Low-maintenance, hardy plants that feature unique shapes and colorful blooms, cacti are wonderful plants to grow both inside and outside. This diverse family of plants produces a variety of growing habits, some of that result in small, compact plants perfect for indoor environments. Conversely, some species produce hefty, towering plants that make amazing feature specimens in a landscape.
In addition to their unique beauty, cacti are also extremely well-suited for beginner gardeners or folks who want to do their homes with plants but don’t have the time or energy to spend on continuous upkeep. Cacti might be right up your alley if you’re interested in growing some truly eye-catching plants without investing in much of a care routine.
This guide will cover the botanical classification of five types of cactus plants, their native growing regions, growth habits, and characteristics.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in!
Types of Cactus Plants: Botanical Classification, Native Range, and Defining Characteristics
Cacti are perennial, succulent, flowering plants that are well-adapted to intensely arid and hot climates. They belong to the Cactaceae family, which contains about 130 genera and over 1,500 species. While all cactus plants are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. Many cactus species are easily recognizable by their ominous spines and thickened stems.
Some, however, may look more difficult to distinguish from non-cactus succulents. If you’re unsure whether you’re looking at a cactus or a different kind of succulent, look for nodes. All cacti possess unique, defining features called areoles, which are small cushion-like nodes from which branches, hairs, spines, and flowers emerge.
While cacti have almost entirely evolved from desert regions of the Americas, they are now naturalized in many areas of the world, such as Australia, South Africa, and arid Mediterranean regions.
These plants have evolved to maximize water storage to survive in extremely dry regions through their thick, modified stems. These stems are covered in a thick waxy layer that helps them retain more water. These structures can look like flat discs, columns, and balls. Many cacti have also developed spines that serve to protect them from predation, prevent water loss through transpiration, and provide some protection from the sun.
The cacti that have evolved not to have spines but instead have hairlike structures that cover the cacti and help protect them from sun and frost. You can think of the spines as modified leaves and the hairs as modified spines.
Still, other species exist that have neither spine nor hairs once they reach maturity. Instead, they use other strategies for defense and shade, such as growing in hard-to-reach areas and producing chemicals to deter herbivores from munching on them.
5 Interesting Types of Cactus Plants
Below, we’ll talk about five unique cacti that hail from various parts of the Americas and from various climates. Not all of them require totally arid conditions, so if you live in a more humid region, you may still be able to grow a couple of these lovely plants!
Remember, since they are succulents, all types of cactus plants are masters of water storage. The easiest way to kill a cactus plant is not by neglecting it but by overwatering it. We’ll cover the growing requirements for each of these five species so you’ll be prepared to help them thrive.
1. Turbinicarpus subterraneus
Native to intensely arid regions of Mexico, Turbinicarpus subterraneus grows a tuberous root structure as an excellent strategy for underground water storage and staying warm during cold desert nights. As it slowly grows, the tuberous root sends up a slender neck that may grow upwards or curve outward and down. From this “neck,” a round, thickened stem emerges covered in hairs and spines, eventually producing a single pink to whitish flower.
To thrive, the Turbinicarpus subterraneus needs:
- Very well-draining cactus or succulent soil.
- Water throughout the growing season, but with time completely dry out soil between watering.
- No watering in the late fall-winter.
- Full sun to light shade in the heat of the day.
- Temperatures should be no lower than 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Humidity less than 30%.
2. The Crested Blue Flame Cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans forma cristatus)
A unique, whimsical succulent, the crested blue flame cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans forma cristatus) is a stunning blue-green plant that features fan-shaped, coral-like stems that grow in a swirling, wavy pattern. Mature specimens look like they’re the work of a master sculptor with their intricate folds and swirling shapes. Very few spines appear on this cactus.
This gorgeous cactus’s native range extends from northern Central down to Oaxaca in Southwest Mexico. The crested blue flame cactus can reach about 15 feet tall and wide in its natural habitat. Flowers are cream with light-brown striping and many-petaled.
To thrive, the crested blue flame cactus needs:
- Cactus or succulent soil with organic matter and perlite or vermiculite for excellent drainage.
- Bright, full sunlight.
- During the growing season, water about a cup every two weeks.
- During the winter, water once a month.
- In the winter, temperatures shouldn’t be lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Humidity less than 30%.
3. The Old Lady Cactus (Mammillaria hahniana)
A popular ornamental species, the old lady cactus (Mammillaria hahniana) produces lovely globe-shaped stems that are completely covered in tiny white spines and hairs. Green stems with white areoles create an eye-catching checkered pattern. When flowers emerge in the spring, they form a stunning circle of pink petals around the top of the round stems. This species typically reaches up to 10 inches tall.
To thrive, the old lady cactus needs:
- 1:1 ratio of a standard cactus potting mix to perlite.
- 4-6 hours of direct sunlight.
- Water about once weekly during the growing months and once per month from fall-winter. Allow soil to completely dry between watering.
- Temperatures should not fall below 43 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A humidity range between 30-50%.
4. Fishbone Cactus (Selenicereus anthonyanus)
While many types of cactus plants are slow-growing desert species, the fishbone cactus (Selenicereus anthonyanus) is actually a fast-growing epiphytic cactus native to the tropical rainforests of Southern Mexico. As an epiphyte, the fishbone cactus grows non-parasitically on the branches of its host tree.
It grows long, tentacle-like branches that can grow over 3 feet long and are notched in a manner reminiscent of fish spines. The flowers are quite showy, sweetly scented, and large at 6-7 inches across. The pink, white, and reddish petals are arranged in a starburst-like pattern.
To thrive, the fishbone cactus needs the following:
- A cactus or epiphytic orchid potting soil amended with peat moss and perlite.
- Bright, indirect sunlight
- Water, during the growing phase, once the top 2-3 inches of soil have completely dried out. Water thoroughly only in the fall and winter when the soil fully dries.
- Temperatures that don’t fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A humidity range between 50-70%.
5. Cipocereus bradei
Native to Southeast Brazil, Cipocereus bradei is a lovely columnar cactus that features elegant blue-green shading with star-patterned red spines emerging from distinct areoles. In its ideal native climate, this gorgeous cactus can reach up to 6 feet high. It is currently threatened by habitat loss and should only be purchased through ethical plant nurseries.
In addition to its stunning blue-green columns, this cactus produces large, eye-catching blue buds that open at night to reveal white flowers.
To thrive, Cipocereus bradei needs:
- A cactus potting mix with peat and pumice amendments.
- Direct sunlight with light shade during the hottest part of the day.
- Water consistently during the growing phase, allowing the soil to dry completely between watering.
- Avoid watering during the winter.
- Temperatures no colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Humidity less than 30%.
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