How to Decorate Cactus and Succulents with Lights

  • 01 of 09

    How to Decorate Cactus and Succulents With Lights

    ethel m cactus garden at christmas
    The Ethel M Cactus Gardens are decorated with lights and characters. Llsa Hallett Taylor

    In the Southwest and other arid climates, cactus and succulents often replace ornamental shrubs and trees as landscaping. With the philosophy of playing up what you already have rather than trying to hide it or substitute something else, home decorators have been dazzling cacti with holiday lights for many years.

    So, how do you string lights on a succulent or spiny cactus? Very carefully, for starters. Wear a pair of suede or leather gloves that can't be penetrated by the needle-like spines...MORE of a cactus, which can even poke through the strongest types of gloves.

    Unique Shapes Make a Magical Display

    When it comes to decorating desert plants for the holidays, nobody does it better than the crew at Ethel M Chocolates' breathtaking Botanical Cactus Garden in Henderson, which is Nevada's largest and one of the world's biggest collections of its kind. Based on the English landscape model of naturalistic design, the Ethel M Botanical Cactus Garden features four acres of ​cacti, succulents, and other drought-tolerant plants and trees.

    Their annual Holiday Cactus Garden Lights display uses more than 1 million lights throughout the landscape, and the display is on view for free to the public from mid-November through New Year's Day. The adjacent factory was named after the mother of the founder, Forrest Mars, and is the company's gourmet chocolate and candy division. 

    Continue to 2 of 9 below.
  • 02 of 09

    Illuminating Desert Plants for the Holidays

    golden barrels with lights
    Golden barrel cacti are decorated with string lights. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    It's a bit more time consuming and a specialized task to adorn cacti, succulents, yucca, and unusually-shaped desert plants with string lights. Here are a few tips and tricks:

    • Invest in a good pair of gloves, ones that won't allow spines and needles to penetrate. Also, wear long sleeves.
    • For taller cactus or hard-to-reach branches, consider getting a reaching, grabbing, or pick-up tool. Some even come equipped with a light. Doing so, carefully, allows you to wrap a cactus or limb without...MORE having to touch it.
    • Barrel cactus look best wrapped with one color of string lights, like red or white, so that they sound out.
    • Net lights draped over a cactus are much easier than wrapping with string lights, although they have a different effect and don't outline the shape as much. Most are LEDs, and some are solar, although need several hours of sunlight to work.
    • Use a light hand while decorating--don't stretch the light strand or wrap it tightly around a cactus.
    • Some of the more delicate specimens might benefit from the more traditional incandescent lights, which can create enough warmth (not heat) to keep the cactus or succulent from freezing.
    • Laser flood or spot lights are an easy way to light up a desert garden without damaging plants. Each year, they go down in price and the technology is perfected.
    • Using a smart LED light bulb like the iLumi 
    Continue to 3 of 9 below.
  • 03 of 09

    Magical Light Display

    ethel m cactus garden christmas
    Ethel M Desert Garden all lit up for the holidays. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    With a landscape base of 15,000 cubic yards of sandy fill and a special planting soil, the beds at the Ethel M garden were raised and rookeries constructed using 400 tons of rock, thereby providing the best possible viewing experience for visitors.


    Continue to 4 of 9 below.
  • 04 of 09

    Lighting Up the Night

    paddle cactus with lights
    Paddle cactus plants are decorated with colorful lights. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    The Cactus Botanical Gardens at Nevada's Ethel M Chocolate Factory is host to more than 300 species of plants. Half are cacti and succulents largely native to the American Southwest, while others are desert trees and shrubs from the Southwest along with, Australia and South America. All of these plants were chosen both for the beauty of their floral displays and their ability to adapt to the climate of southern Nevada. The types of rock used are Utah Bali Hai chocolate and Arizona moss rock...MORE (from the nearby Grand Canyon region). Among the cactus and succulents:

    • Acacia: The Twisted Acacia
    • Agave: Including the big and beautiful Agave Americana, aka Century Plant or Maguey's Century Plant and Agave attenuata
    • Aloe: There are more than 500 species of aloe; the most common or familiar is Aloe vera
    • Ferocactus cylindraceus: Compass Barrel Cactus
    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Illuminated Desert Garden

    cactus with lights
    Cactus illuminated with string lights. Lisa Hallett Taylor
    The cactus garden displays more than a half-million lights, which lighting designer Steve Bowdoin and crew meticulously place on prickly and sometimes-delicate cacti and succulents. Since there is no manual on How to Light and Decorate Cactus and Succulents, Bowdoin has learned by trial and error, along with his expertise and familiarity with the plants and the environment. It takes Bowdoin and his crew about six weeks to take down all the lights each January.
    Continue to 6 of 9 below.
  • 06 of 09

    Barrel Cactus Decorated With Lights

    barrel cactus
    Barrel cactus are strung with lights. Photo &copy Lisa Hallett Taylor
    A group of barrel cactus have been carefully strung with LED light strands and are ready to light up the nighttime desert wonderland at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Desert Botanical Garden.

    Barrel cactus fall into two types: Ferocactus and Echinocactus. Most can be found in the southwestern desert regions of the United States.

    Facts about Barrel cactus:

    • Can store up to and sometimes more than 500 kilograms of water
    • Have the potential to live to 100 years or more
    • Barrel cacti are probably the...MORE most dangerous cacti in the desert (or out of it). A puncture by one of the cactus' spines (thorns) that penetrates the skin 1/8 inch or so warrants treatment by a doctor: you may need antibiotics and it can take several months for the would to heal.
    • Flowers bloom on old growth, and are up to 3 inches wide and grow in a ring around the top.
    • Grown easily by seed.
    • Can contain up to 25 vertical ribs.
    • Size: up to 5 feet high by 2 feet wide.
    • Flower colors: Orange or yellow-orange.
    Continue to 7 of 9 below.
  • 07 of 09

    Blue Christmas

    blue tree cactus succulents
    A tree turns blue for the holidays. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    A small tree takes on an entirely different look at night when the lights come on and it gets to show off its blue leaves. The tree is just one of the garden's more than 300 species of plants to be found at the three-acre Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Desert Botanical Garden near Las Vegas.

    Approximately 40 percent of the lights are LED, with more added each year.

    What is a Cactus?

    Continue to 8 of 9 below.
  • 08 of 09

    Steve Bowdoin, Landscape and Lighting Designer

    steve bowdoin ethel m chocolate factory desert garden
    Steve Bowdoin at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory Desert Botanical Garden in Henderson, Nevada. Lisa Hallett Taylor
    Steve Bowdoin is a landscape designer and has been illuminating the Desert Botanical Garden at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory in Henderson, Nevada, for more than five years. Bowdoin begins his cactus display prep during the summer, when he sorts through light strands and takes inventory of what needs to be added or replaced. He and his crew begin hanging the lights on October 1st of each year to be ready for the garden's mid-November opening. ·
    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Covering the Shrub

    steve bowdoin cactus garden
    Steve Bowdoin shows how to cover a shrub with holiday lights. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Landscape and lighting designer Steve Bowdoin shows how to cover a shrub with lights, gesturing over the top of the hedge to indicate that full and complete coverage is necessary to cover it with net lights and outline or capture its true shape. Each cactus, succulent, tree and shrub presents different challenges for the designer and his team, who must work around prickly spines (needles), delicate succulents, branches, tall trees and unusual foliage from specimens like the Joshua tree.