Cacti: they’re not just for weird people

I’m debating whether I’ve given up on bringing cacti to plant sales. They never sell well and people always give me funny looks. “Ooh cacti, well we don’t live in a desert.” “I don’t want something prickly like that in my garden” (says the shopper carrying a barberry). I find it curious that, broadly speaking, Northwest gardeners may be interested in a wide variety of plants; but they are decidedly NOT into cacti, even those that are perfectly hardy, and easy to grow. In general cacti are viewed as novelty items. Something to just have one of in a pot, if that. Something that only weird people collect or use in gardens. Because this isn’t Tucson. Or so they say.

I also hear quite a bit of, “I don’t want a xeriscape, because I don’t want my yard to be full of prickly cacti and succulents!” or “I don’t want my yard to look like the desert!” This one really bothers me. First of all, a xeriscape need not be composed of cacti and succulents, since there are many drought tolerant plants that are not cacti or succulents, and if you really don’t like them, you don’t have to use them at all – there are plenty of other choices. Second, and more importantly: why would anyone not want a garden full of cacti and succulents? This is truly beyond my comprehension. Of course they’re prickly; just don’t plant them in the wrong place, and don’t tell me you’ve never planted anything prickly. A xeriscape also does not have to look like a desert: done right, it can look quite lush. But anyway, what’s wrong with deserts? Deserts are an important part of the world ecosystem. Wouldn’t things be a lot less interesting if there were no deserts?

The fact is cacti are great plants. They are suitable for dry, harsh sites with difficult soils where little else will grow. They seldom need water. They make beautiful flowers, and the deer don’t eat them. If you think cacti are unsuited to the Northwest’s “rainy” climate, well, there are cacti, and there are cacti; but on the whole, this is untrue. It’s true that many cacti will only grow in the desert, or in tropical climates. But I can list off the top of my head more than 50 cactus species that (provided adequate drainage) will RELIABLY perform in the Northwest, including colder gardens.

But it is not just about their performance – cacti truly belong here, as an important part of our flora. You can drive to all kinds of places in North America and encounter cacti. While they’re most prominent in the Southwest, native cacti also occur in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and British Columbia, and everywhere in between! (Tell me again why they won’t grow in the Northwest?) Everywhere you look cacti associate with our native plants. Yet when it comes to planting our gardens, we neglect this association, preferring to leave the cacti out of it. Cacti are a part our native flora. A part of living in the West. A part of dryland gardening. There’s no justification for thinking of them as weird or inappropriate. There’s no reason to marginalize them as “odd” or “novelty items”. We should readily incorporate them into our gardens where appropriate, just like anything else.

I admit it’s possible to see how this has happened. The Cactaceae family has a very unique set of morphological features and adaptations resulting in a distinctive appearance differentiating them markedly from most other plants. Their frequent association with deserts is a natural result of their ability to adapt to dry and hot conditions. So while the Northwest can grow many cacti well, it’s true that Tucson can grow all of them, and many more, just as well or better. Maybe I need to be patient because the education curve is steeper on this subject than usual.

I should mention that we are on track to restore and increase our offerings of hardy cacti in the future, particularly Opuntia species and forms. We have an extensive collection of them but they have been neglected for a long time and we have not been able to make many of them available for sale yet. Look for an ever increasing selection of hardy cacti from us as time goes on!

If you’re just getting interested in cacti, here is a list of ten species I can recommend to start with. Remember not to plant them in a swamp.

Opuntia fragilis – native to much of the US and southern Canada, including western Washington
Opuntia polyacantha – many variable forms, native throughout the western US as far north as Northwest Territories
Opuntia compressa – native to the eastern US
Opuntia basilaris – beautiful flowers and “beaver tail” pads
Opuntia phaecantha – native to Four Corners area, big pads and flowers
Echinocereus coccineus
Echinocereus fendleri
Echinocereus triglochidiatus – forms an impressive mound of columns, lots of flowers, pretty much indestructible.
Escobaria vivipara – grows throughout the intermountain west, as far north as Alberta
Gymnocalycium bruchii – very tiny, native to South America, hardy to zone 6 (5 if dry)

Opuntia polyacantha, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Tacoma

Opuntia phaecantha (or something similar) in open pine forest, Gila National Forest, New Mexico. This area receives heavy snow every winter.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Loree / danger garden
    May 06, 2011 @ 17:53:38

    Okay so you tossed us a bone with the 10…how about sharing the other 40 that are on the top of your head? (because evidently I am one of those weird people!)


