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Cactus Flowers: The OTHER reason to grow cacti

By Geoff Stein (palmbobFebruary 12, 2009
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Cactus are great plants, for both pot and landscape cultivation. Sometimes we forget (at least I do) that they also can be great flowering plants. The following article is mostly a pictorial of some of the more impressive cactus flowers.

Gardening picture 

My primary interest in plants has rarely been in the flowers they make, which is one of the reasons I collect and grow ‘weird' plants (succulents and palms etc.)  For most of the plants I grow, the flowers are fairly uninteresting or are non-existent.  One of the groups of plants I find interesting, primarily because of their vegetative appearance, are the cacti.  Many are beautiful, most are striking and some are just plant ugly or uninteresting.  But whether they are one or the other, they at least also have something else going for them that sometimes is not on my radar when it comes to choosing and growing plants: they all flower.  And some have spectacular flowers.  The following article is a quick overview of some of the genera of cacti grown commonly in cultivation and their flowers.  Most of the best photos in this section were not taken by me, so check the credits as you peruse.

In this article I will not try to cover all the cacti genera, as that would be a monumental undertaking for a short article.  So I will limit this overview to the most common or spectacular species, or ones of which I personally am the most familiar.

Ariocarpus are peculiar cacti collected primarily for their rarity and interesting non-cacti-like looks.  But these can have attractive flowers as well.

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               Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus                                Ariocarups retuses                                                         Ariocarpus fissuratus

Astrophytums are a popular species not for their flowers but for their attractive bodies and ease of cultivation.  But some have pleasant--though hardly spectacular--flowers as well.

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        Astrophytum ornatum                      Astrophytum asterias 'Super Kabuto'              Astrophytum myriostigma 'Nudum'

Image Image Astrophytums capricorne (photo by apachetrail) and A. myriostigma

Cereus is a large group of cacti, some quite popular in landscaping, but rarely, if ever, grown specifically for their flowers.  This is primarily due to most of these blooming at night and also not being terribly colorful.  But some have impressive flowers just the same.

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              Cereus aethiops                                                        Cereus hildmannianus                                                        Cereus sp.

Image Image Cereus forbesii and hankeanus

Cleistocacti are also rarely grown for their flowers as the flowers tend to pop up irregularly and almost make the plant look less elegant.  But some have quite striking though small and simple looking flowers.

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          Cleistocactus strausii                   my favorite, Cleistocactus ferrarei                 Cleistocactus samaipatanus

Image Image Cleistocacti micropetalus and C. winteri

 Borzicacti

These Cleistocactus (aka Borzicactus sp.) flower much of the year at the Huntington Botanical Gardens

Copiapoas are commonly grown cacti, many being collector's items due to their slow growth and/or rarity, but are certainly not known for their flowers.

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                         Copiapoa dura                                          Copiapoa tenuissima                                                        Copiapoa hasseltonia

Coryphanthas are smaller globoid species and some have attractive flowers. 

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Coryphantha elephantidens                                           Coryphantha garessii (photo by CactusJordi)                            Coryphantha ramillosa (photo by CactusJordi)

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   Coryphantha longicornis (photo by CactusJordi)                  Coryphantha elephantidens for sale              Coryphantha robustipina (photo by oldmudhous)

I have one species of Disocactus, or rat-tail cactus, and it is a spectacular flowerer.  The other species are supposed to be excellent flowering cacti as well, but I have rarely seen them.

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        Disocactus flagelliformis (close up and plants in greenhouse)             Disocactus phyllanthoides (photo by boojum)

Echinocacti tend to be large barrel species frequenting the landscaping projects of large public areas and are not usually associated with their flowers.  However, they do have nice flowers that would be more impressive on less massive plants.

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Echinocactus grusonii (Golden Barrel)- huge cactus... small flower);        Echinocactus horizonthalonus

Echinocereus are a genus more likely grown for their brilliant flowers rather than their usually less-than-ornamental structures.  Some of these are among the most prolific flowerers in my yard of cacti.

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Echinocereus primolanatus (photo by CactusJordi);       Echinocereus coccineus (photo oldmudhouse);            Echinocereus texensis (photo Xenomorf)

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         Echinocereus dasyacanthus                                  Echinocereus scheeri subsp. gentryi                                Echinocereus nivosa

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Echinocereus pulchellus var amoenus (photo CactusJordi);           Echinocereus triadigloditus;                      Echinocereus subinermis

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                    Echinocereus merkeri;              Echinocereus ferreirianus subsp. lindsayi (photo CactusJordi);                  Echinocereus rigidissiumus

Echinopsis are the ultimate flowering cacti, with a large number of hybrids rarely grown for any other reason than their spectacular and enormous flowers (the hybrid plants themselves all look about the same).  Sadly these flowers tend to be extremely ephemeral even for cactus flowers and some plants bloom 1 or 2 days out the entire year.  Many other genera have been lumped into this genus (most notably Lobivia).

