What kind of cactus live in the desert?

Cactus plants are desert plants, meaning they grow in arid conditions. Some types of cactus also grow in Mexico, Southwestern United States and the Caribbean. There is an interesting variety of different cacti that thrive in drier areas

Cactus is one of the most noticeable plants in the world. While most cactus plants are adapted to grow in dry areas, not all are found in the desert. Notably, there are two primary classifications of cacti; desert and forest cactus. Desert cacti come in various types, ranging from the smallest, three-inch fish-hook cactus to the towering Saguaro cactus that grows up to 40 feet.

So, what kind of cactus live in the desert? There are literary thousands of cactus plants adapted for the desert. However, the most common types of cactus that live in the desert include the following:

  1. Saguaro
  2. Cardon
  3. Barrel Cactus
  4. Organ pipe cactus
  5. Prickly pear cactus
  6. Hedgehog Cactus
  7. Cholla Cactus
  8. Fishhook Cactus
  9. Pencil Cactus

This article will look into these and more of the desert cactus in terms of their features and adaptations. We take a look at their growth cycles, regions found, and their suitability as a homegrown or indoor plant.

1.     Saguaro

Saguaro cactus is one of the most recognizable cacti, thanks to its tree-like stature and growth. It can grow up to 40 feet tall with a lifespan of over 150 years. The cactus is native to Arizona’s Sonora Desert. Thanks to its long lifespan, Saguaro may grow its first sidearm at around 80 years of age, while some never do.

Saguaro is grown mainly from seed and rarely does so by cuttings, but when they do, its shape takes a totally different appearance. The cactus has an extended root network that may go up to 100 feet. Its long tap roots run up to 3 feet deep. The spines are notably sharp and may grow up to 1mm per day.

A Saguaro cactus exposed to sunlight.
Saguaro can grow up to 40 feet in height with spines that lengthen by 1mm per day.

This gentle Mexican giant produces white waxy flowers that appear from April through June.  The flowers bloom well after sunset and would close in the afternoons.

Saguaro cactus can be grown indoors as long as they are placed in a brightly lit room with a possibility of being moved outside regularly.

2.     Cardon

Cardon, also known as the elephant cactus, is one of the biggest cacti found in the desert. It is native to northwest Mexico and found in states like Sonora and Baja California Sur. It grows up to 70 ft tall and can weigh up to twenty-five tons.

Fruits from Cardon cactus were a vital food element for Sanora’s Seri people. The cactus has a special relationship with fungal and bacterial colonies on its roots. This allows it to grow even on bare rock with no soil support whatsoever. This is all thanks to the bacteria that helps fix nitrogen from the air, thus breaking down the rock for nutrients.

Cardon resembles Saguaro in shape and growth, but it is more heavily branched with its branches appearing just at the base of the step. This cactus produces large, nocturnal, white flowers that occur along the plant’s ribs rather than only at the stems’ apices.

The Cardon cactus can be grown indoors but needs enough sun and heat as it is adapted for the deserts.

3.     Barrel Cactus

Barrel cactus is one of the most resistant desert cacti and is native to the South and North American deserts. The largest specimens of the cactus are found in southern California’s Mojave Desert. At maturity, some species of the cactus can reach over 3 feet tall.

The cactus stands out with its numerous, pronounces ribs. It also features long spines that may range in color from red to yellow to tan, depending on the plant’s species and age. After several years of growth, flowers will be seen at the top of the plant. Its flowers are mostly orange or bright yellow, but there are varieties with red and pink colors. It has a lifespan of about 100 years.

A barrel  cactus.
Barrel cactus can live anywhere between 50 to 100 years and can grow up to 10 feet tall.

Barrel cactus produces a small pineapple-shaped fruit after flowering. This fruit can stay on the plant for a full year if left untouched. However, the fruit is not edible as it is mostly bitter and fairly dry.

4.     Organ Pipe Cactus

The organ pipe cactus derives its name from its resemblance to a pipe organ. Locally referred to as ‘pitaya dulce,’ organ pipe cactus is native to the United States and Mexico.  It is mostly found in the regions’ rocky deserts.

 The organ pipe cactus has its stems growing from a single short truck. It develops several stems about 6 inches thick. Depending on the region, the plant can grow to a maximum height of 16 o 26 feet. A fully mature plant of the cactus can extend to a width of about 12 feet, with each step featuring 12 to 19 inch, dark brown or black ribs.

The plant produces funnel-shaped white flowers that bloom at night and close at dawn. This makes bats its primary pollinators. It also produces an edible fruit the size and shape of a tennis ball.

