When it comes to cacti as houseplants, there’s an enormous range of species out there, but here we’ll look at some of the more commonly encountered types of desert cacti that you can add to your home.
Click through to the plant profile for everything you need to know about what conditions your cacti need to thrive.
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Types of Cacti
Bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys)
Immediately recognisable, this cactus family (also known as prickly pears) has oval pads with tiny hair-like spines called glochids. A large family varying greatly in size and spine arrangement, many of them will flower if allowed enough space and light.
Bunny ears may look cuddly but the 'fur' is actually maded up of tiny barbed spines that are difficult to dislodge.
Star cactus (Astrophytum spp.)
A beautiful family of cacti often speckled with tiny white dots on compact plants. They can appear quite striking with evenly sectioned/segmented bodies and relatively large papery blooms.
This beautifully patterned A.ornatum is typical of the family and also has large yellow flowers.
Pincushion cactus (Mammillaria spp.)
The Mammillaria genus has over 200 known species, and many of them are suitable for home growing. Plants are round to columnar, and the short spines are tightly clustered. Some have small tufts of hair, giving rise to names like old lady cactus (M. hahniana) and powder puff cactus (M. bocasana). Flowers readily in spring, producing a crown of pink-magenta blooms.
Easy to grow and easy to bloom, the pincushion cacti are great for the novice and enthusiast alike.
Chin cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii)
A patterned, darkly-coloured cactus with attractive banding and flowers. Also comes in varied mutants which lack chlorophyll. These are grafted onto a stock cactus and are somewhat of a novelty, looking like a red, yellow or orange cactus lollipop.
Some people love these little cactus lollipops, others think they're artificial eyesores.
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
Also affectionately known as mother-in-law’s cushion, E. grusonii is a large, round cactus with curved yellow spines. It makes a good statement plant and is very tolerant of neglect.
Whoever saw this as a cushion must have really had it in for their mother-in-law! Ouch!
Spiral cereus (Cereus forbesii ‘Spiralis’)
A real oddity, this contorted version on the tall, columnar cereus cactus is popular for modern homes and has a twisted stem with small spines. It can grow very tall, but as with most cacti is slow growing in the home.
Equally good for the modernist or collector of curiosities.
Rat tail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis)
One of the few dry-habitat cacti to trail. A native of Mexico’s dry forests, the rat tail cactus is now thought to be extinct in the wild. Long 2-3 cm wide prickly stems trail down to two metres in length and play host to vivid pink blooms.
Watch your head if you choose to grow the rat tail cactus in a hanging pot as it's covered in small spines
Sea urchin cactus (Echinopsis spp.)
A popular family of cacti which have round bodies with short spines. Aside from their classic cactus appearance, they are known for their large, striking flowers which dwarf the plants and come in a wide range of colours.
Echinopsis cacti really know how to put on a show. Keep cool and dry in winter and water more frequently in spring to encourage blooming.
Old-man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis)
A charming columnar cactus covered in wispy white hair. Very often included in cactus collections, it offers an excellent contrast to the round, green types and will eventually grow very tall.
The long hairs keep the plant cool in the wild, protecting it against the searing desert heat and helping to reduce water loss.
Turk’s cap cactus (Melocactus spp.)
These cacti begin their lives looking similar to Echinopsis, yet as they mature a cephalium appears - a dense crown of cream-to-orange spines which then grows taller over time and produces flowers. A little oddball.
The orange cephalium can be clearly seen here on this Melocactus. This will grow taller with age and produce more flowers.
Unlike the other cacti on this list, Christmas cacti are natural jungle dwellers. They are often confused with the other holiday varieties (the Thanksgiving and Easter cacti).
If you want to know more about how to look after them, have a look at this article from our editor.