Although you’ll see a wide range of cactus shapes, sizes and styles available at many garden centers, cacti typically fall into one of two categories. There are desert cacti and forest cacti. In each category is a variety of types of cactus. The needs of the plants differ based on whether they are desert or forest cacti. Desert cacti need bright light, while forest plants can tolerate more shade, as well as a bit more humidity.
Cacti come in a range of shapes, sizes and growth habits. According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension, there might be as many as 2,000 different cactus species. Generally speaking, the plants are native to North or South America and tend to be acclimated to living in either desert or forest conditions.
You’ll find cacti in a range of sizes, from tall and slender to short and squat. Some cacti can grow quite large and are usually best left to grow outdoors, as they can soon become too large to survive in a container indoors.
Although most types of cacti are covered in spikes and have fleshy stems that store water, there is still a lot of variety when it comes to the type of spikes. Some spikes are fuzzy while others are quite spiny and look like needles sticking out from the stem of the plant. A few varieties of cacti produce beautiful, colorful flowers under the right growing conditions.
You can divide cactus types into two main groups. Desert cacti are the type you might be most familiar with. They are acclimated to growing in dry, sandy conditions. Forest cacti typically live in rainforests and can tolerate more humidity and less light than their desert-living cousins.
The types of cactus that are acclimated to the desert are probably the types of cactus most people are used to seeing or the type of cactus that comes to mind when you think about it. Often, desert cacti are covered in sharp spines. They are usually either globular (round) in shape or columnar (taller and thinner), according to Our Houseplants. A few types of desert cactus will produce flowers, but many are grown for their unusual spines and shapes.
If you’re wondering how to care for a desert type of a cactus, the best answer is not to dote on it too much. The video above from Expert Village offers you a few key pointers for caring for a cactus. The plant is used to dry conditions and will actually suffer if you give it too much water.
Your best option is to try to mimic the conditions of the desert as much as possible. Put the plants in a sunny spot and only water when the soil is very dry. If you can use a potting mix designed for cacti and succulents when you plant the cactus, you’ll have an easier time preventing root rot and keeping your cactus happy.
Varieties of Desert Cactus
When you browse a nursery or garden center, you’re likely to see a number of different types of cactus available. One popular species is the star cactus, which is an occasionally spineless variety that is covered with little white dots.
Star cacti come in a number varieties, such as the Sea Urchin, Bishop’s Cap and the Star Cactus. The Sea Urchin (Astrophytum asterias) produces a bright yellow flower every few years or so. The Star Cactus (Astrophytum ornamentum) has clumps of spines and is usually coated in a white fuzz.
The Bishop’s Cap (Astrophytum myriostigma) looks like the Star Cactus, but doesn’t have the clumps of spines. It also produces yellow, daisy-like flowers every few years.
Barrel cacti tend to have very large, pointy spikes. The cacti themselves are shaped like a barrel, bulging out slightly in the middle. The cacti can range from 5 inches in diameter to up to 15 inches wide, depending on the age and variety.
The Devil’s Tongue cactus (Ferocactus latispinus) can reach up to 15 inches in diameter, for example. It has red spikes that flatten out as the plant gets older. The cactus will produce purple flowers in the fall.
The spines that form on prickly pear cacti varieties might be small, but they also tend to be very sharp, making them more painful to the touch than the needle-like spines you’ll encounter on other types. Prickly pear cacti often have oval growths that develop on the top of the plant. Some varieties are named for the growths, such as Bunny Ears Cactus (Opuntia microdasys).
Some types of cactus come from forest conditions, usually rainforests. The needs of forest cacti are slightly different than the needs of desert cacti.
Although the plants are able to store water in their leaves and stems, like all types of succulents, they can survive in slightly more humid conditions than their desert-loving relatives. While you want to let the soil dry out completely between waterings of desert cacti, it’s usually recommended that you water forest cacti before the soil dries out completely.
Forest cacti also look different from desert types. The most common type of forest cacti grow as houseplants are the the so-called holiday cacti. These include Christmas cactus, Easter cactus and Thanksgiving cactus.
Unlike their spiny, thorny cousins, forest cacti, like the holiday cacti, usually don’t have spines. They tend to have long, trailing stems that resemble leaves. Every year or so, under the right conditions, the plants will produce a number of colorful, short-lived flowers.
The video above from the University of Illinois Extension gives you some pointers on caring for holiday cacti, so that they are able to bloom and survive for a long time.
Another variety of forest cactus is the orchid cactus (Epiphyllum species). The orchid cactus isn’t the same plant as tropical orchids, although it produces flowers that look similar. Like tropical orchids, orchid cacti usually grow from the trunks of trees. Since they usually grow in forests, they can survive under partly shaded conditions.
There are around 100 different varieties of orchid cacti. Some bloom during the daytime, while others are night blooming. To get an orchid cactus to bloom when grown indoors, it’s important that its roots be a little cramped. Cool temperatures, no more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, are also a must.
Choosing the Right Type of Cactus & cactus care
How do you choose the right type of cactus for your home? It depends on the conditions you’re able to provide. If your home is well lit and has plenty of areas that get bright, indirect light, you can successfully grow desert varieties of cacti. If your home is darker, you might be better off trying a forest type of cactus.
You might also want to think about the other people or creatures who live in your home when picking a cactus to grow. Cacti with sharp or otherwise prickly spines can be downright dangerous to grow if you have curious children, dogs or cats at home. A spine-free variety might be a safer choice.
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