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Characteristics of Cacti Plants

Introduction to Cacti

What is it about the unusual looking varieties of cacti that have made them a much loved or much disliked member of the plant world?

I fall into the category of the former with no major justifiable reason why, I just love everything about them. My partner, on the other hand, is really not enamored with them on any level.

Known as plants that thrive on neglect, they have an incredible ability to survive on little water in the driest of habitats, including one of the driest places on earth, the Atacama Desert.

Cacti Distribution

(Distribution of cacti; blue=Rhipsalis baccifera, green=all other cacti)

(Distribution of cacti; blue=Rhipsalis baccifera, green=all other cacti)

History of the Cactus

The cactus is a plant that is predominantly native to the Americas with the exception of one variety (Rhipsalis baccifera), which is also native to Africa and Sri Lanka. When exactly the first species was introduced has been a cause of debate for many, many years.

The geographical distribution has led to the theory that they must have existed before the ancient continent Gondwana split into what we now know as South America and Africa. That happened during the Cretaceous period 146 to 100 million years ago. Theories on this suggest that the Rhipsalis baccifera seeds were carried in the digestive tract of migratory birds.

Large Variety

Cacti are a very vast and varied species of succulent plant with varieties numbering between 1500 and 2000. Thanks to the introduction by humans, cacti have become a common sight in other parts of the world, namely the Mediterranean, Australia, and Hawaii. Habitats vary considerably with cacti and may be put into two different groups, the desert cacti and the forest cacti.

Similar Characteristics

They all have similar characteristics in common that make them instantly recognisable as a cactus, even to the untrained eye. A fact I find incredible considering there are such a wide selection of shapes, sizes and flower types within the cacti family. Here are the key characteristics of cacti plants.

Cacti Growing in Italy


Spines, Needles, Short Hairs

The majority of cacti in the absence of leaves have spines, needles, or short hairs protruding out of areoles on the stem. Spines are a modified leaf botanically speaking and are even present on cacti with leaves.

The spines help prevent water loss in the plant by cutting down the air flow close to the cactus and will provide some shade for the stem, which works towards them being a key factor in water conservation for the cactus.

When identifying cacti, it is often the spines that are used in identification as spines within the species vary considerably in size, colour, shape, hardness and numbers.

Most spines are straight or have a slight curve or hook but can also be flattened in appearance. Yes, variety is the spice of life where a cactus spine is concerned!

Cactus Spines


These are unique to the cactus plant family. They are visible on the stems of cacti and are generally identified as being the slightly raised cushion part that is woolly or hairy, and they will have spines and or flowers protruding.

Areoles may be oval or circular in shape, and they may even appear in two separate parts. In this instance, one part will have spines and the other will be for a flower.

In most cacti, the areoles will only produce new spines and flowers for a few years and then will be inactive. This means that there are generally a fixed amount of spines and flowers being produced towards the ends of the stems as the plants grow and new areoles appear.

Cactus Areoles

Areoles of an Echinopsis species

Areoles of an Echinopsis species


The stems of cacti being predominantly leafless makes this a typical characteristic feature of cacti. Even some cacti who appear to have leaves have in fact flattened stems.

Often waxy to the touch, stems are generally smooth in appearance or may have tubercles (little bumps) present. They vary in shape considerably in different habitats. Short, columnar ones in the desert all the way to ball shaped ones that cover the ground in tropical forests.

Some varieties will have a ribbed appearance which will alter in appearance depending on how much water it is storing at a given time.The more water, the plumper the stem and therefore the ribs are less visible. If the stem is short of water, the stem will shrink in size and the ribs will be more obvious.

In the absence of leaves, photosynthesis takes place in the stems of most cacti. This makes them very different to other succulent plants.

Cactus Stems

stem of Mammillaria longimamma showing tubercles

stem of Mammillaria longimamma showing tubercles

stem showing ribbing and waxy coating on a young cactus

stem showing ribbing and waxy coating on a young cactus

Indoor Cacti

A comparison of the two distinct groups of Cacti for Indoor Container Gardening

ComparisonDesert CactiForest Cacti

Natural Habitat

Semi-Desert regions of America. Contrary to the name very few will survive in sand alone.

Forest regions of tropical America. They are grown as epiphytes on tree.


Nearly all Cacti fall into this catagory.

Only a few are available commercially. Instantly recognised by their flattened leaf like stems and their trailing habit.

Watering / Feeding

Very little or no watering needed between mid Autumn and early Spring.

May need some feeding and watering during the Winter months.

Growing Conditions

Requires as much sunshine as possible, particularly the flowering varieties. Very suitable for south facing gardens.

Will require some shade during the hottest months and is suitable for north and east facing windowsills.

