This article appeared in the May 2002 web issue of Horticulture Update,
edited by Dr. William C. Welch, and produced by Extension Horticulture,
Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

Most Cactus Are Easy To Maintain

By Ted Fisher
Texas Extension Horticulturist, retired

Cacti are a group of plants that are not only easy to grow but offer a variety of shapes, color and form. They can be grown in any sunny, well-drained area and require little maintenance. They make excellent house plants and many hardy varieties may be grown outside.

The cactus family (Cactaceae) is one of the most striking, distinctive, diversified and specialized. It includes about 2,000 species; all are perennial and succulent. Their usually conspicuous flowers are so different from those of all other plant families that the cacti are unique and alone, without obvious relationship to other plants.

Click on picture to see larger image The distinctiveness of the cactus family shows itself not only in the flower structure but also in one characteristic that, although possessed by every cactus plant, is absent in all species of all other families. This is the spine cushion or areole. Whether or not spines are present, all cacti have areoles. This is one way of distinguishing them, for these areoles differ in structure on different kinds of cacti.

The question is often asked, “Is this plant a cactus or a succulent?” This question is nonsensical because cacti are succulents. The true cacti are members of the botanical family Cactaceae and are distinguished from the succulent members of other plant families such as Euphorbiaceae by the structure of the flower and the presence of the areoles on cacti. It therefore should be: “Is this plant a cactus or some other succulent?”

A potting medium of equal volumes of coarse sand, peat and perlite is suitable for most cacti. Vertical plants should be planted in a container that has a diameter one-half the height of the plant, and round cacti in containers with a diameter 2 inches greater than that of the plant. Care should be taken to prevent rot from developing on recently potted or repotted plants. Be sure the pot is dry before transplanting, and transplant into dry soil. Wait a week before watering to allow for the damaged roots to repair. Cacti do need to be watered and fertilized but not so frequently as other plants. Water the pots when they dry out. Unglazed clay pots require more frequent watering than glazed clay or plastic pots; small pots require more frequent watering than large pots.

Cacti can be grown from seed, and many seed companies offer packets of mixed varieties. Some cacti seed take a year to germinate, and it may take a few years to see what your young cacti will look like. Cacti may also be propagated from branches or offshoots. The offshoot should be removed from the plant and allowed to dry for two weeks. After the broken or cut edge has healed or suberized, plant it shallowly in dry medium. Do not water for a week, then water sparingly. By following these cultural guidelines, your cactus collection should grow and prosper.