocactus latispinus, and F. viridescens.

Many the South American cactus species also form a barrel shape, such as Gymnocalycium saglionis, Notocactus herteri, and Echinopsis bruchii (Soehrensia bruchii).

Echinocactus platyacanthus Ferocactus pilosus F. cylindraeceus F. latispinus

Echinocactus platyacanthus

Ferocactus pilosus

Ferocactus cylindraeceus

Ferocactus latispinus

Type 3 - Cluster of Balls. Small round stems forming a large clump.

This type of cactus has small stems, no more than two inches (6cm) wide, but multiplies forming a large clump just above the soil. Many genera of cacti do this. However, several families are primarily characerized by this behavior. Those would be Lobivia, Rebutia, and Sulcorebutia. Some of the other families that do this (but are not limited to this kind of behavior) are Mammillaria, Echinopsis, Gymnocalycium, and Notocactus.

Flowers: Like hedgehogs, small clumping cacti like Rebutia are prized for their brightly colored flowers. Almost every color in the rainbow is represented. However, most commonly seen are magenta, pink, orange, and red.

Sulcorebutia rauschii Lobivia cardenasiana Rebutia cv. sunrise Gymnocalycium bruchii

Sulcorebutia rauschii Many Heads Magenta Flowers

Pink Flowering Lobivia cardenasiana

Pink flowering rebutia sunrise

Clump forming Gymnocalycium bruchii

Type 4 - Columnar Cactus. Thin or thick, upright tall stems branching from the base or sides of main trunk.

These cactus plants have thick ot thin stems grow very tall and straight. The primary example being the Saguaro cactus from the Sonoran Desert. Many columnar cactus have the name "cereus" meaning candle. Some examples are Pachycereus, Oreocereus, Stenocereus, Trichocereus, Pilosocereus, and Strombocereus. Many have large white bugle shaped flowers that open a night and are polinated by bats. Many species are from Western South America, although there are some from Mexico and Southwest USA.

Columnar cacti have a very large water storage capacity which drastically affects it's variable weight. The weight can vary as much as three times from dry season to monsoon season.

Espostoa lanata  Pilosocereus azureus Carnegiea gigantea Stenocereus thurberi

Columnar cactus Espostoa lanata

Columnar cactus Pilosocereus azureus

Columnar cactus Saguaro

Columnar cactus Stenocereus thurberi

Type 5 - Prickly Pear Cactus. Branches have round or cylindrical sections that drop off easily and become rooted.

This group of plants is characterized by a sectional growing habit, in which each section can be round like a pancake or cylindrical like a section of pipe. The newest sections are very loosely attached, fall off easily, move around, and may eventually become rooted into the ground. The older sections at the base of the plant become ridged and act as the supporting trunk.

Names and distribution: This group of plants is the largest in terms of numbers of species and geographical distribution. It includes thousands of species and it's range spans most of North and South America. It's range spans from Canada to Patagonia. Many species have even become naturalized in other parts of the world. Most of the species are within the Opuntia family, but there is also Maihueniopsis, Puna, Tacinga, Tephrocactus, Tunilla, Austrocylindropuntia, Cylindropuntia, and Grusonia.

Flowers: Many species in this group have spectacular flower displays mostly in the spring and summer. Quite a few species have bright yellow flowers. However, various shades of pink, red, and orange are not uncommon. Some species have inconspicuous flowers that are typically mixes of green and yellow or green and red. And a few species have brightly colored fruits that follow the flowering, such as the Christmas Cactus.

Spines: This group of plants have spines that differ from other cacti. Some have spines that are straight, but the tip of the spine is barbed. When it pokes an object like you clothing, it hooks in and is tough to extract. In fact, the more you tug on it, the deeper it goes in. The other type of spines are called glochids. They are very small like saw dust and dry ones can float freely in the air when the plant is moved. The glochids are grouped in small packets of a hundred or more and when touched, the entire packet will inject itself. These two types of spines make this group of cacti the most uncomfortable and memorable of all cacti. There are many techniques for removing the spines that get passed around like folklore from those people working in the trade. For the straight barbed spine, rather than trying to pull it straight out, try to figure which side of the tip is barbed, then try to twist the spine and unhook it like unhooking a fish hook from a fish. For the glochids, use a double edged shaver, and just scrape over the area that has the packet injection. The glochids will come out redily.

Common Names: There are many regional common names typically derived from the shape of the plant or ones close encounters. Some are named after animals: "Beaver Tale cactus", "Teddy Bear Cholla", "Buckhorn Cholla", "Cow's Tongue", or "Owl Face Opuntia". Others are named after other objects such as "Peanut Cactus", "Prickly Pear", or "Thumb Buttons". Still others are named after people or places: "Santa Rita Cactus", "Mini Rita Cactus", or "Indian Fig".

Cylindropuntia biglovii

"Teddy Bear Cholla"

Opuntia verschafeltii

"Thumb Buttons"

Opuntia Rufida

"Owl Face Opuntia"

Opuntia pentlandii

Teddy Bear Cholla

Thumb Buttons opuntia verschaffeltii

Clock Face Opuntia

Opuntia pentlandii

Type 6 - Sub-surface Cacti. The body is buried under the surface of the soil with only the top exposed.

Blossfeldia liliputana, Ariocarpus, Gymnocalycium, Escobaria, Obregonia, Strombocactus, Pelycyphora. These types of cacti take full advantage of their environment. Most of their bodies burried below the soil surface during drought periods in the desert. They camouflage themselves to look like their surrounding environment. When the rain pass through they soak up the moisture like a sponge. The body expands and rises above the surface and looks very healthy. This is the state most hobbiest keep the plant in.

Gymnocalycium bodenbenderianum Ariocarpus retusus Obregonia Escobaria nellieae

Gymnocalycium  bodenbenderianum

Ariocarpus retusus

Obregonia denegrii Artichoke Cactus


Type 7 - Epiphytic - Rubbery, flexible stems that hang from trees in rain forests.

Epiphyllum, Quiabentia, Rhipsalis

Type 8 - Misc: Cacti that don't fit in the other categories.

Peniocereus, Pereskia, Brasiliensis, Leuchtenbergia, Pterocactus

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