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    Echinopsis 'Flying Saucer '        Echinopsis 'California Gold' (photo cacti_lover)             Echinopsis 'Enchantment'

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Echinopsis rigidissiumus (photo kakiana)                             Echinopsis 'Anastasia'              Echinopsis 'Los Angeles' (photo thistlesifter)

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   Echinopsis 'Barber Pole' (photo franj)                 Echinopsis 'Epic' (photo cacti_lover)               Echinopsis 'Green Gold' (photo cacti_lover)

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    Echinpsis pachinoi (photo RWhiz)         Echinopsis hybrid (unknown in my garden)                     Echinopsis 'First Light'

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Echinopsis 'Fond Adieu' (photo cacti_lover)                    Echinopsis acistrophora subsp. arachnacantha                Echinopsis backbergii

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                               Echinopsis 'Glorius'                                                                       two unknown Echinopsis hybrids in my yard

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                     Echinopsis spachiana                                  Echinopsis 'Fire Chief'                      Echinopsis 'Summer Sunrise'

Epiphyllums are popular cacti though the non-hybrid species all have yellow or white flowers, which are nice, but not all that spectacular.  But the hybrids, often referred to as Epicacti, are amazing and there are literally hundreds of varieties and colors available in cultivation. The flowers of these cacti are really only rivaled in the cactus world perhaps by the Echinopsis hybrids.  The plants themselves are virtually identical and though not ugly are little to look upon the remainder of the year; most bloom around Mother's Day.

 

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Some of the non-hybrids: Epiphyllum crenatum (photo Clare_CA);      Epiphyllum oxypetalum (photo Happenstance);        Epiphyllum hookeri (photo dave)

Image Epiphyllum grandilobum is one of the few colorful non-hybrid forms (photo johnfalconer)

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                  Epiphyllum 'Block Party'                                      Epiphyllum 'French Gold'                                             Epiphyllum 'Mondore Bell'

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           Epiphyllum 'Petal Pusher' (photo EricInSF)                               Epiphyllum 'Sonoma Sunshine'                   Epiphllum 'Sunset Boulevard' (photo Kelli)

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                               Two photos of Epiphyllm 'Teki' (second photo Calif_Sue)                                                            Epiphyllum 'Foxy Lady' (my only successful bloom)

Eriosyce is another large group of South American cacti that many other genera have been lumped into, and though not always impressive, some of their flowers are also attractive.

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Eriosyce napina var. duripulpa (photo CactusJordi);                       shots of my Eriosyce crispa

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                Eriosyce occulta                               Eriosyce senilis                            Eriosyce unknown species in my yard

Ferocactus are globoid to columnar landscape species known for their symmetry and ornamental spines, but many also have very attractive flowers as well.

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       Ferocactus glauscecens var. Nudum                                Ferocactus pillosus                                                  Ferocactus latispinus

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                         Ferocactus peninsulae                                     Ferocactus herrerae                                                        Ferocactus glauscecens

Gymnocalycium is a very large genus of plants, many exceptionally ornamental even when not in flower thanks to their varied spines structure and suckering, globoid structures.  Most have excellent flowers as well, and some bloom repeatedly nearly the entire warm part of the year. 

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       Gymnocalycium horstii                              Gymnocalycium rotundulum                            Gymnocalycium sp. in my yard

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       Gymnocalycium pflanzii                     Gymnocalycium unknown species in my garden                  Gymnocalyicum bruchei

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                              Gymnocalycium paediophylum                                      Gymnocalycium chiquitanum              Gymnocalycium freidrichii

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           Gymnocalycium denudatum                              Gymnocalycium griseopalidums                        Gymnocalycium multiflora

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                           Gymnocalycium saglionis (first two photos)                                                           Gymnocalycium spegazinii

Leuchtenbergia is a plant I particularly like; it looks like an Agave relative rather than a cactus, but it has the additional ornamental feature of repeatedly blooming nicely all throughout the year.

 Image Image Leuchtenbergia principes

Mammillarias have been covered in a previous article, but revisiting some of these little gems is worth it as they all have brilliant, though mostly tiny flowers.

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 Mammillaria saboae subsp. goldii (photo CactusJordi)                     Mammillaria albicoma                                 Mammillaria unknown in my garden

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                                         Mammillaria geminispinas (first two photos)                                                                  Mammillaria longimamma

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             Mammillaria bocasana                                          Mammillaria matudae                           Mammillaria karwinskii

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                Mammillaria hahniana  'Superba'            Mammillaria crinita subsp. duwei               Mammillaria lauii subsp. subducta

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           Mammillaria bombycina                                              Mammillaria mystax                                                   Mammillaria plumosa

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Mammillaria grahamii (one of the largest flowers of the Mammillarias)          Mammillaria picta                    unknown Mammillaria in my yard

I have several Matucanas in the yard none which fail to produce several impressive flowers each year.

