21 Best Cactus Plants to Grow in Your Garden

beautiful cactus garden
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Cactus and succulents are enjoying overwhelming popularity in the garden design world and even beyond as their exotic and iconic images appear in pop culture and their fruits and pads are even being made into cocktails, salads, and even jellies.

Beginning and experienced gardeners start out with a few tiny cactus or succulents in containers just for the novelty. Something hooks them—maybe the intrigue of the plants' low maintenance or their amazing forms and patterns. If you live in a cactus-friendly region, which is much of western North America, Central America, and South America, it is hard not to notice that these hardy plants can be incorporated into a landscape. 

If you or a landscaping pro have experience or knowledge of these desert natives, cactus and succulents can be easily integrated with other drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses for a beautiful and natural looking garden design. Working with cactus requires some research and understanding of their sunlight, soil, and watering needs. The specimens with spines need to be handled carefully—avoid getting stuck.

The Difference Between Cactus and Succulents

All cactus plants are succulents, but not all succulent plants are cactus. A succulent comes from several botanical families and is defined or classified by its moisture-storing capacity. 

Cactus (or plural cacti) can be identified by their small, round areoles from which spines (thorns), branches, leaves, hair, and flowers grow. While some succulents do a good job of impersonating cactus, if they are lacking the round, cushion-like areoles, then you can tell they are not cactus.

Another distinction, succulents are native to most parts of the world, but cacti are only indigenous from Alaska to Chile in the Western Hemisphere. 

Cactus for Gardens and Containers

Take a look at 21 of the most attractive and popular cacti that you can work within a landscape design, whether it is a few containers, raised planting beds, or an entire yard. Consult nurseries and horticulture or cactus societies in your area for additional growing tips that apply to your particular region. The cactus are presented in alphabetical order by their common names.

  • 01 of 21

    Beavertail Cactus

    beavertail cactus
    Danita Delimont/Getty Images

    Beavertail (Optunia basilaris) is a prickly pear cactus with pads that are mostly blue-green. It grows to about 20 inches high and up to 6 feet wide. It has dark cherry pink flowers that almost glow and smell like watermelon. It blooms late winter to early summer. It is ideal for desert landscaping and drought-tolerant gardens and looks great teamed with Angelita daisy and barrel cactus. 

  • 02 of 21

    Blue Flame Cactus

    myrtillocactus
    Ted/Flickr/SS by 2.0

    Blue flame cactus (Myrtillocactus geometrizans) is also known as bilberry cactus, garambullo, or whortleberry. It can grow to 13 feet high and 8 to 12 feet wide. Crested species are usually smaller. In its natural habitat, blue flame forms dense, cactus forests and can reach heights of 30 feet. It is most recognized for its upright candelabra shape, blue-green color, and purple fruit that looks and tastes like a cross between a blueberry and cranberry.

    Like many cacti, blue flame is stunningly staged with gravel mix and rocks in a container. If you live in a region that can support it in-ground, this cactus can be the focal point of a drought tolerant cactus or succulent garden.

    Myrtillocactus geometrizans can be mistaken for Euphorbia lactea, which is a succulent that is also columnar and crested.

  • 03 of 21

    Candelabra Cactus

    myrtillocactus
    Rob Huntley/Getty Images

    Candelabra cacti (Myrtillocactus cochal) is a small tree-sized cactus, it can reach about 10 feet high and wide. It has ivory white cup-shaped flowers that open during the day and close in the evening. The fruits are edible, although somewhat acidic.

    In its native habitat, candelabra cacti grow on hillsides, so planting on slopes gives it a natural look. It is also beautiful in xeriscape and rock gardens with other succulents and drought-tolerant plants. 

  • 04 of 21

    Claret Cup Cactus

    claret cup cactus
    Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

    Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) is also called hedgehog, Mojave mound cactus, and kingcup cactus. It has the potential to grow to 3 feet high and up to 6 feet wide. It has bright red flowers that bloom in the spring. Its fruit is juicy, tastes like strawberries, and turns bright orange as it ripens

    In landscaping design, consider planting it with sage, poppies, yucca, penstemon, and native grasses.

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  • 05 of 21

    Golden Ball Cactus

    golden ball cactus
    DEA/G. CIGOLINI/Getty Images

    Golden ball cactus (Parodia leninghausii or Notocactus leninghausii) also goes by the name lemon ball cactus or yellow tower. It grows about 3 feet tall. Its flowers are yellow with spines that are long but harmless.

    Golden ball forms in clusters and is a smart choice for fire-resistant landscaping. Single specimens are striking in containers.

    Not to be confused with golden barrel cactus, golden ball starts out globular in shape, then becomes more columnar. It is an excellent choice for beginning cactus gardeners.

