The Cacti

All those plants that are part of the Cactaceae family are commonly called with the name of cactus. Cacti are found in almost all parts of the world even if their origin is more American. Cacti are also called succulent plants, which are plants capable of retaining a good amount of water necessary to survive even in long periods of drought. Thanks to this peculiarity, i cactus they tend to become particularly fleshy both in the stem and in the leaves. THE cactus they are xerophilous plants, that is plants that settle well in arid and desert places where water is almost never present. Over 3000 species are part of the Cactaceae family.

Cacti are easily recognizable thanks to the presence of thorns representing the leaves. Lot of types of cacti they have hooked thorns, annoying and often painful even if only touched. This type of plant can have a minimum size of one centimeter but also reach twenty meters in height. Their shape can vary and be vertical-growing with a column-like stem, or globose, or flat. Cacti are appreciated for their ornamental peculiarity and for their easy cultivation.

Environment and exposure

Cacti thrive in sunny and particularly bright environments. In order for the plant to grow uniformly, it will be necessary to get the sun on each side of the cactus; if necessary it is advisable to resort to the rotation of the plant. If the cactus begins to have an abnormal color that tends to reddish, it must be immediately moved from its position because it receives too much sun. During the winter, if the environment in which the cactus is located is excessively heated, it is advisable to place the plant in a less hot place to prevent it from passing to the vegetative period prematurely. The cactus tolerates heat and low temperatures very well, although it is preferable to never go below 10 degrees.

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The ideal soil for growing cacti is a light, well-draining soil, consisting mainly of soil and sand. Parts of pumice and expanded clay are often added to the organic compost. The recommended proportions are two parts of common soil or peat, one part of pumice and one part of lava or clay. If you are a beginner, it is advisable to use ready-made soil that is easily found in nurseries. The soil that houses the cacti should never be pressed, as this inevitably causes the plant to die or rot.

Planting and repotting

The cacti must be repotted at least once a year because they produce extensive roots and to change the soil and substrate now poor in mineral elements. The best time of year to change pots is spring when the growing season begins, although some varieties can be repotted until October. The most suitable pot is certainly the terracotta one with drainage holes, which allows the plant to breathe and prevents water stagnation. If the plant is particularly small, it is better to use plastic pots instead, which allow for longer water life.

The size to choose varies according to the plant; for succulents we recommend pots that have a greater width than height. When repotting, the roots that have assumed a rather intrigued air, must be separated with care and delicacy; often it will also be necessary to cut some roots. Once this is done, the plant will be left to rest for a few days without putting it in the new soil. Each repotting involves a slow resumption of plant growth. After each planting or repotting, do not water the plant for at least a couple of days, so that it can get used to its new location.


Cacti don't need large amounts of water. In the hot season, the plant should be watered whenever the soil is dry on the surface. Generally speaking, cacti should be bathed once a week. Depending on the size of the pot, the timing of the watering will also vary. The plant should be watered evenly trying to let the water penetrate to the bottom; the water, in a soil with proper drainage, will tend to flow out of the pot and it will be sufficient to empty the saucer to avoid stagnation.

The best time to water is in the evening and the water should be at room temperature. In the winter period, cacti should almost never be watered because the water would not favor the correct growth of the plant. If cacti are kept indoors, the heating used in winter tends to dry out the soil excessively; for this reason, in this case, it will be necessary to water occasionally.


Cacti do not require major interventions but fertilizing will give excellent results. The best time to fertilize is from April to the end of August, possibly at least once a month. Absolutely avoid fertilization after repotting. The ideal fertilizer contains calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, nitrogen and potassium


The most common reproduction for cacti is by cuttings, that is, by repotting a piece of the plant. First of all it is necessary to cut a part of the plant, which could be a shovel or a sucker; care must be taken to use sterilized blades that do not damage the plant with diseases external to it. When cutting a part of the plant, it is necessary to let the cut dry for a few days and only after that, proceed with the planting in the appropriate soil.You can decide to use the reproduction through the seed that can be purchased or produced from the flowers of our plant. This solution is certainly very slow at the beginning, but within a couple of years, the plants will start to grow more rapidly.The seeds should be scattered on the ground, composed mostly of draining material and the container should be covered with a film of plastic to favor the ideal environment. When the plant begins to grow, the plastic must be removed and to pot it must wait until it has grown a little more.


Cacti don't need pruning to grow. This operation is used only to eliminate any dry blooms or rotten parts.Flowering and fruits Cacti produce quite large flowers, even 20 centimeters, which arise from the areoles, or areas of different color and surrounded by thorns and down. The flowers are the feature that makes these plants interesting; flowering is a true natural spectacle. The colors of the cactus flowers range from yellow to deep red. Some varieties of cacti are also pollinated by bats who are attracted by the scent of the flowers that spreads in the night and these always bloom at night. Many cactus fruits are edible like that of Opuntia, or the prickly pear.

