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How to Grow and Propagate Flowering Cactus Plants

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A daytime stock trader, Lady Rain has successfully nurtured hundreds of cacti during her life.

Cactus plants are appealing not only to humans but also to pets and other wildlife. That's my beloved Birdie admiring the potted plants.

Cactus plants are appealing not only to humans but also to pets and other wildlife. That's my beloved Birdie admiring the potted plants.

Cacti are popular plants that are grown by gardeners and collectors all over the world. These hardy plants can be grown indoors, outdoors, in greenhouses, and under glass. They are relatively easy to grow when conditions are right.

People often say, "You can never kill a cactus plant," and that is true if the cultivation conditions are right. I have known people who had killed heaps of cactus plants despite all the tender loving care they gave the plants. That also includes myself—even though I have successfully nurtured hundreds of cacti during my life. Sometimes, plants just succumb or give up when a certain condition does not suit them.

Pots and Containers

Most cactus plants grow best in containers. Small plastic and ceramic pots are suitable for small plants. Shallow containers are suitable for large clumping plants that spread sideways. Plants with long taproots may prefer to be planted in long toms. Larger cacti require full-depth pots with good drainage. Larger containers take much longer to dry out between watering than smaller containers.

Echinopsis cactus bearing apricot colored flowers after three years of planting.

Echinopsis cactus bearing apricot colored flowers after three years of planting.

Life is like a cactus: full of pricks but also very beautiful.

— Anonymous

Click on the link in the table of contents below to go to the following topics.

Table of Contents

  1. Soil
  2. Watering
  3. Repotting
  4. Propagation Methods
  5. Basic Cactus Care Tips
  6. More on Gardening and Plants
The epiphytic cactus flower normally opens at night and lasts only 24 hours.

The epiphytic cactus flower normally opens at night and lasts only 24 hours.

Soil

Cacti can be grown in peat-based composts and soil-based composts. Peat-based soils are suitable for epiphytic cacti like Epiphyllums and Schlumbergeras. Other cacti prefer soil-based composts that are mixed with coarse sand and gravel to produce a free-draining mix. As a rule of the thumb, cacti are likely to survive in well-drained soil than waterlogged medium.

Ground pumice and perlite are also used in soil-based composts. Slow-release fertilisers are added to the compost for the plants to absorb slowly for up to 18 months. Most cactus plants are happy to be planted in the same container for many years.

My Old Lady Cactus, a.k.a Mammillaria Hahniana, has a baby offset and carries a ring of small flowers around the top of her head.

My Old Lady Cactus, a.k.a Mammillaria Hahniana, has a baby offset and carries a ring of small flowers around the top of her head.

Water

Cactus plants are best left to almost dry out completely between waterings. Always remember that most cacti are found in natural desert environment where water is scarce and infrequent. It is still preferable to give a cactus plant less water than too much.

However, the different conditions need to be considered when watering these plants. Plants in smaller pots should be watered more frequently, as they tend to dry out faster than larger ones. Porous pots like terracotta tend to dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. Plants grown in hot areas with low humidity dry out more quickly than plants grown in humid areas. Plants grown in cold countries do not need to be watered frequently in winter because the plants tend to go dormant in cold temperatures.

Gymnocalycium damsii with lovely dark pink flowers in early spring.

Gymnocalycium damsii with lovely dark pink flowers in early spring.

A small species of rebutia cactus with yellow flowers.

A small species of rebutia cactus with yellow flowers.

Light

Most plants, if not all, thrive when there is light. Cacti are no different from other plants. Even though they might go through a period of dormancy in winter, they still need light to survive and grow. Potted cacti do best when they are exposed to sunlight for several hours per day. Most plants are fine with direct sunlight but some do suffer sunburn in extremely hot weather. Dark patches start to form on the surface of the areas exposed to the sun. Sometimes, the plants continue to survive with scars, but other times the damaged areas start to rot and kill the whole plant.

Cacti come in interesting shapes and sizes.

Cacti come in interesting shapes and sizes.

Like most flowering cacti, the Peruvian Apple Cactus blooms only once a year. The flowers bloom for 24 hours only, wilting the next day. Many of these plants can live for many years without producing a single bloom.

Like most flowering cacti, the Peruvian Apple Cactus blooms only once a year. The flowers bloom for 24 hours only, wilting the next day. Many of these plants can live for many years without producing a single bloom.

Repotting

Cacti grow very slowly and only need to be repotted every two to three years. When the plant has outgrown its container or the clumps look a bit overcrowded, it is time to repot to another bigger container. Remove some of the old soil and transfer your plant to a bigger pot with new potting medium. Sometimes, some of the stray roots can be trimmed off a little bit. The main root ball of the cactus should be left as it is. Watch out for spines when handling the plant. Use gloves and tongs when handling cacti plants.

A healthy collection of cactus and succulent plants.

A healthy collection of cactus and succulent plants.

Propagation Methods

There are three ways to propagate cactus plants - seeds, cuttings and grafting.

1. Seeds

Cactus seeds are available from many specialist suppliers. To germinate cactus seeds, sow the seeds thinly on the surface of the cacti compost and then cover the seeds with a thin layer of grit. Remember to label the containers if you are growing different varieties of cacti. The optimum temperature for seed germination is around 21°C. It is necessary to maintain a fairly humid atmosphere for the seeds to germinate. The best way is to cover the pots with plastic bags or sheets of glass. Once germinated, the seedlings can be exposed to more light and air but they have to be kept moist at all times.

