Types of Garden Cactus

Cactus, or Cacti for plural, (Cactaceae family) receive credit as the world's largest family of succulent plants.

Most of the 2000 known types of cactus species are native to North, Central and South America, and the vast majority of cacti, but not all, are well adapted to desert conditions, using their stems to store water during extended dry seasons.

Cacti are also flowering plants that serve an important role in their ecosystem by providing food and shelter to many animals, birds and reptiles. Desert tortoises, for example, often snack on their local cactus stems and fruits.

The concept of garden cactus picks up on this theme. While cactus usually get associated with warm, arid or desert climates, many gardeners already know that more than a handful of cactus species are suitable for gardens in most North American places with at least a USDA Growing Zone of 4, including many prickly pear species, claret cup cactus and pincushion cactus.

In colder domains, a warm, sunny garden corner, protected from most of the natural elements, makes for the perfect cactus habitat.

Experts point to the Echinocereus genus, hedgehog cactus, as a great cold weather garden cactus. The multiple varieties of hedgehog cactus species translates into the potential for a garden with colorful hedgehog flower blooms. Most gardens in the USDA Growing Zone of 4 or greater are suitable for growing Hedgehogs.

Fishhook cactus refers to a variety of plants in the large Mammillaria genus. Their habitat is desert and hillsides in California and Arizona, and they bloom in the early spring. Mammillaria diversity means plant size can range from small to large. Smaller Mammillaria species are very popular garden plants suited for gardens in USDA Growing Zone of 4 or greater.

Barrel cactus refers to of cacti in two different genera, Echinocactus and Ferocactus. They share the physical trait of a resembling a spiny covered barrel shaped plant. Most barrel species grow between 4-10 feet in height. Often they stand singularly in place on the desert floor, although as shown in the picture, some grow in small clusters.

All barrel cacti flower on the top of the plant in a circular configuration. Flowers range in color from yellow to red. Larger plants normally translates into their needing warmer climates. Barrel Cacti grow best in gardens with a USDA Growing Zone of 7 or higher.

Retail outlets often sell container cactus, some of which might be transplantable to the garden. In northern climates, gardeners might need to check the cold hardiness of any plant.

Human attraction to cacti rivals that of wildlife. They are big business in America, selling as ornamental plants for homes and gardens as well as selling in a variety of consumer products from jam to cosmetics.

Trade in cacti has also greatly expanded in the past couple of decades. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists over one hundred cacti species in Appendix I, meaning trade is prohibited.


Cactus for Landscape

Cactus family diversity means that species height can range between a few inches to sixty feet in height.

Homeowners with an inclination to set down long term roots in desert settings often choose some of the larger cacti for landscaping and edging. In desert terms, they can be local trees that need little water or other attention.

The following three cactus fit the large cactus category.

Growing up to sixty feet tall, the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) ranks as the largest cactus in the United States, and a must see for Sonora Desert visitors.

Well known for its human appearance, the branches often grow out looking like waving arms atop a mature stem. Gila woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds commonly call Saguaro cacti home.

Organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), large ribbed cactus, often grow in clusters that resemble organ pipes.

Like the Saguaro, Organ pipes thrive in the Sonoran Desert region of northern Mexico and Southern Arizona, home to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

They are night bloomers and the flowers get pollinated by bats. Landscapers enjoy them because their multiple flowers bloom on the cactus's multiple buds, with flowering season extending from May through July.

Organ Pipe fruit provides food for local wildlife as well as humans, who enjoy making jelly out of it.

The scientific name for the Totem Pole cactus, schottii f. monstrosus, pretty much gives away the fact that it is characterized by height.

A large, mostly spineless columnar cactus native to the Baja, grows easily in a nursery, making it a popular Southern landscaping plant. The flowers are not as showy as the organ pipe flowers. Nonetheless, it makes for a very nice border and/or edging plant.

© 2004-2014 Patricia A. Michaels