Diseases and parasites

Cochineal is definitely the number one enemy when it comes to parasites that attack cacti. The cochineal can also attack the roots and this leads to a slowdown in the growth of the plant. If the presence of cochineal is limited, it can be removed manually with cotton soaked in alcohol; if the parasite has spread, an appropriate pesticide should be used. The spider mite is also quite common, especially if the environment is too dry. We recommend the application of systemic insecticides that are absorbed by the soil, killing any parasites present.

If the plant has been subjected to excessive watering or has been placed in a place that is too dark, it risks being attacked by a series of pests and diseases.


In the nurseries there are cacti of various sizes. There are very small and very pretty places in tiny jars which, however, require immediate repotting. The beauty of owning a cactus is seeing its growth. The advice is to buy a plant of a few years, so as to fully enjoy its spectacular beauty. Some cacti grow earlier than others reaching considerable heights; check with the nursery what growth is and what care and environment it needs.

Most common species

Opuntia is certainly the best known cactus, especially in the genus of the Prickly Pear, with its large flat blades and its delicious fruits. It adapts well to any climate, although obviously it prefers dry and warm environments.

Cleistocactus is a rather widespread variety of the cactus; it is characterized by a columnar stem and fast growth. Native to South America, it is considered a robust plant that can even withstand temperatures below zero.

Cereus or Cereo which can be recognized by its cylindrical, ribbed stem and bluish green color. Its funnel-shaped flowers have a white color and long yellow stamens.

Ferocactus is that variety of cactus known to all and which is often seen represented in comics and which resembles a candlestick. This plant, typical of the desert, develops vertically and slowly. Its flowers sprout on the top and amaze us with their red, purple or yellow colors.

Mammillaria is a type of cactus with various shapes and colors that its flowers take on. Characteristic is the quantity and variety of thorns present.


The cacti belong to the order of the Caryophyllales; spinach, carnations and beets also belong to this order. Cacti are used in many situations; many peoples use them to create natural fences, or they are dried and used as firewood; some cacti have healing or hallucinogenic properties. Some cacti have flowers that give off a rotten flesh scent that attracts necrophilic insects that will later fertilize the plant.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Trail through teddybear cholla.

Hedgehog Cactus

Echinocereus engelmannii
May – June

One of our more common cacti, this species grows in clumps of erect cylindrical stems. The brilliant magenta flowers, along with the dense clusters of calico-colored spines, make it easy to identify in springtime. The hedgehog cactus relies heavily on bees for pollination. The flowers avoid self-pollinating by only opening the stigma lobes (female reproductive parts) after the bees have carried the pollen away. This is called protandry.


Encelia farinosa
January – July

This drought-deciduous shrub is common in open rocky habitats below 3,300 feet (1,000 m). Brittlebush can dominate the most exposed and hottest of slopes. The leaves appear blue-green to white due to a dense covering of hairs. You can spot brittlebush best when it blooms: the flowering stalk is branched and contains multiple large flowering heads, making it a very conspicuous part of the landscape. The stems on this woody shrub exude a bitter but fragrant resin, which helps protect it from hungry herbivores.

Desert Lavender

A shrub-like tree, desert lavender reach heights of 9 feet (2.8 m). You will find it along rocky canyons and washes in the warmer regions of the park, as it is sensitive to frost. Its leaves have an agreeable minty odor, which can be especially noticeable after rain. When it blooms, the nectar-rich flowers attract many native bees.

Beavertail Cactus

Opuntia basilaris
March – June

This cactus has flat, blue-gray, spineless pads that appear fuzzy and soft, tempting people to make the mistake of touching them. Beware! The beavertail cactus is armed with many small bristles known as glochids, which are painful and very difficult to remove. The species name basilaris means "regal," referring to the plant's beauty when covered with large, nearly-neon pink flowers. Ants can often be found swarming the newly formed pads and flowers due to the copious amounts of nectar they produce. Native Americans traditionally used beavertail cactus for both food and medicine.

Desert Starvine

Brandegea bigelovii
March – May

A native member of the cucumber family, this scrambling vine climbs over and around shrubs and other vegetation, particularly along washes where the deep taproot can access seasonal water. You can see the small, fragrant white flowers emerge after rains in the spring or summer. The plant climbs using unbranched tendrils the green leaves have long finger-like lobes and white oil glands dotting the upper surface. The fruit is dry and prickly.

Teddybear Cholla

Cylindropuntia bigelovii
March – May

You can easily recognize teddybear cholla — the star of the Cholla Cactus Garden — by its densely interlaced yellow spines, tightly clustered stems, and dark lower trunk. Interestingly, the seeds from this plant are usually infertile. Teddybear cholla reproduces vegetatively, meaning that new plants start from fallen stem-joints. It is possible that this entire “garden” consists of only one individual! A word of advice: do not attempt to pet this teddybear. The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines, giving it the nickname "jumping cholla." Once they’ve latched on, the spines are very painful to remove.