Indoor Cacti Plants


Cacti Trivia:

  • With the exception of the Pereskia and the young Opunita species, all cacti are leafless.
  • Cacti are pollinated by hummingbirds and insects.
  • Size can be from a few centimetres to a staggering 66 ft tall tree variety.
  • The liquid inside a Cactus is a thick, viscose substance, not clear water but it can save your life and has saved many in the desert regions.
  • A cactus can have fruit, such as the prickly pear and can be eaten.
  • Syrup can be made from cactus fruit.
  • The wood of some cacti species is used in making roofs and walls.
  • The trunk of some species is used for making an Argentinian drum called Bombo Leguero.
  • The roots of a Mexican cactus were chewed by Aztecs for its hallucinogenic properties.
  • The spines of cacti if sterilized on hot coals may be used for sutures.

Cactus on the Go


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How long can cacti live?

Answer: Cacti are resilient plants and depending on their species, location and growing conditions, can live 50+ years.

Characteristics of Cacti Plants Comments

sam on January 02, 2018:

What happens when a cacti loses some of it's spines?

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 19, 2012:

Hi Alun,

So you are a Cactus fan! I hope I covered characteristics well, I appreciate you adding suggestions too and are all excellent additions! I must say I do look forward to having the wild cactus as part of our garden in Italy as they are so plentiful in the south.I appreciate your great comments, detailed as always and great to receive from you. Many thanks Alun for your support! :-)

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on October 18, 2012:

Suzie - one of my favourite groups of plants, and a hobby interest of mine! I have about 60 species of cacti, plus more than 100 other species of succulent plant in my greenhouse, and I think they are a great family of plants to grow for so many reasons. I'm afraid I had to vote 'other' in the poll above because there are so many reasons I like them. In addition to your suggestions, key reasons include:

1) Small size - Important for a hobbyist with limited space! You can have a big collection in a small greenhouse!

2) Their flowers - Many of the smaller species flower every year and some of the flowers are intense in colour, whilst some are huge in comparison to the size of the plant.

3) Mostly they are genuine species. I'm not really a typical gardener - more a lover of wild plants. As such I like the fact that most cacti are genuine unhybridised plants, identical to those you might see somewhere like the Mexican desert. It's great to have a little bit of an exotic country growing in your own garden / greenhouse.

Suzie; really nice page and an opening photo which displays just how attractive these little gems can be. Hopefully the page will attract a few more people to growing these wonderfully adapted plants in their own homes. Voted up. Alun.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 18, 2012:

Hi Eiddwen,

Thanks for stopping by!

Cacti I find are very easy to grow indoors, you just need to be careful with the over watering and make sure they are out of the way of children and pets. Hope you get back to it, it's a bit of the desert in your living room !! Cheers for the comments, always great to receive! :-)

Eiddwen from Wales on October 18, 2012:

A great hub Suzie;I used to grow Catii many years ago but haven't for a long time now.

After reading this hub I may well take up Catii growing once again.

Thanks for sharing and have a great day.


Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 16, 2012:

Hi teaches,

Glad you liked my movable cactus on the bike! When I saw the bike in my favourite lime green colour . . .I couldn't resist! You obviously have the climate for an outdoor cactus,lucky you! Until we move I have to make do with my 2 little indoor ones! Thanks so much for your great support and comments! :-)

Dianna Mendez on October 15, 2012:

What an interesting post on cacti. My hubby would like to grow one outdoors, but hasn't quite found the right one as of yet. I love your photo of the cactus on the go, cute. Very well written and so informative.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi Effer,

At least you were able to pass it on and it survived, they truly are hard to kill, although Richard (rcrumple) says he did manage it!! Child proof I know about with nieces and nephews so can fully understand that one!

You clumsy . . . . NO!! Cheers for clearing that up for me! :-)

Suzie from Carson City on October 15, 2012:

Suzie...Had to give the immortal cactus to a friend...It was huge and dreadfully PRICKLY, of course.. Too many babies (grandchildren) around here........My house is so child proof, the only chance of anyone getting CLUMSY Grandma!! I manage to trip over my own feet.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi btrbell,

How lucky for you to live in Arizona and see Cacti I will only see in photos!! Glad you enjoyed this and I appreciate your comments and visit :-)

Randi Benlulu from Mesa, AZ on October 15, 2012:

Great hub! As I live in Arizona, I get to see many of the species on a daily basis! Yesterday, we went on a hike just to see more! thank you for this and the beautiful pictures!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi vespa,

Sounds heaven so when you launch I will link it to hubs done .I am sure you will have a lovely time with the in-laws, don't forget the camera! Thanks for coming back to me and I look forward to the recipes! :-)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi chef!

