Different Types of Flowering Cactus
There are approximately 2,000 species of cacti (Cactaceae spp.), many of which produce beautiful, delicate blooms in a range of colors. The majority of cacti species are native to the Americas.
While most cactus types are associated with the desert, not all flowering cacti species grow in arid climates; in fact, some of the most popular cacti are native to the rainforest.
Prickly Pear Cactus
There are about 100 species of prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp.), which have paddle-like stem segments that grow one on top of the other. Both the fruit and the pads of this species are edible.
The color of prickly pear cactus flowers varies by species and cultivar. For example, the species golden prickly pear (Opuntia aurea, zones 5 to 9) gets its name from its yellow flowers. However, the Coombe's Winter Glow cultivar of this species has magenta-colored flowers.
If you are looking for a spineless cactus to grow indoors, consider one of the star cacti (Astrophytum spp.), such as bishop's hat (Astrophytum myriostigma, zone 7), which produces creamy white or pale yellow blooms that are funnel-shaped and fragrant. Growing this species requires patience, since it can take six years for a star cactus plant to bloom.
There are around 200 species and cultivars of pincushion cacti (Mammillaria spp.), which are popular as houseplants thanks to their small size. Most are densely covered in spines that are often white in color.
Many pincushion cacti produce flowers in shades of pink and purple. The rose pincushion cactus (Mammillaria zeilmanniana, zones 9 to 11), for example, usually has a height under 6 inches and produces reddish-purple blooms.
Holiday Flowering Cacti
Certain epiphytic species of cactus—epiphytic means they grow attached to trees instead of soil on the ground—are known as holiday cacti. These species are native to the rainforests of Brazil and can be kept as houseplants outside of their hardiness range.
Unlike arid types of cacti, these tropical cacti do not have thorns, and their flattened stems have a leaflike appearance. They require much more humidity than desert cacti species.
The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera × buckleyi, zones 10 to 12) gets its name because it blooms around Christmas. The flowers are produced at the end of stems and droop downward. The species often marketed as "Christmas cactus," however, is the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata, zones 10 to 12), also known as crab cactus, which has erect flowers.
Thanksgiving cactus cultivars with red, purple, orange and white flowers are available. The blooms will last for seven to eight weeks if you keep these plants at a temperature of 68° F, says the Clemson Cooperative Extension.
The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, zones 10 to 12) has a similar appearance to true Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, though it is in a different genus. As its name suggests, it blooms in the springtime.
The Easter cactus has broad, funnel-shaped red flowers that grow from both the terminal ends of stems and from joints between stems. It is usually dormant from December to March.
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Schlumbergera x buckleyi
- North Carolina State Extension: Schlumbergera truncata
- North Carolina State Extension: Schlumbergera gaertneri
- North Carolina State Extension: Opuntia
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Opuntia aurea 'Coombe's Winter Glow'
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Indoor Cacti
- North Carolina State Extension: Mammillaria
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Thanksgiving & Christmas Cacti
Since beginning her career as a professional journalist in 2007, Nathalie Alonso has covered a myriad of topics, including arts, culture and travel, for newspapers and magazines in New York City. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Columbia University and lives in Queens with her two cats.