  • 06 of 21

    Golden Barrel Cactus

    golden barrel cactus
    David Dixon/Getty Images

    Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) can grow up to 4 feet tall. This iconic round cactus is easily recognizable and probably the most popular type used in drought-tolerant and desert landscaping. Its flowers are golden yellow. Plant several in a grid for visually striking landscape design in a front or backyard.

  • 07 of 21

    Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

    hedgehog cactus
    VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

    Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmanii) can go by many names: strawberry cactus, saint's cactus, purple torch, or Engelmann's hedgehog cactus. Hedgehog cacti are small and have free-branching clusters or mounds of erect stems that are sometimes prostrate. It grows to about 28 inches tall. It has large and showy purple-magenta blooms in spring. All Echinocereus have ornamental spines that densely cover the surfaces of the plants and are especially sharp. It looks attractive in rock and drought-tolerant gardens with other succulents and wildflowers.

  • 08 of 21

    Mexican Fence Post Cactus

    mexican fence post cactus
    Carol Sharp/Getty Images

    Mexican fence post cactus (Pachycereus marginatus or sometimes sold as Stenocereus marginatus) can grow up to 16 feet high. Individual stems are 3 to 8 inches in diameter. It has reddish-pink blooms that appear mid- to late spring and are evident along the cactus' ribs near the growing tip and down its sides. Pachycereus marginatus responds well to frequent watering when it is hot outside. During frost, protect the plant by placing Styrofoam cups or burlap over growing tips.

    This showy columnar cactus has upright growth that is actually used as a living fence in Mexico and other regions where it grows well. Plant it near a brightly colored wall for a dramatic effect or in containers with native flowers. If you have ever visited the home of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, you might recognize these cacti as the same type that border their property.

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  • 09 of 21

    Mammillaria Polyedra

    mammillaria cactus
    Mammillaria polyedra cactus. Flickr member Amante Darmanin

    Most of the 300 species of Mammillarias are native to Mexico, with the others native to southwestern United States, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Mammillaria polyedra grows up to 12 inches tall and 5 inches wide. It has pink 1-inch blooms. Mammillaria polyedra starts out as an individual plant, then eventually forms dense clusters. Pair them with other taller cacti, succulents, native grasses, native shrubs, and flowers.

     

  • 10 of 21

    Old Man Cactus

    old man cactus
    Irina Marwan/Getty Images

    Cephalocereus senilis is also called the old man of Mexico or Cousin It (a reference to a character in "The Addams Family"). One of the most popular cacti, this genus can be identified by tall, columnar or branching growth and are often covered by long, woolly hair. Species propagate easily from seed or cuttings. Some collectors wash the "hair" of this species to keep it white.

    This plant can reach heights of up to 49 feet. It produces yellowish-pink blooms at night in mid-spring on side stems after it reaches heights of 20 feet or more.

    In drought-tolerant gardens, the "old man" looks good in clusters or when planted on either side of an entryway. Most are often grown in containers.

  • 11 of 21

    Orchid Cactus

    orchid cactus
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    In their native habitats of the tropical Americas, orchid cacti (Epiphyllum hybrids or Phyllocactus) can grow as long as 225 feet. Unless you live in a tropical climate, you do not have to worry about this plant growing to epic proportions.

    The flowers of this cactus are admired for their stunning 4-inch blooms in pinks, reds, whites, yellows, oranges, and shades in between.

    These plants are primarily grown in hanging baskets, they like filtered sunlight and can be grown outdoors in climates with warm winters. Try hanging orchid cacti from branches of large trees; they will benefit from the fresh air and light.

  • 12 of 21

    Organ Pipe Cactus

    organ pipe cactus
    Joerg Fockenberg / EyeEm / Getty Images

    Organ pipe cactus (Lemaireocereus thurberi) is also known as pitayo dulce or Arizona organ pipe. Besides looking like old-fashioned organ pipes, the stems of this cactus resemble sausage links. These tall, columnar plants branch slightly above-ground into several ribbed stems. The species that are native to North America are hardy but require sun and minimum winter temperatures above 35 F. 

    These plants can reach up to 30 feet high with clumps as wide, although smaller in most gardens. It has light pink flowers that bloom in the evening and close at dawn during the spring.

    It makes an attractive statement in a courtyard patio garden and can also be used in raised planters or as hedges.

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  • 13 of 21

    Peanut Cactus

    peanut cactus
    Peter Anderson/Getty Images

    Peanut cactus (Chamaecereus silvestrii or Echinopsis chamaecereus) is a low-growing, cylindrical cactus that reaches about 1 foot in height. Its vase-shaped bright red blooms appear in the spring through early summer. It prefers shallow containers and grows well in rock gardens and xeriscapes. Offsets (pups) drop off and are easy to propagate.