2. Cuttings

Cacti propagate readily by cuttings. This method is easier than the above when propagating cacti plants. Use a sharp knife to cut a piece of the cactus for propagating. It is important to keep the cut surface of the cutting clean. The cutting also needs to be left in the shade for three to four days to allow a dry callous to form over the cut area. Once the callous has formed the cutting can be planted into moist well-drained soil. Rooting powder is not really necessary for propagating cuttings but it may be helpful. It may take several weeks or months before the roots appear. Do not water the newly planted cuttings until they start to form roots.

3. Grafting

Another way of propagating cacti is by grafting. This method is usually used on cacti species that are difficult to propagate or weak growing species. A vigorous rootstock is required for this grafting method. The cutting is placed on top of the rootstock and then secured with rubber bands. This grafted plant is then left in a warm place out of direct sunlight for several weeks. The rootstock helps to provide nutrients to the cutting that is attached on top and keeps it alive.

Echinopsis with a display of flower in spring.

Echinopsis with a display of flower in spring.

Cacti grow well on a sunny window sill and will flower when the temperature and soil conditions are right.

Cacti grow well on a sunny window sill and will flower when the temperature and soil conditions are right.

Basic Cactus Care Tips

Below are some quick and easy tips on how to look after a cactus plant. Follow the guidelines and you will be rewarded with blooming flowers from your cacti collection every year.

  • Use a good-quality cacti/succulent potting mix.
  • Water the plant thoroughly when it is watering time.
  • Do not overwater or allow the plant to stand in water.
  • Have sufficient sunlight for your plant.
  • Place your plant in a well-ventilated area.
  • Let the soil dry up before the next watering.
  • Feed with mild liquid fertiliser during the growing season.
  • Minimal or avoid watering when the plant is dormant in winter.
  • Pot up every 2-3 years depending on growth.
Insects are attracted to cactus flowers and these little critters also help with pollination. Flowers that are pollinated will produce seeds that can be germinated later on.

Insects are attracted to cactus flowers and these little critters also help with pollination. Flowers that are pollinated will produce seeds that can be germinated later on.

Gymnocalycium horstii is a lovely and easy plant to care for.

Gymnocalycium horstii is a lovely and easy plant to care for.

It will take 30-40 years for a barrel cactus to grow to a diameter of one metre. These cacti do not flower until around 10 years old.

It will take 30-40 years for a barrel cactus to grow to a diameter of one metre. These cacti do not flower until around 10 years old.

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: Should the spent cactus flowers be cut or left to dry?

Answer: It is best to leave the spent flowers on the plant for several weeks. Most mature plants produce seeds that can be sown for seedlings.

Question: How do I start a new cactus from the mother?

Answer: Remove the offset from the mother plant and put it in a pot with cactus potting mix.

Question: I have a cactus with more than thirty babies, should I separate them from the mother? If yes, when is the right time for doing it? I potted the plant one year ago can I repot the mother after tool out the babies.

Answer: I usually leave the babies on the mother plant until they are at least 2 cm in diameter. The best time to remove offsets is in summer; bigger offsets are healthier and easier to root. It is best to repot cactus plants every two to three years when they outgrow their containers.

Question: My grandkids gave me a small cactus which I planted in sandy soil that gets morning sun. It's huge now. How to trim it and do I need to pick off the brown remains of last year's flowers in order to get flowers this year?

Answer: An overgrown cactus can be trimmed with a sharp knife. The remains of last year's flowers usually fall off on their own, if not, you can remove them to give the cactus a neater look. Even if you do not remove them, that should not prevent the cactus from flowering again.

Question: What is the best time to pollinate day flowering cactus?

Answer: The best time to pollinate a cactus flower by hand is when the flower stigma is fully open to receive the pollens.

Question: Do I cut the flower off the cactus when it dies?

Answer: Yes, you can remove the flowers if they are wilted.

Question: What methods do you recommend to maintain a large Peruvian old lady cactus healthy indoors?

Answer: It is best to place the cactus next to a sunny window if you are growing it indoors.

Question: Can rebutia grow in a hot tropical climate like Kolkata where temperatures can get up to 40 degrees centigrade and night temps can stay above 27 degrees day after day?

Answer: Yes, rebutia can grow in a tropical climate, but it is best to protect the plant and put it in a shaded area during the day to prevent sunburns that will cause permanent damage to the plant.

Question: Should I remove the baby from the mother plant or leave it as it is on the mother plant?

Answer: You can leave the baby with the mother plant if there is enough space to grow, otherwise you can transfer the baby to another pot.

Question: Can you root a cactus through its flower?

Answer: Cactus flowers wilt rather quickly so it is not possible to root them in a short span of time.

Question: After repotting golden barrel cactus can I put it in the sun right away?

Answer: After repotting, it is best to place the cactus in a shaded area for a few days for the plant to adjust to the new potting mix.

Question: Can you plant a fallen cactus flower?

Answer: Fallen flowers may not grow unless there are seeds that have already formed in the flowers. Check for seeds next time you see a fallen flower!

Question: What is the best remedy if the cactus roots are vanishing? Can they still survive?

Answer: It is best to repot the cactus with new potting mix in a clean pot. Sometimes ants could be a problem when they build nests in the cactus pot and eat the roots.

© 2011 lady rain