  2. David C.
    May 07, 2011 @ 11:56:03

    Cacti often not wanted in Abq and even in other parts of the SW, too. Other excuses – they attract rats, they get too large. I like your list, as there are many smaller plants that counter many of the objections. Some of the smaller ones are perfect in tight plantings, pots, small areas, and the like. And I especially appreciate how you describe the importance of cacti in the dry interior west…hopefully with all our outreach, we can reeducate the public to want some of the toughest plants to drought there are…and to embrace their symbols.

    Your comment on many folks declining cacti for the spines, while holding a barberry, is so true. Here, add roses, hawthorns or hot / sharp gravel front yards. Cacti and other succulents are often all that willl grow in such flat moonscapes.


  3. Ian
    May 07, 2011 @ 12:50:21

    Loree, here’s a few more…. Opuntia nicholii, erinacea, columbiana, x ‘Smithwick’, ‘Nameo Rose’, rutilla, pulchella, fragilis var. denudata, macrocentra, engelmannii (northerly collections), mackensenii, macrorhiza, imbricata, kleiniae, gilvescens, clavata, viridiflora, leptocaulis (northerly collections), Echinocactus texensis, Escobaria missouriensis, organensis, Echinocereus viridiflorus, engelmannii (some forms), dasyacanthus (some forms), Maihueniopsis darwinii, M. glomerata, M. ferocior, Maihuenia poepigii… I’m not counting but I hope that helps. If you wanted to get a little more adventurous there are some larger South American cacti that might be less reliable but certainly worth a shot… Soehrensia bruchii, formosa, koerethroides, Trichocereus pasacana, Denmoza rhodacantha, and others. There are also many other hardy Gymnocalyciums.

    David, what I noticed in the Southwest is that a lot of people don’t mind cacti, except for Opuntias, which are scowled at. I think Opuntias are great. Generally speaking it’s some of the larger ones that can’t be trusted to survive winters here. For example O. engelmannii linguiformis has its limits as I’m sure you have seen.

    Here in Sequim, the driest place in western Washington, many people have a yard full of gravel – perfect for cacti. It’s just a matter of getting people interested in them!


  4. Bryon
    May 11, 2011 @ 16:52:23

    Ian, nice article! You are right on! Noticed the zoo photo, sweet! I designed and installed that landscape. I have been adding many other treasures to it each season. Visitors routinely comment on how stunning the bed looks. Based on visitors questions and comments, I believe many more folks may be interested in cacti, but just don’t know where to find them and how to grow them. I find some folks who never really were interested in plants stop and take an interest in the plants specifically in that bed. In general, I notice many people only take a strong interest in particular plants when they can see them being utilized in a landscape, versus in a pot…..nothing cooler than seeing a 5 ft tall by 8ft wide Opuntia set into a themed landscape. In fact, I and others have had problems with people helping themselves to pads off plants in urban settings….the not so cool part of having cool plants!


  5. Ian
    May 12, 2011 @ 00:12:19

    Bryon, glad you enjoyed the post. If people are interested in cacti, hopefully you’ll be able to send them my way once I have enough stock built up.

    The zoo pic is from July 2009 – that bed was already looking impressive at the time. Next time I have a chance to come down, I’ll be sure to take note of any new plantings.


  6. kate
    May 19, 2011 @ 00:38:18

    When I was in Denver in March, I lucked upon a fantastic Cactus and Succulent Society plant sale at the Bottie Gardens. Among other things, I got four beautiful hardy cacti native to the US… am getting them used to the outdoors so I can plant them out soon. Until I saw the DBG plantings, I just had *no* idea of how many species can tolerate those cold, dry winter conditions. It’s a bit more challenging here (!) in Portland but with the right drainage, I’m confident I can get these babies going…


  7. Ian
    May 19, 2011 @ 11:22:08

    Kate, why just four? Ha. I’m glad you’re giving them a try. I expect you will find them to be much easier than you would anticipate. If you’re ever sharing pictures of them let me know. Just remember to keep the weeds out of them! BTW, DBG is on my must-visit-soon list: I’ve never been.


  8. Trex
    May 19, 2011 @ 16:52:48

    That’s a shame! I would never have guessed – it’s tough for me to imagine NOT wanting something cool like a cactus (what’s wrong with succulents, too???). After all, most of cis-Cascadian Washington State is a xeric climate, fer krissakes.


  9. josephshaw
    Dec 12, 2018 @ 09:01:57

    It is their loss. How can they be gardeners if they write off a whole group of plants. And what about shape and architecture in a garden–cacti can do much to provide focal points.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post.

    Joe Shaw


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