White Ratany

Krameria bicolor
April – May

Members of the genus Krameria are low-growing, densely-branched shrubs that parasitize the roots of neighboring woody plants. The striking flowers take an unusual form. The showy structures, which you might mistake for petals, are in fact bright magenta sepals bent backwards. The petals are highly modified: two of them act as oil glands and are only conspicuous if you are a bee. Bees combine this oil with pollen and feed it to their larvae. The best way to distinguish this species from the little-leaf ratany is to look at the barbs on the fruit: in white ratany, the barbs are all at the top in an umbrella-like whorl.

Desert Senna

Senna is a diverse genus of tropical and subtropical shrubs, but this species has adapted to the desert. Leafless for much of the year, it has thickened cell walls, helping to prevent water loss. It doesn't look like much until it goes into bloom, when it becomes a riot of yellow blossoms. Look for the delicate yellow wings of the cloudless sulfur butterfly as it visits this plant.

Pencil Cholla

Cylindropuntia ramosissima
April – August

The narrow stems of this species offer a clue as to why it is referred to as the pencil cholla. These slender, multi-branched stems are diagnostic of this species, as suggested by the Latin name, very branchy, which means "very much branched." This cactus usually has very long spines emerging perpendicular to the stem, but some plants have no spines at all. A closer look at the stem reveals many diamond-shaped tubercles that appear to be etched into the stem, a unique trait among chollas. To see the beautiful orange or pink flowers of this species, look for them in the late afternoon of the hotter months (May – July).


Trixis californica
January – August

This woody shrub's dark green glandular leaves make it conspicuous on the landscape even when not in flower. When it blooms, trixis puts on a show with its bright yellow flowering heads. You’re most likely to see the blossoms in spring, but flowers are possible at other times of year if there has been adequate rainfall. Generally a low growing shrub, trixis thrives in shady canyons, where it can grow to be much larger than the specimen along this trail. Native Americans used this species as a tobacco substitute.

Narrow-leaf Forget-me-not

Cryptantha angustifolia
January – June

This is a small annual herb with bristly hairs and small white flowers. The genus name Cryptantha means “hidden flower” in Greek. Like most members of this genus, this species will be hard for you to identify based on flowers alone. Instead, the most useful diagnostic characters rely heavily on the nutlets (seeds). You may see harvester ants collecting the small black nutlets the ants likely act as seed dispersers for this plant.

Schott's Indigo Bush

Psorothamnus schottii
March – May

The deep indigo blue flowers of this intricately branched shrub are typical of many members of the pea or legume family (Fabaceae). They are zygomorphic (i.e., having one plane of symmetry) and have adapted specialized floral structures to promote bee pollination. Like other members of this family, the fruit is a legume (pod), in this case with a single seed. If you look closely at the pod you’ll see many red glands, from which a yellow-orange pigment can be used to dye baskets or clothing.

Creosote Bush

Larrea tridentata
April – May

Perhaps the most widespread perennial of the North American deserts (except the Great Basin Desert) is the creosote bush. This evergreen species is best known for its ability to grow into ancient clonal rings (over 10,000 years old), making it one of the longest living organisms on earth! Loaded with heavy oils and toxic alkaloids, creosote bush is well protected against herbivores and aridity. However, many gall-forming insects have adapted to its toxins, and some animals, such as the desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis), consume less toxic tissues like the flower petals.

Hairy Milkweed

Funastrum hirtellum
April – July

This vine is a member of the Apocynaceae, or milkweed family. Generally, milkweeds are highly toxic. One insect that has evolved to take advantage of this is the striated queen butterfly, a relative of the monarch, which uses the hairy milkweed as a host for its larva. Caterpillars sequester these toxins in their bodies, making both them and their adult butterfly forms unpalatable to potential predators.


Physalis crassifolia
March – May

This plant gets its name from the inflated calyx, which encapsulates the fruit in a papery husk akin to a Chinese lantern. The genus name Physalis means “bladder” in Greek, and refers to this papery calyx. This species is a close relative of the tomatillo often used for green salsa, but you should take care with plants in this family. Groundcherry is a member of the nightshade family, a group of plants known for being both the most toxic and the most edible family throughout the world.


Ambrosia sauce
February – June

Cheesebush is a short-lived pioneer species, often a dominant member of sandy washes and benches throughout the park. This plant does not stand out for any reason other than its abundance in disturbed areas. A member of the ragweed genus, it reproduces abundantly and quickly, with seeds that spread easily by wind and germinate soon after wetting. The common name derives from the smell emitted by the leaves when damaged: some people think that the crushed leaves smell like cheese.