The organ pipe cactus can be grown indoors but needs exposure to full sun and irrigation at least once a day during the hot, dry weather.

5.     Prickly Pear

The prickly pear, also known as opuntia or nopal, is one of the flat-stemmed spiny cacti native to the Western Hemisphere. Most of its species are homegrown and are an essential source of food for most inhabitants of tropical and subtropical countries. Its common culinary species, the Indian fig opuntia, may grow 16 to 23 feet tall with a trunk diameter of about 3 feet.

A fruit bearing prickly pear cactus
Prickly Pear is a fruit-bearing cactus that grows up to 23 feet tall.

The plant produces large, solitary, axillary, and bisexual flowers that later lead to a berry-like yellow, white or reddish-purple fruit with arillate seeds. This desert plant can be grown at home with warmer climates preferred. Prickly pear is widely known for its edible fruits and use as a forage crop. Its hard seeds come in handy in the production of oil.

Cutting and propagation of the prickly pear are possible through its stems. While its fruits have mostly been a source of food for the natives, research also shows some cactus varieties have medicinal values. This is all thanks to their pectin and fiber, which may help lower blood pressure by decreasing sugar absorption in the intestines and stomach.

6.     Hedgehog Cactus

Hedgehog cactus is a low-growing desert cactus found mainly in the southwestern United  States. Otherwise referred to as Engelmann’s hedgehog cactus after George Englemann, a renowned botanist and physician, this cacti variety earned its name thanks to its resemblance to hedgehogs.

Hedgehog cactus grows lowly and produces several clumps ranging from about 40 to 50, 12-inch green stems in each clump. Depending on the number of clumps, the plant can grow 2 to 3 feet wide. The cylindrical stems feature between eleven and fourteen ribs with solidly covered spines.

A flowering hedgehog cactus.
Hedgehog Cactus comprises 40-50 stems that grow about 12-inch tall and produces colorful flowers and fruits.

This desert succulent produces colorful flowers that eventually lead to some edible, spherical fruits. At its initial stages, the fruits are fully covered with spines, but these fall off with time as the fruit ripens.

Propagation of hedgehog cactus can be done through offset cuttings or seeds. For better results growing this cacti variety at home, it is recommended to sow in summer or spring.

7.     Cholla Cactus

The cholla cactus is a shrubby desert succulent native to North America.  It grows in joints of various lengths. The joints feature some formidable-looking spines and brightly colored. These spines generally act as reduced leaves and feature an external papery sheath.

The cholla cactus can stick or hold on to anything it gets in contact with, thanks to its tiny curved hooks on the spines. The cholla cactus comes in various types that include:

Slender Stemmed Chollas – Otherwise known as diamond cholla, this cholla variety feature slender, blue-green stems the produce long, white spines.  These are native to the Sonora and Mojave Desert.

Tree-like Chollas – Otherwise known as chain fruit cholla, this variety features a strong central stout trunk when fully mature. It also has its flowers blooming from its older fruits. The plant can be propagated from loose joints or fruits.

A cholla cactus flowering.
These spines generally act as reduced leaves and feature an external papery sheath.

Shrubby Chollas – Otherwise known as Staghorn cholla, this cholla variety stands out with its branching habits that mimic deer horns. During winter, its stems turn purplish while its flowers range from yellow to greenish to red.

Despite being a desert succulent, the cholla cactus can be grown in home gardens and as barrier plants.

8.     Fishhook Cactus

Fish-hook cactus is a general name that applies to any hook-spined species of the Echinomstus, general Mammillaria, and Scierocactus. It is one of the smallest of the desert cacti, growing to about 7 inches high.

This cactus got its name from its spines that resemble fishing hooks. In fact, some species of this desert cacti feature notably strong spines that could be used as actual fishing hooks by the natives throughout the Americas.

Each of its cluster spines features 3 or 4 black, hooked central spines and a couple of white radial ones.  The fish-hook cactus produces brightly colored, pink, or white flowers measuring about 1.4 inches. This eventually leads to a fleshy, shiny, red fruit with black seeds.

9.     Pencil Cactus

The pencil cactus may not be a real cactus per se but rather falls in the Euphorbia family. It got its name from its tiny stems that resemble a pencil in size and shape. When injured, the plant produces some cloudy, milky sap, thus earning the nickname ‘milk bush’. This desert succulent is native to India and Africa.

A top view of a pencil cactus,
Pencil Cactus is a low-maintenance plant that comprises thin pencil-like stems.

The pencil cactus can grow to about 30 feet tall. It is a leafless plant, but some tiny leaves would usually appear at the tip of new branches. These eventually fall off as the branch matures. As such, it uses its pencil-sized branches for photosynthesis.

