How to Decorate Cactus and Succulents with Lights

Cactus at Christmas
Jacobs Stock Photography / Getty Images

In the Southwest and other arid climates, cacti 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, home decorators have been decking cacti with holiday lights for years.

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

Illuminating Desert Plants for the Holidays

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 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 
Cactus adorned in Christmas green
Lpettet / Getty Images Plus

Barrel Cactus Decorated With Lights

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 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.
Golden barrel cacti are decorated with string lights.
The Spruce / Lisa Hallett Taylor

Illuminated Desert Garden

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. The Cactus Botanical Garden 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 (from the nearby Grand Canyon region). Among the cacti 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
  • Compass Barrel Cactus: Ferocactus cylindraceus 
Paddle cactus plants decorated with multi-color bulbs
The Spruce / Lisa Hallett Taylor

Magical Light Display

With a landscape base of 15,000 cubic yards of sandy fill and 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.

Desert Garden alight for the holidays
The Spruce / Lisa Hallett Taylor

Cactus Garden Display

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.

Cacti illuminated with string lights
The Spruce / Lisa Hallett Taylor