Simmondsia chinensis
March – May

A characteristic member of the Sonoran Desert flora, jojoba may be familiar to you as ingredient in moisturizing lotions or hair care products. The oil from the seeds is highly resistant to going rancid and is stable at high temperatures, making it a very high quality lubricant. Because of jojoba's many uses and drought tolerance, it is now widely cultivated. It is ecologically important throughout the lower elevations many animals consume its seeds and foliage.

Catch a rare glimpse of an Amazonian flowering cactus - which opens at sunset and is over by sunrise

The Moonflower, Selenicereus wittii, is a rare and unusual cactus which spirals around tree trunks with leaf-like, flattened stems or pads.

It is found exclusively above the high waterline of the floodplain rainforests of the Amazon Basin. Its white, nocturnal flowers, reach to be 27cm in length and emit a beautiful sweet-smelling fragrance as they blossom at sunset to attract their pollinators - two species of hawkmoth with extremely long proboscises (tongues). Two hours after flowering begins, it changes its scent to something far less attractive and then the flowering is over by sunrise.

Alex Summers, CUBG Glasshouse Supervisor, is responsible for growing and nurturing this rare and unusual cactus in the Tropical House at the Botanic Garden. He says:

"I'm so excited to see and share this most unusual flowering. It’s very rare to have this plant in our collection and we believe this is the first time the Moonflower has flowered in the UK.

I noticed the flattened stems, or pads, which swirl around the trunk of our Water Chestnut had sent out a flowerbud in late November - which was a lucky spot as it’s almost 12 feet up in the air and could have so easily been missed! But it has only recently increased radically in size which means a flowering is imminent. "

The Moonflower is an epiphyte, which means it relies on another plant as an anchor point. The stems of this particular cactus do not resemble any ordinary cactus. They are flattened, smooth and leaf-like and create an intricate swirling pattern as they wind their way around their host tree trunk. In the Amazon rainforest, they do this to maintain a position above the seasonal inundation of flood waters from the Amazon and its tributaries. These waterways are important to the dispersal of this cactus as the seeds float, and this allows them to be carried away from the parent plant to find another tree crevice to lodge and grow in.

When it eventually flowers, the process begins by the breaking bud emitting a sweet smelling fragrance (allegedly with the same floral notes as those used in one of the popstar Rihanna's perfumes according to nature writer and broadcaster Richard Mabey!) Just as it begins to open and throughout its flowering, to attract the night flying hawkmoth. Two hours after it has fully opened, its scent changes to a more rancid smell, before closing up for good at sunrise.

"I'm so excited to see and share this most unusual flowering. It’s very rare to have this plant in our collection and we believe this is the first time the Moonflower has flowered in the UK. "

Alex continues: “The flower has its nectary right at the base of the floral tube which means it can only be pollinated by an insect with a long tongue or proboscis. This is believed to be only one or two species of hawkmoth. Once it has flowered and hopefully successfully pollinated, it then dies a few hours later, emitting a rancid smell.

I'm so intrigued and excited to experience it flower! We acquired a small pad from Bonn Botanic Garden in 2015. I attached it to our Water Chestnut tree (Pachira aquatica) in our Tropical House and it's since grown around the tree and now one of the stems has decided to send out a flower bud. We expect it to flower like this most years from now on.

Other than being a highly rare and unusual event to witness, I also love the story about how this elusive flower came to our attention. This is thanks to an intrepid British female environmentalist and Botanical artist Margaret Mee. She first saw the Moonflower in the Amazon in 1972 and then went back in her 70s to paint it in 1988. "

While Alex won't be producing a botanical painting of this beautiful bloom, he will be capturing it on camera. The team have set up a webcam in the hope they can livestream the flowering to share with other enthusiasts. Updates and information can be found via the Garden's twitter and facebook feeds - @CUBotanicGarden - or by checking the webcam page via the Garden's homepage.

Alex is hoping to hand pollinate it with the hope of producing seed. He and his Glasshouse Assistant, Barbara, are on night watch and measuring the stem daily, as catching the flowering is a one-off event they can't risk missing.

Please note that the Glasshouse Range is currently closed, so the only way you can see this fascinating and intriguing flower is by following us on social media and keeping an eye on the livestream. Flowering is anticipated to happen within the next 2-3 days!

For press inquiries or images contact the Press Office on 01223 762994 or [email protected]

Scroll through these images to explore this amazing and strange plant

Mulching consists of covering the surface of the substrate with soil with pebbles, pozzolana or expanded clay. These materials will protect the cactus collar from excess moisture and will also be decorative.

It is forbidden to water the cactus as soon as you have repotted it! Before watering wait a week so that the broken or cut roots have time to heal. In general, cacti should be bathed once a week and only during the hot period.

Video: Guy Flicks Cactus Stem From One Leg to Another - 981795

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