  • 14 of 21

    Prickly Pear Cactus

    prickly pear cactus
    Christer Fredriksson/Getty Images

    Prickly pear cactus (Optunia ficus Indica) also may be known as barbary fig, mission cactus, or tuna cactus. Its yellow flowers are about 4 inches in size, and the cactus is easily identifiable by its fruits (also known as tunas), which are red or yellow and highly decorative.

    It can grow to 15 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide. While it is a given that prickly pears are at home in drought-tolerant and desert gardens, think about adding them to meadow or prairie-themed gardens. Companion plants include blue grama and side-oats grama grasses.

  • 15 of 21

    Rat Tail Cactus

    golden rat tail cactus
    Simon McGill/Getty Images

    Rat tail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis or Disocactus flagelliformis) typically grows 3 to 5 feet long. It produces beautiful bright pink, tubular flowers in the spring. It is best grown as a hanging plant and likes afternoon shade. Consider displaying it on a porch, covered patio, or tree branch.

  • 16 of 21

    Saguaro

    saguaro
    Rob Larsen/Flickr/SS by 2.0

    Columnar saguaro plants (Carnegiea gigantea) are usually found in Sonora, Mexico, the central/southern Arizona desert, and parts of California. Tall and branching, it is one of the most iconic cacti in the world. Unfortunately, they are one of the least cold-tolerant cacti. Carnegiea is named after American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Other names it goes by include sahuaro, giant cactus, and sage of the desert.

    It is a slow grower that may take more than 100 years to reach its full, treelike height of 30 to 52 feet. It has fragrant, greenish-white flowers that bloom at night in late spring and early summer.

    If planted near desert trees like mesquite and palo verde, saguaros will be protected from heat and frost. In a landscape, they are attractive when grouped with golden barrels, prickly pears, and drought-tolerant shrubs like chuparosa and Baja fairy duster.

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  • 17 of 21

    Silver Torch Cactus

    silver torch cactus
    Harvey Barrison/Flickr/SS by 2.0

    Silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii) grow to be slender columns up to 8 feet tall. Rose or burgundy blooms are 3 inches long, tubular, and protrude from columns horizontally. Columns form clusters and like full sun and well-draining soil. For a stunning display, mix these light grey-green cacti with succulents and drought-tolerant plants that are lime, chartreuse, dark green, and plum.

  • 18 of 21

    Star Cactus

    star cactus astrophytum
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    Star cactus (Astrophytum ornatum) may also go by the name monk's hood. They can grow to 12 to 39 inches tall and 6 to 12 wide. It is the tallest cactus in the genus Astrophytum. Monk's hood is identifiable by its five to eight ribs that often twist into spirals. It has striking yellow-brown spines, a green body, and shiny yellow flowers that form at the center. Its fruit forms a star pattern.

    In warm regions, plant it in the ground massed in groups near large rocks. If space is limited, cluster the cacti in a low, wide container.

  • 19 of 21

    Totem Pole Cactus

    totem pole cactus
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    Totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schotti forma monstrosus or Pachycereus schotti) is notable for its knobby shape that can be sculptural in the right garden setting. Unlike most columnar cactus, totem pole has neither spines nor ribs.

    Planted in the ground, it can reach a height of 10 feet and 3 to 6 feet wide. It is usually smaller if it is grown in containers.

    Consider using this cactus as a statement piece or a bold accent in the ground or a large container. It also works well in drought-tolerant or desert landscaping.

  • 20 of 21

    Turk's Cap Cactus

    turk's cap cactus
    Josh Noseworthy/Flickr/SS by 2.0

    Turk's cap cactus (Melocactus matanzanus) grows up to 3.5 inches tall and 3.5 inches in diameter. Explorer Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered Melocactus on a West Indies island and brought it and other cacti to Europe. 

    Its flowers are bright pink with fur, which should be misted with a water bottle a few times per week. For a cactus, Turk's cap is slightly more high maintenance than most and should not be allowed to dry out. Since it grows on rocky hillsides in its native habitat, it will grow well both on slopes and in rock gardens, as well as xeriscapes with native shrubs, perennials, and wildflowers.

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  • 21 of 21

    Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus

    teddy bear cholla
    Paul McCormick/Getty Images

    Teddy bear cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia bigelovii or Optunia bigelovii) is a shrubby or tree-like cactus with golden spines that glow in the sunlight. It has spines that are dense and appear "furry" (like a teddy bear) but refrain from touching or hugging these plants, as its spines are hooked.

    It grows to about 6 feet tall and up to 4 feet wide. The blooms of this plant are yellowish-green. Plant it in a natural setting with gravel, large rocks, and wildflowers like poppies and lupine, along with desert shrubs and perennials such as globemallow and brittlebush.