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Landscaping With Cactus
Cactus and succulents are enjoying an 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's hard not to notice that these hardy plants can be incorporated into a landscape.
If you or a landscaping pro have experience and/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 without getting stuck.
What's the Difference Between Cactus and Succulents?
Remember this: all cactus plants are succulents, but not all succulent plants are cactus. Repeat that a few times for it to really sink in. A succulent comes from several botanical families and is defined or classified by its moisture-storing capacity.
Cactus (or 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
We've researched and identified some of the most attractive and popular cacti that you can work within a landscape design, whether it's 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.
Cactus are presented in alphabetical order by their common names.Continue to 2 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Optunia basilaris
Size: To about 20 inches high (51 centimeters) and up to 6 feet ( 1.8 meters) wide
Flowers: Dark cherry pink flowers that almost glow and smell like watermelon. Blooms late winter to early summer.
Design Ideas: Ideal for desert landscaping and drought-tolerant gardens, teamed with Angelita daisy and barrel cactus.
Beavertail is a prickly pear cactus with pads that are mostly blue-green.Continue to 3 of 22 below.
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Blue Flame Cactus
Botanical Name: Myrtillocactus geometrizans
Other Names: Bilberry cactus, garambullo, whortleberry.
Size: To 13 feet high (3.9 meters) and 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.6 meters) wide. Crested species are usually smaller. In its natural habitat, blue flame forms dense, cactus forests and can reach heights of 30 feet.
Features: Recognized for its upright candelabra shape, blue-green color, and purple fruit that looks and tastes like a cross between a blueberry and cranberry.
Design Ideas: Like many cacti, blue flame is stunning 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 or cactus and succulent garden.
Myrtillocactus geometrizans can be mistaken for Euphorbia lactea, which is a succulent that is also columnar and crested.Continue to 4 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Myrtillocactus cochal
Size: A small tree-sized cactus, it can reach about 10 feet (3 meters) high and wide
Flowers: Ivory white cup-shaped flowers that open during the day and close in the evening. Fruits are edible, although somewhat acidic.
Design Ideas: In its native habitat, candelabra cacti grow on hillsides, so planting on slopes gives it a natural look. It's also beautiful in xeriscape and rock gardens with other succulents and drought tolerant plants.Continue to 5 of 22 below.
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Claret Cup Cactus
Botanical Name: Echinocereus triglochidiatus
Other Names: Hedgehog, Mojave mound cactus, kingcup cactus
Size: Has the potential to grow to 3 feet (0.9 meters) high and up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide
Flowers: Bright red flowers bloom in spring. Fruit is juicy, tastes like strawberries, and turns bright orange as it ripensContinue to 6 of 22 below.
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Golden Ball Cactus
Botanical Name: Parodia leninghausii'; Notocactus leninghausii
Other Names: Lemon ball cactus, yellow tower
Size: About 3 feet (1 meter) high
Flowers: Yellow, with spines that are long but harmless
Design Ideas: 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's an excellent choice for beginning cactus gardeners.Continue to 7 of 22 below.
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Golden Barrel Cactus
Botanical Name: Echinocactus grusonii
Size: Up to 4 feet high
Flowers: Golden yellow
Design Ideas: Plant several in a grid for a visually striking landscape design in a front or backyard
This iconic round cactus is easily recognizable and probably the most popular type used in drought tolerant and desert landscaping.Continue to 8 of 22 below.
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Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus
Botanical Name: Echinocereus engelmanii
Other Names: Strawberry cactus, saint's cactus, purple torch, or Engelmann's hedgehog cactus.
Size: Up to 28 inches tall (70 centimeters)
Flowers: Large and showy purple to magenta blooms in spring
Design Ideas: Attractive in rock and drought tolerant gardens with other succulents and wildflowers
Hedgehog cacti are small and have free-branching clusters or mounds of erect stems that are sometimes prostrate. All Echinocereus have ornamental spines that densely cover the surfaces of the plants and are especially sharp.Continue to 9 of 22 below.
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Mexican Fence Post Cactus
Botanical Name: Pachycereus marginatus; sometimes sold as Stenocereus marginatus.
Size: Can grow up to 16 feet high (4.8 meters). Individual stems are 3 to 8 inches (7.6 to 20 centimeters) in diameter
Flowers: Reddish-pink blooms appear mid- to late spring and are evident along the cactus' ribs, near the growing tip, and down its sides
Design Ideas: 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've ever visited the home of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, you might recognize these cacti as the same type that borders their property.
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.Continue to 10 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Mammillaria polyedra
Size: Up to 12 inches tall (30 centimeters), 5 inches wide (12 centimeters)
Flowers: Pink 1-inch blooms (25 millimeters)
Design Ideas: Mammillaria polyedra starts out as individual plants, then eventually forms dense clusters. Pair them with other taller cacti, succulents, native grasses, and native shrubs and flowers.
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.Continue to 11 of 22 below.
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Old Man Cactus
Botanical Name: Cephalocereus senilis
Other Names: Old man of Mexico, Cousin It (The Addams Family reference).