This desert plant can be grown in home gardens with minimum watering and gritty soil.

How are cactus plants adapted to their environment?

Apart from their unique appearance, cacti also have another outstanding feature that sets them apart from most conventional plants. Its ability to adapt thrive in the harshest of environments is remarkable. The cactus is adapted to dry areas thanks to a number of features and characteristics. Here are some of these features:

Shallow root systems

Water is hard to come by in the deserts.  Faced with this reality, cacti adapt through its extensive shallow root system. The roots spread over a larger area but just below the surface to tap on the little rainwater that comes by once in a while. Larger varieties of cacti, like the giant Saguaro, would, however, have one deep taproot to help anchor the frame above by keeping a strong base.

During the rainy season, most cacti develop temporary root hairs to help harness the little water and prevent loss of the same.


Apart from a few species, Cacti are generally leafless. This is an adaptive strategy that helps minimize water loss during photosynthesis. Desert cacti have transferred photosynthesis from the leaves to its stem to help reduce moisture loss that would naturally happen through the stomata. It complements this by adopting CAM photosynthesis, a process where the plant’s stomata only open when temperatures are cooler, preferably at night.


Cactus stems are specially designed to store a large amount of water, thanks to its succulence. A cactus’ cortical layer is specially adapted to act as a water reservoir through its thin but flexible water-holding cells. This water would then be released in bits when it matters most, preferably during the dry seasons.

Temperature resistance

For plants growing in desert environments, one of their worst enemies is the sun. The scorching heat from the sun can be unforgiving for any living organism, and this is no different for cactus. However, cacti have adapted to this thanks to the accordion effect.

The accordion effect is a process whereby cactus ribs and tubercles expand without bursting and would later retract as the water is used up. This helps minimize the surface area facing direct sunlight.

A cactus exposed to sunlight.
Excess direct sunlight can damage the plants, but cacti are more resistant to head due to the accordion effect.

Slow Metabolism

Leaves help catalyze photosynthesis and subsequently plant growth. For desert cacti, however, less green tissue means a slower metabolism. This makes them slow growers. On the flip side, this is a positive adaptation for desert environments. It helps them conserve energy that would otherwise be used in developing additional foliage. Instead, cacti focus on maintaining existing structures that keep them alive.

The slow metabolism also helps cacti attain longer lifespans. Some cacti species have been documented to live for up to 200 years. The longer they live, the better their chances of reproduction.

Protective Spines

The majority of desert cacti feature spines that come in various shapes and colors.  These are not meant for beauty but a protective feature that helps the plant ward off predators.

Considering cacti would thrive and remain green even during drought, some animals would be tempted to tap into their succulent stems. The spines help deter these efforts, thus increasing their chances of survival.

Can Desert Cactus be grown at home?

While cacti are suitably adapted for the deserts, most of them can easily thrive in home environments as long as favorable conditions are met. This said, you can easily grow desert cacti, either in your garden, on the patio, or indoors.

However, harvesting desert cacti in its natural habitat is illegal in most states, and it is essential to get the requisite licenses and approvals before embarking on the same.

How to care for desert cacti at home

Despite their adaptation to the desert environments, cacti need some good care to thrive better.  For instance, frequent watering helps cactus flower much easily and with brighter blooms.  However, take caution not to overdo processes like watering; once or twice a month will do.

Good compost also matters for desert cacti. Ensure you have a well-drained compost to avoid too much dampness. The compost would also look much better with a top layer of pebbles or gravel for a naturally polished look. This will also add to the stability of the plant as it grows taller.

Pot size also matters when growing cacti indoors; they thrive and flower better when grown in small pots.  Being an outdoor plant, cactus needs adequate sunlight too.  When grown indoors, always ensure they are positioned in a brightly lit area. In addition, good loamy soil with neutral soil pH will work best.

A top view of different kinds of succulent and cactus plants oon a pot.
To grow healthy cacti at home, you should select well-drained soil and appropriate pot size for a specific plant.

Desert cactus has a fragile and intricate web of life. They come in the weirdest shapes and sizes, but all these are meant to help cushion the succulent from the desert’s unforgiving conditions. There are literally thousands of desert cacti species. While some are extinct, others are on the verge of getting wiped out, thanks to illegal human activities and natural disasters. 

As much as most of these desert cacti can be grown at home, others are not recommendable due to their toxicity, size and government restrictions. Before getting a desert cactus for our home garden, ensure you liaise with the relevant local administration for proper approval and licensing. Your choice for a desert cactus type will highly depend on its availability within your area, its purpose at home, and your personal preference.

Last update on 2024-02-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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