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                                       Matucana madisonorums                                                               Matucana aureiflora

Melocacti are popular potted plants (usually a bit tender for most climates to be landscape plants) and are prized for their fascinating cephalums and not for their flowers.  But these can have nice flowers, too... they just tend to be pretty small relative to the overall plant.

 Image Melocactus coccinea with pink flower

Opuntia is a massive genus often used primarily as a landscape plant and rarely thought of as a flowering ornamental, but many have very nice looking flowers.

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                     Opunita aequatorialis                                                Opuntia basilaris                        Opuntia littoralis subsp. austrocalifornica

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    Opuntia ficus-indica                              Opuntia verschaffeltii                               Opuntia violescens var. macrocentra

Pachycereus is one of the most impressive groups of cacti in terms of plant size and shape, but not one of the most impressive flowerers.

 Image Pachycereus marginata dinky flower

Parodia is a very large and complex genus of cacti in which many other genera have been recently lumped into (e.g., Notocactus and many Echinocactus now belong in this genus).  Many are spectacular flowerers.

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                     Parodia mammulosa                                                Parodia werneri                                                Parodia saint-pieana

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           Parodia rudibuenekeri                                    Parodia horstii                                                      Parodia roseolata

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                       Parodia magnifica                                  Parodia of mine (probably werneri)                       Parodia lenninghausii

Pereskia is a peculiar genus of cactus comprised of very non-cactus looking spiny but notably leafy plants.  Their flowers are all beautiful and many bloom all summer long.

 Image Image Pereskia grandiflora flowers

Pilosocereus is one of my favorite genera since so many are an incredible brilliant blue color (though many are not).  Their flowers are interesting but not really too spectacular and tend to do their thing primarily at night.

 Image Image Pilosocereus pachycladus in my yard

Rebutias are relatively dinky plants often with extremely ornamental spination and forming attractive clumps.  But most also have amazing flowers as well.  The Sulcorebutias have been lumped into this genus.

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            Rebutia hoffmanii                                                             Rebutia minscula                                                 Rebutia sp. (was Sulcurebutia)

Rhipsalis are epiphytes, for the most part and do not look too much like cacti, but are ornamental in their own way.  Flowering is usually considered one of those ways, however.

 Image Ripsalis grandiflora (dinky flowers only 1/2" across considering the name)

Schlumbergeras and their relatives are a group of cacti (very un-cactus like) that are truly grown primarily for their amazing flowers which tend to be produced in large numbers around various holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

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                                          Schlumbergeras in my yard.  Last photo is actually of a related genus, Hatiora.

Stenocacti are another of my favorite smaller species as many have fascinating wavy lines down their sides.  Their flowers, though not spectacular, are quite colorful and attractive.

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                                          Stenocactus species (unfortunately I do not know the names of any of these plants)

Tephrocacti are Opuntia relatives that have fascinating shapes and spines, but their flowers all tend to look the same--nice but not amazing.

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  Tephrocactus articulata supsp. diadematus                                     Tephrocactus sp.                                         Tephrocactus pumbala

Thelocacti are smaller cacti that rarely are grown for their ornamental looks (there are a few exceptions of course), though their flowers are brilliant and striking.

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             Thelocactus hastifer (photo CactusJordi)                     Thelocactus setispinus                               Thelocactus conothelos

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Thelocactus leucacantha subsp. schmollii                  Thelocactus macdowelii                               Thelocactus hexaedrophorus

Turbinocarpus is another large group of small plants that I frankly no nothing about; some are strikingly flowered, however.

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Turbinicarpus bequinii supsp. hintoniorum and Turbinacarpus nieblae (photos CactusJordi)       Turbinacarpus pseudomacrochele subsp. krainzianus

There are dozens of other genera of cacti and they all flower, some more impressively than others.  However I am less familiar with these other species, and most are far less common in cultivation than those listed above. 

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 Sclerocactus uncinatus subsp. crassihamatus (photo CactusJordi);           Apropophyllum 'Cascade'            Austrocylindropuntia vestita

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  Carnegia gigantea (Saguaro Cactus)                                   Cochimeia poselgeris (used to be a Mammillaria)

 

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               Obregonia denegrii                                  Stenocereus alamosensis                                       Oreocerus sp. in my yard

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Buiningia brevicylindrica       Oroya peruviana         Uebelmanniana pectinifera subsp. flavispina (photo CactusJordi)

As one can certainly tell from the photos above, the cacti certainly have a lot more to offer than spines and simple shapes.


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
middle Stenocactus waterwisegirl 0 9 Feb 23, 2009 12:05 AM
Epiphyllums tufe 0 13 Feb 19, 2009 2:07 AM
Wonderful Happy_1 4 49 Feb 16, 2009 6:44 PM
Re cacti flowers ctmorris 0 23 Feb 16, 2009 10:59 AM
Your articles are the greatest help waterwisegirl 1 21 Feb 16, 2009 6:43 AM
What an education and a treat! gessiegail 0 17 Feb 12, 2009 11:58 PM
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