Cacti make great starter plants, even for those who lack a green thumb. Many species require only the most basic of maintenance but still look great in the home or garden. Simply pop them in a space with plenty of light and water them every now and again for a little touch of the exotic.
The purple prickly pear (opuntia macrocentra) is a unique clumping cactus native to the Sonoran desert. It is an eye-catching purple in cooler dryer months and a soft blue-grey in the summer. Its flowers appear in late spring and are yellow with red centers. This cactus needs little to no water once fully grown but plenty of sunlight. It should be placed in well-drained soil. Young plants need watering twice a month in the summer and once a month in the winter. This is an extremely easy cactus to care for.
The spiny pincushion cactus (mammillaria spinosissima) is native to the central Mexican states of Guerrero and Morelos. It is often also called the "red-headed Irishman" due to its covering of rust-colored spines. It blooms in early spring, with pink, funnel-shaped flowers. The best conditions for this cactus include bright but indirect light, warm temperatures, rich, well-draining cactus mix, and minimal water. In spring, summer, and early fall, they should be watered only when the soil is almost completely dry. In winter, they need half that amount.
The balloon cactus (parodia magnifica) from South America is broad, heavy-ribbed, spherical, and bluish-green. It grows to around six inches in diameter, and golden bristly spines line the ribs. Brilliant yellow flowers bloom from the top of the cactus in the spring and summer months. These cacti don’t do well in direct sunlight, as they come from a more temperate environment than other species. They also need quite a bit more water than others but shouldn’t be left sitting in it.
The Christmas cactus (schlumbergera bridesii or schlumbergera truncata) gets its name from its holiday blooming season. The segmented branches are glossy green, and the many flowers that appear at the tip can be red, white, yellow, pink, or purple. Native to Brazil, this cactus prefers humid conditions. They do best in sandy soil and should only be watered when completely dry. Most of the year, they like indirect sunlight. Around September or October, they should stay in the dark for 12 hours a day to encourage flowering.
The feather cactus (mammillaria plumosa) hails from Nuevo Leon, Mexico. The plant’s soft, downy spines give it its name. Though it looks cuddly, handle with care, as these plumes conceal sharp spines. These cacti blossom year-round with daisy-like white or pink flowers that give off a sweet scent. This attractive cactus thrives in direct sunlight. With too much shade, it will grow fewer spines and lose its lovely bluish-green color. To prevent rot, give it only a small amount of water when the soil is completely dry.
The Arizona barrel cactus (ferocactus wislizenii), known as the fishhook cactus due to its hook-like spines, grows in the American Southwest and Mexico deserts. It has a large, ribbed, barrel-shaped body. Red, orange, or yellow flowers grow in September or October, followed by pineapple-shaped edible fruits. This cactus is very easy to grow. It is tolerant of most types of soil, as well as both hot and cold temperatures. It needs a little watering during hot, dry weather — maybe once a week. Significantly reduce this amount in the winter months when the plant is dormant.
The light green sea urchin cactus (echinopsis calochlora), native to Bolivia and Brazil, is a small, clump-forming cactus with golden spines. It grows in a bell shape with notched ridges. The cactus produces fragrant white flowers that bloom in the late afternoon or early evening. The sunlight-loving sea urchin thrives in direct light. The afternoon sun is particularly good for their growth. They do best in limestone soil and need moderate watering in the summer, less during the winter.
The Easter cactus (rhipsalidopsis) or spring cactus is also named for its blooming season. It makes a great year-round house plant that mostly cares for itself. Hailing from southeastern Brazil, the Easter cactus has long leaf segments. It flowers in stunning star-shaped blooms of red hues. While these cacti enjoy light, they do best in indirect sunlight, as heat damages their delicate leaves. This cactus grows on rocks and trees in its natural environment, so it needs rough, moist soil.
The bishop’s cap cactus (astrophytum myriostigma) is spineless with a rounded stem covered with tiny, white, hairy scales. The cactus often has five ribs and can grow up to a meter in height. The flowers, which grow from the top of the plant, are yellow, funnel-shaped, and have a sweet, pleasant scent. Found in Texas and Central Mexico, the bishop’s cap is one of the easiest cactus species to grow at home. It requires little in the way of watering and is hardy to cold temperatures. It can do well either in direct or indirect sunlight. This is a tough cactus to kill.
The orange snowball cactus (Rebutia muscula) from Bolivia is a clumping cactus that grows close to the ground. It is ball-shaped and covered in a layer of furry white spines. When in bloom, it has many beautiful bright orange blossoms. The water and light requirements of this plant are typical of cactuses. Watering should be light, and they need well-draining soil fertilized only when the plant is growing. The dense spines give them protection from harsh sunlight and colder temperatures.