Good to see you . . . . a fellow Cactus admirer! Thanks for the votes, glad you enjoyed the background and history which I felt was important to include. Cheers Andrew!! :-)

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on October 15, 2012:

How about prickly pear sorbet? We also make an ice cold summer drink and popsicles from prickly pear. I'll have to write a hub on it next month. The in-laws are in town until the 7th of November and we're showing them around the country! So I should have lots to write about when we get back to our regular schedule. I'll add prickly pear to my list. Thanks so much! Looking forward to your cactus fruit hub.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on October 15, 2012:

Cactus, cacti, - lovely words that really stand out - like the spines you've captured on this neatly written hub.

I lived three years with a potted cactus that just seemed so content - sitting on a sunlit balcony with nothing to do but catch the sun, look good and have the occasional water and feed. The cactus did ok too.

I give votes because you gave us some history and background and that I think is important.

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi vespa!

Yep from all my knowledge and research you are definitely in CACTUS COUNTRY!! Actually my next hub is on the fruit! Any recipes you have I can include if you wish? Appreciate your comments vespa, how I would love to have Cactus WILD near me. I will have to wait until I get to Italy as we have them there!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on October 15, 2012:

Very interesting hub, Suzie! I also love that cactus are survivors. They are quite common in Peru and we eat the prickly pear fruit often. One cactus produces red fruit versus the usual green, which happens to be my favorite. Cacti are also farmed here to harvest an insect which, when pulverized, produces a natural red dye. I didn't know their spines actually contribute toward their survival! Very well-written. Thank you!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 15, 2012:

Hi Richard,

LOVE the humour you always bring! Over watering a cactus . . . . shame on you! lol Glad you approve of the party vibe with the Aztecs! Appreciate your comments and for stopping by my buddy from Kentucky :-)

Rich from Kentucky on October 15, 2012:

Suzie -

Just thought I'd stick around to see .... no, I honestly can't use another pun. That is beneath even me. lol Would you believe I'm so great with plants that I've even killed a cactus plant. A friend told me I'd over watered it. Good to hear that the Aztecs were partying people! I knew I liked them for some reason. Seriously, very good article and great photos. Great job!

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 14, 2012:

Hi Mary,

Thanks very much for visiting and commenting here! Thanks for the line divider hiccup too, have amended it. I would love to see your friends garden, it sounds like it would be my kind of garden! Appreciate your votes and shares Mary :-)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 14, 2012:

Hi Jeff,

Great to have your thoughts and comments here. Hope your encounter has had no lasting marks!!! LOL Appreciate your votes and share my friend :-)

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 14, 2012:

Hi Effer!

Glad to see you are a fan of the Cacti like I am! Great story about your squatter in the living room!! Do you still have it?? I have always loved the ones in the wild I have seen abroad and was delighted to see them by our property in Italy (the big photo i have included in this hub). Thanks for your lovely comments and constant support! I have never written so much on hubpages but enjoying the challenges it is bringing!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on October 14, 2012:

I love Cactus plants. I've noticed that some of the plants sold locally have the blossom grated on the top of the plant, and after a while it will just fall off! I've learned how to spot these fakes.

I have a friend who has a garden devoted to cactus (of all kinds). It is truly beautiful.

I noticed you gave credit for your dividers to homesteadbound, but I didn't see any dividers you used.

I voted this Hub UP, etc. and will share.

Jeff Boettner from Tampa, FL on October 14, 2012:

Cactusss's (Cacti) are such awesome plants. I chose "they are born survivors" in the poll, because once while jogging (running away from) in the desert, I ran into "survived" without a mark, me, not so much...Your pictures rock. Up and Sharing.

Suzie from Carson City on October 14, 2012:

I love cactus plants...of all variations....This is so very educational, Suzie...thank you. I did vote for all of the above.....when my hubby and I began to move into our home some 12 years ago.....In the main room, all alone in a corner, stood this tall cactus plant. The dirt in the pot was so dry, it had become cement......later, we learned the house had been empty for over a year! And there stood this big, green cactus, looking at me, just as bold as can be!!..........UP+++

Suzanne Ridgeway (author) from Dublin, Ireland on October 14, 2012:

Hi Bill!!

Glad you enjoyed! I linked 2 or 3 of your hubs into my shopping hub I published, hope that was ok! Cacti are amazing plants and I for one love them, but many don't!

Hope you had a great birthday yesterday, appreciate your words of encouragement as always my friend! :-)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 14, 2012:

This is the perfect plant for me and yet I have never grown one. Just goes to show I have no idea what is good for me (other than Bev of course).

I always learn so much from your gardening hubs. I had no idea there were forest cacti! I had no idea they were pollinated by hummingbirds. Obviously, there is a great deal that I have no idea about, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. LOL

Great job Irish! Always a pleasure to read one of your hubs!