Size: Can reach heights of up to 49 feet (15 meters)
Flowers: Produces yellowish-pink blooms at night in mid-spring on side stems after it reaches heights of 20 feet or more
Design Ideas: In drought tolerant gardens, old man looks good in clusters or when planted on either side of an entryway. Most often grown in containers.
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.Continue to 12 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Epiphyllum hybrids; Phyllocactus
Size: In their native habitats of the tropical Americas, orchid cacti can grow as long as 225 feet. Don't worry: they will grow much smaller in your climate
Flowers: Admired for their stunning 4-inch blooms in pinks, reds, whites, yellows, oranges and shades in between
Design Ideas: Primarily grown in hanging baskets, they like filtered sunlight and can be grown outdoors in climates with warm winters. Try hanging Phyllocactus from branches of large trees; they'll benefit from the fresh air and light.Continue to 13 of 22 below.
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Organ Pipe Cactus
Botanical Name: Lemaireocereus thurberi
Other Names: Pitayo dulce, Arizona organ pipe
Size: Can reach up to 30 feet high (9 meters), with clumps as wide, although smaller in most gardens
Flowers: Light pink flowers bloom in the evening and close at dawn during spring
Design Ideas: Besides looking like old-fashioned organ pipes, the stems of this cactus resemble sausage links. Makes an attractive statement in a courtyard patio garden. Can also be used in raised planters or as hedges.
Belonging to a group of cacti called organ pipe, Lemaireocereus are tall, columnar plants that 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 degrees F.Continue to 14 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Chamaecereus silvestrii; Echinopsis chamaecereus
Size: A low-growing, cylindrical cactus that reaches about 1 foot (30 centimeters)
Flowers: Vase-shaped bright red blooms appear spring through early summer
Design Ideas: Prefers shallow containers. Grows well in rock gardens and xeriscapes.
Offsets (pups) drop off and are easy to propagate.Continue to 15 of 22 below.
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Prickly Pear Cactus
Botanical Name: Optunia ficus Indica
Other Names: Barbary fig, mission cactus, tuna cactus
Size: To 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall and up to 6 feet across
Features: Yellow flowers are 4 inches. Identifiable by its fruits (also known as tunas), which are red or yellow and highly decorative.
Design Ideas: While it's 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.Continue to 16 of 22 below.
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Rat Tail Cactus
Botanical Name: Aporocactus flagelliformis; Disocactus flagelliformis
Size: Typically grows 3 to 5 feet long
Flowers: Produces beautiful bright pink, tubular flowers in spring
Design Ideas: It is best grown as a hanging plant and likes afternoon shade. Consider displaying it on a porch, covered patio, or tree branch.Continue to 17 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Carnegiea gigantea
Other Names: Sahuaro, giant cactus, sage of the desert
Size: A slow grower that may take more than 100 years to reach its full, treelike height of 30 to 52 feet (9 to 15.6 meters)
Flowers: Fragrant, greenish-white flowers bloom at night in late spring/early summer
Design Ideas: 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.
These columnar plants 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 are named after American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.Continue to 18 of 22 below.
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Silver Torch Cactus
Botanical Name: Cleistocactus strausii
Size: Slender columns grow up to 8 feet tall (2.4 meters)
Flowers: Rose or burgundy blooms are 3 inches long, tubular, and protrude from columns horizontally
Design Ideas: 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.Continue to 19 of 22 below.
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Botanical Name: Astrophytum ornatum
Other Name: Monk's hood
Size: Grows 12 to 39 inches (30 to 100 centimeters) tall and 6 to 12 (15 to 30 centimeters) across
Features: The tallest cactus in the genus Astrophytum, monk's hood is identifiable by its ribs (5 to 8) that often twist into spirals. It has striking yellow-brown spines, a green body, and shiny yellow flowers that form at the center. Fruit forms a star pattern.
Design Ideas: 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.Continue to 20 of 22 below.
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Totem Pole Cactus
Botanical Name: Lophocereus schotti forma monstrosus; Pachycereus schotti
Size: Planted in ground, it can reach a height of 10 feet (3 meters) and 3 to 6 feet wide (0.9 to 1.8 meters). Usually smaller if grown in containers
Features: 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.
Design Ideas: Consider using as a statement piece or a bold accent in the ground or a large container. Also works well in drought tolerant or desert landscaping.Continue to 21 of 22 below.
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Turk's Cap Cactus
Botanical Name: Melocactus matanzanus
Size: Up to 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) tall and to 3.5 inches in diameter.
Flowers: Bright pink flowers with fur, which likes to be misted with a water bottle a few times per week
Design Ideas: 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.
Explorer Christopher Columbus reportedly discovered Melocactus on a West Indies island and brought home it and other cacti to Europe.Continue to 22 of 22 below.
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Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus
Botanical Name: Cylindropuntia bigelovii; Optunia bigelovii
Size: To 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide
Flowers: Blooms are yellowish-green
Design Ideas: A shrubby or tree-like cactus with golden spines that glow in sunlight. Plant 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.
Spines are dense and appear "furry" (like a teddy bear), but refrain from touching or hugging, as spines are hooked.