Cactus are known as some of the easiest houseplants out there. They are often considered great for beginners or those who do not have a green thumb, but cacti make wonderful houseplants that add color and texture to a space. These low-maintenance plants are not needy but require some effort to thrive. Learning the basics of cactus care will help you give your plants the attention they need.
Types of Cactus
The cactus family of plants is rather large and diverse. Most people hear cactus, and they think of desert cacti. There are a wide variety of desert cacti, but most have a thick, rounded form and prickly spines. There is another branch in the cactus family, known as forest cacti. Forest cactus plants are tropical succulents that typically have flat or tubular segments and do not have sharp spines. Desert and forest cacti are native to North and South America. Both types have similar care needs, although they differ in some aspects. Some of the more popular cactus houseplants include:
- Bishop’s Cap cactus (desert)
- Blue Columnar cactus (desert)
- Bunny Ears cactus (desert)
- Christmas cactus (tropical)
- Easter cactus (tropical)
- Feather cactus (desert)
- Golden Barrel cactus (desert)
- Moon cactus (desert)
- Ladyfinger cactus (desert)
- Parodia cactus (desert)
- Ricrac cactus (tropical)
- Star cactus (desert)
- Thanksgiving cactus (tropical)
Cactus Light Needs
Most cactus plants need medium to bright sunlight. Some cacti can handle direct sunlight, but only in limited quantities. A south- or west-facing window is usually a good spot, providing adequate cactus care.
How Often to Water Cactus
Desert cacti naturally grow in arid environments and prefer to let their roots dry out between watering. Most desert cacti store water in their fleshy growth, so the plant remains hydrated during prolonged periods of drought. This ability to store water is what makes desert cacti susceptible to overwatering. Desert cacti need water when the soil is completely dry. Forest cacti like to dry out between watering, but they’re ready for a drink when the top few inches of soil are dry.
Cacti require less water when they are dormant. Desert cacti can typically go four to six weeks without water when they are dormant.
Best Soil for Cactus
Drainage is an essential part of cactus care. Desert cacti do best with a potting mix specially formulated for cacti. Forest cacti are down with cactus mix but can also comfortably live in regular potting mix.
Temperature for Cactus
Warm temperatures offer ideal cactus care for both desert and forest varieties. Temperatures between 70° to 80° F are ideal when the plants are actively growing. Some desert cacti are much more cold-tolerant than most people think but avoid chilly temperatures. Wait until the temperature is above 60° F if moving the plants outside for the summer, and get them back inside before the temperature drops.
Desert cacti like average to low humidity — 40% to 60% is perfect. Forest cacti are comfortable in anything above 50% humidity. These plants hail from rainforests, and dry conditions may cause the foliage to turn brown along the edges.
Fertilizing keeps plants growing and helps them set flowers. Most cacti, including desert cultivars, are fine without being fed since they have learned to get by with little nutrition. Desert cacti do best with fertilizers high in phosphorus applied a few times a year. Feed forest cacti balanced fertilizer monthly during the growing season.
Cacti do not need much pruning, keeping with their low-maintenance reputation. Remove dead or damaged growth or trim the plant to control growth, but they can usually be left alone.
Do Cactus Bloom?
Yes, cactus bloom. Desert and forest cacti set lovely flowers in bold hues like orange, red, pink, yellow, and white. Sunlight, or lack of light, is important for a cactus to bloom. Desert cactus plants typically need prolonged sunlight to set flowers. Forest cactus plants need periods of extended darkness (to simulate winter) to encourage blooms.
When to Repot Cactus
All cacti are slow-growing plants that like being rootbound, so you can take your time when it comes to repotting. Allowing the plants to become slightly rootbound is actually excellent cactus care because it encourages the plant to bloom. Repot cactus plants every few years.
Wear gloves and handle prickly cacti with care, to avoid injury. Remove the plant from the container and upgrade to a new one to two inches larger container. Give the plant fresh soil to support continued growth.
While cactus plants have a lot in common, they definitely go their separate ways regarding propagation. Propagation varies depending on the type of cactus.
Desert Cacti Propagation
Desert cacti decide when to propagate by sending out offshoots or pups. Offshoots are just small plants that share a root system and grow alongside the mother plant. Remove the pup when it is a couple of inches tall. It may be easier to remove the offshoot when repotting; if not, clear away some soil and use a sharp, clean knife to trim the roots connecting the offshoot to the mother plant. Cut at a 45° angle so the cut end is less likely to rot.
Replace the soil around the mother plant and care for it as normal. Leave the pup out for a few days, so the cut end dries out or callouses over, and then place it in a container with cactus potting mix. Keep the soil damp, but not soggy, for a few weeks to help the new plant set roots.
Forest Cacti Propagation
You control when forest cacti plants are propagated. Forest cacti can be propagated via cuttings. Timing matters because you want to avoid interfering with the blooming schedule. Take cuttings from the plant a month or two after the flowers fade, usually in the spring or summer. Do not take cuttings in the fall when the plant is gearing up for flowers or when the plant is actively blooming.
Remove a stem section and allow the cut end to become calloused. Make a cut between leaves for plants with segmented foliage, like holiday cactus plants. The cutting can be propagated in soil or water. Cuttings propagated in water can be moved to soil when the roots are a couple of inches long. Keep the soil moist for the first few weeks to help the plant set roots.
Are Cactus Pet Friendly?
Cactus plants are not toxic to pets, but eating the plant may cause an upset stomach, and varieties with sharp spines can also cause injury. Depending on the type of cactus, you may want to locate the plant in an area that is not easily accessible to pets to avoid encounters with the spines.
Cactus Styling Tips
Desert cacti lend themselves to bold south-west inspired color palettes and patterns or select a subdued container so the fleshy foliage stands out. Forest cacti like holiday cactus and ricrac cactus have long, arching stems that look amazing when placed on a console table or in an entryway.
Terra cotta or unglazed ceramic are excellent container materials in terms of appearance, but also because they allow the soil to dry out more quickly and provide excellent cactus care.
Cactus Care Tips
Cacti are lovely plants that add an architectural element to a space. The plants can be rounded or flat, short or tall, or feature arched, weeping stems — and they bloom! All cactus plants are easy to maintain and are not very needy. Desert cacti and forest cacti have similar needs, but cactus care depends on the type of plant. Get back to basic plant care tips and help your cacti thrive.