Cacti are sometimes overlooked due to their compact and less demanding nature. Admittedly I was one of those overlookers!!
Then those little prickly plants began to worm their way into my heart after I received one as a gift. Wanting to take proper care of my new cactus buddy, I began to do my research. The more I learned about the world of cacti, the more I realized that there are good reasons why so many people have fallen in love with cacti.
Here are 4 reasons why cacti are one of the most intriguing and lowest maintenance plants you can own!!
1. Cacti are the ultimate survivors
Cacti are very unique from the rest of the plant world because they have adapted to extreme, harsh environments in incredibly interesting and extraordinary ways.
Most plants have a thin stem with leaves that emerge and function as the main hub for photosynthesis.
However, most cacti have shed their leaves and modified their stem into a thick body to conserve water. This thick stem is able to photosynthesize and store water within its cells to be used at will until water is available to refill.
When rain finally comes, cacti quickly absorb water through their roots. They are so efficient at storing water that many cacti will visibly swell from water weight. Some can swell to twice their size, holding enough water for weeks or months until the next rainfall!
Most desert cacti also have modified leaves, called spines. These prickly spines protect cacti from being eaten by desert herbivores and help to slow the rate of water loss through providing shade and wind protection in the hot, dry heat.
Cacti have an organ that is completely exclusive to them called an areole. The areole is a hairy, pad-like growth on the skin of a cactus that provides a site for new growth, spines, and flower buds to emerge.
Since this organ is entirely unique to cactus, it can be used to identify cactus from other plants that mimic cacti in many features.
Many cacti also use a special type of photosynthesis to help prevent water loss in harsh environments, called CAM photosynthesis.
Unlike cacti, most plants open their stomata (pores that inhale carbon dioxide to be used for photosynthesis) throughout the day when the sun is up and temperatures are at their highest. Each time the stomata open, some water is evaporated from the plant’s stored water, which isn’t problematic since water is regularly available.
For desert cacti, water is a precious and measured resource. To conserve as much as possible, cacti open their stomata at night to inhale carbon dioxide and store this carbon dioxide for use during the day. Once the sun is back up, the stomata will close and the cacti can use its reserves of carbon dioxide and water to photosynthesize with the light it receives.
2. Cacti are low maintenance plants
Because cacti are so well-adapted to survive in harsh environments like high elevations or arid deserts, cacti thrive on neglect.
They are generally used to poor soil and little water, which means they like to be loved from a distance! Whereas a lot of other plants want to be watered as soon as their soil is dry, most cacti can be given a longer period of time to use some of its water reserves.
The one resource they do need in abundance is light. In general, the more light you can provide, the happier your cactus will be.
Additionally, most cactus go dormant in the wintertime, when the period of light throughout the day is short. During this dormancy, your cactus won’t need to be watered at all or its watering can be greatly reduced. It will be on rest for the next few months until the photoperiod/light period begins to lengthen again.
During dormancy is when many cacti will begin to form flower buds that you will get to see emerge in Spring when you wake your cactus up with a good thorough watering.
Though a cactus is dormant, it does still require an ample amount of light. It can tolerate (and some even recommend) cooler temperatures in dormancy, however, so you could place it on the windowsill of a cooler room in your home until Spring.
3. Cacti are not just desert plants
The image that comes to my mind as soon as I think of a cactus is either a globular cactus with spines and a perfect flower OR the saguaro cactus with its arms and spines. While both of these cacti are stunning and worth ogling on their own, it should be mentioned that cacti are far more than just these two specimens.
Cacti are found in places far from the desert, climbing trees and rocks. Still others are found in the desert, but look very different from their prickly cousins.
Here are a few examples:
The name of the genus, Astrophytum, means star plant describing some of the species in this genus that looks much like sea stars or star-shaped cookies even.
These sometimes spineless cacti are native to Mexico, require little water, and go dormant during winter like many other cacti.
Holiday cactus (Schlumbergera)
Native to the mountains of Brazil, this epiphytic cacti can be found climbing trees or rocks. As houseplants, they are most well-known as Holiday cactus because of their bloom cycles in Fall and Winter.
These gorgeous plants come in a wide variety of bloom colors and, like many other cacti, prefer less care. They thrive at lower temperatures and lower light levels.
Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum spp.)
Orchid Cacti are known for their huge, gorgeous blooms. They are another epiphytic cacti found in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
These tree climbers enjoy dormancy during winter and will form buds during this time in preparation to bear impressive Spring flowers.
Ric Rac or fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger)
Named for the unique growth pattern of its stems, the Ric Rac or Fishbone cactus produces beautiful blooms in the Springtime after dormancy. It is native to Mexico and found in evergreen forests amongst trees.
Both Ric Rac (which is also an Orchid Cactus, as part of the genus Epiphyllum) is technically edible. Though I can’t say I’ve eaten it myself, so you may want to research this one before you try it!
Pereskia is a genus of cacti unlike any other. Many Pereskia are not succulent (meaning they do not store water in their stems or leaves). These plants have thin stems, leaves, and spines. They are often compared to other plants like roses rather than cacti. Their growth pattern is similar to trees or shrubs and they can be found in some tropical areas of Central and South America.
However, Pereskia cacti do have areoles that classify them as cacti!
Maihuenia is another genus of cacti that is undeniably unique. This genus contains only 2 species. Both species can be found at high elevations in part of the Andes Mountains across Argentina and Chile.
Maihuenia species are frost-tolerant and have been described as mat-like or cushion-like. Because this genus can handle colder temperatures, some cacti collectors have grown them outside in temperate zones.
4. Cacti are structural, elegant, and incredibly varied
Whether you prefer climbing plants, tropical plants, cold weather plants, hanging basket plants, spineless cacti, or the more traditionally thought of cacti… there is a cactus to fit your needs.
Cacti span the color spectrum from beautiful blues and greens to warm reds and purples.
They also range from a few inches to 50 feet in height, making it possible to fit one in nearly any space as long as you have the light to support it.
AND cacti can live from a few years to two hundred years, depending on the species, which means that you could pass your cacti down for generations to come.
Are cacti the perfect houseplant? Well, I’ll leave that decision up to you. But I will say that they sure make stiff competition for the spot.
Resources used for this article: Click to read last week’s post: Buying Houseplants Online: Why People Want To and How to Make It a Great Experience
Click to read last week’s post: Buying Houseplants Online: Why People Want To and How to Make It a Great Experience