One of the downsides of growing houseplants can be keeping the environment humid enough to maintain the health of tropical plants, which often need jungle-like conditions to truly thrive. This is not a problem for cactus aficionados, as these desert plants appreciate dry air and average room temperatures. Although sun is necessary for cactus health, many species can get by on three hours a day, and supplementary lighting can help specimens living in north-facing windows.
A happy cactus may even surprise you with vibrant blooms, a bonus for plants that already thrill with otherworldly shapes and spiny textures. The slow growth and easy care requirements of these eight popular varieties will add charm to mixed container plantings and make elegant standalone specimens as well.
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The Opunta albispina cactus or angel wings cactus is a member of the prickly pear family that grows evenly spaced clusters of hairs rather than sharp spines. The Mexican native grows clusters of pads that get no larger than two feet tall but can grow up to 5 feet across over time. Pale yellow blooms are followed by red, edible fruits on plants that receive a full day of sun.
- Light: Full sun
- Water: Moisten; don't soak
- Color varieties: Pale yellow
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If your sunniest window does not have the space to accommodate a container, consider a hanging basket with the fantastic Aporocactus flagelliformis or rat tail cactus. This plant is indigenous to Mexico, where its vibrant magenta blooms have been used in traditional medicines for heart problems. Choose a generously sized hanging basket for this fast-growing cactus—the thick stems can trail for 3 feet.
- Light: Direct light
- Water: Water regularly
- Color varieties: Violet-red, pink, and orange
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Euphorbia trigona is one of those easy cactus specimens that make every grower feel like an expert. Also known as the cathedral plant, this cactus can grow in excess of 8 feet tall, but it is a slow grower and is unlikely to grow much past 4 feet indoors. Small green leaves grow between thorns on the ridged stems, and if you grow the Rubra variety, the leaves are reddish-purple. If you plant it in soil with good drainage and water it twice a month, then your African milk tree may live for decades.
- Light: Full sun to partial shade
- Water: Twice a month
- Color varieties: Reddish-purple leaves
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Anyone who has visited the Sonoran desert will not soon forget the sight of a 40-foot saguaro cactus punctuating the landscape. These majestic plants may live for two centuries, and it can take up to 40 years for flowering to occur. The slow growth rate of this cactus makes it possible to grow one for many years as an indoor houseplant as well. Give your saguaro as much light as possible and water sparingly about once a month.
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- Light: Full sun
- Water: Every 10 to 14 days
- Color varieties: White with yellow centers
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This cactus variety is as full of personality as its name suggests. Mammillaria hahniana forms small colonies of ten-inch tall spheres, which feature white hairs and spines. Healthy plants may feature a halo of pink blooms like a crown atop a head. Plant this cactus in sandy potting mix, water every other week, and in winter, water it monthly.
- Light: Bright, even light
- Water: Bi-weekly to monthly
- Color varieties: Pink
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The simple, sphere shape of Astrophytum ornatum looks striking with decorative gravel mulch and a substantial ceramic pot. Stiff spikes cover deeply ridged spheres, which can attain several feet in height. The plants often develop a white frosty coating that may look like a disease but is actually a defense mechanism to protect the plant from the sun. Water it infrequently and provide plenty of hot sunny conditions if you want to see the yellow blooms develop.
- Light: Full sunlight
- Water: Infrequently
- Color varieties: Yellow
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Christmas cactus is pretty toothless as far as the cactus family goes with its smooth segmented leaves and soft, rounded spines. Tubular flowers come in red, pink, orange, and white. This cactus species is a departure from normal cactus care. The plant hails from Brazilian rain forests, where they live as epiphytes growing on other tree branches. Give these plants filtered light and moderate irrigation. If you can expose them to cooler temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit as winter approaches, you can get your plants to rebloom.
- Light: Diffused light
- Water: Regularly, allowing the soil to dry between waterings
- Color varieties: Pink
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Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus)
The Ferocactus genus lives up to its name of fierce cactus. It is covered with long, rigid spines that protect its juicy, edible pulp. The barrel cactus may live for many decades and eventually reaches a maximum height of 8 to 10 feet when growing outdoors. As a houseplant, the barrel cactus craves as much sun as you can provide and scant irrigation coupled with a loose, sandy potting mix.
- Light: Partial to full sun
- Water: Sparingly, allowing the soil to dry between waterings
- Color varieties: Brownish-yellow to orange
For more information about growing desert plants, explore: