This undated photo shows an orchid cactus in New Paltz, NY. Orchid cactuses burst into flamboyant flowers one or more times a year, yet hardly ever needing to be watered or repotted. (Lee Reich via AP)

This undated photo shows an orchid cactus in New Paltz, NY. Orchid cactuses burst into flamboyant flowers one or more times a year, yet hardly ever needing to be watered or repotted. (Lee Reich via AP)

Cactuses are the easiest houseplants

  • Thursday, March 2, 2017 3:59pm
  • Opinion

Succulents, which are plants with fleshy stems or leaves, are ideal houseplants. They have interesting shapes, are relatively pest-free, and thrive in the dry air of a heated home — and on neglect.

Let’s look at cactuses, which are just one kind of succulent.

Cactuses are native only to the Americas, having evolved 60 million years ago when upward-pushing mountains transformed the then-lush tropical climate of the western Americas to desert. With thick stems for water storage (a giant saguaro cactus of Arizona can store 500 gallons of water), an absence of leaves, which reduces water loss, and waxy coatings to hold in water, the cactus family thrived despite parched conditions.

To fend off thirsty and hungry animals, many species developed spines.

Origin and variety

Over time, cactuses spread from within the Arctic Circle down to the tip of Chile. I have seen flat, green pads of opuntias growing wild on New York beaches, and Christmas cactus growing wild in the crevices of trees in tropical rain forests. With the exception of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, every state in the U.S. has at least one species of native cactus.

The cactus family is varied in morphology and use. Take, for example, the small, button-shaped Lophophora williamsii. This cactus, called peyotl by the Aztecs, is the source of the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.

Visual oddities abound. The old-man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) has a shaggy covering of long, hoary “hair.” The lamb’s-tail cactus (Wilcoxia senilis) has slender stems which seem to pour out from the swollen root that protrudes above the soil line. Some of the moon cactuses (Gymnocalycium spp.) have had their green chlorophyll bred out of them, so they are now red. Without chlorophyll, they can’t survive, so they are grafted on top of other cactuses.

Edible cactuses

Some cactuses are good food. The pulp of the barrel cactus (Echinocactus spp.) can be pickled. This cactus resembles a large pincushion stuck full of pins; it’s called “mother-in-law’s chair” in Germany. The fruit of Pereskia aculeata is commonly called the Barbados gooseberry, native to the West Indies, and is eaten like our northern gooseberries (which are spiny shrubs in the Ribes genus and are not cactuses).

Some species of Cereus cactuses bear edible fruits in addition to deliciously fragrant, nocturnal blossoms. Closely related is pitaya (Hylocereus spp.), whose fruit has a dramatic appearance and now turns up on market shelves occasionally under the name of dragon fruit.

Opuntia cactuses are the most common edible cactuses. You can find these fruits, called prickly pears, tunas or nochtli (if you are Aztec), in food markets. The flavor is akin to a refreshing, very seedy watermelon. The flat pads of this cactus are cooked and eaten as a vegetable — after the spines are rubbed off.

Spectacular flowers

Cactuses commonly have spectacular flowers, made more dramatic by their prickly pedestals. Cactuses such as mammilaria, notocactus, lobivia and rebutia bloom indoors with very little coaxing (rebutia often blooming twice each year). I expect fat flower buds to appear in a few weeks along the stems of my orchid cactii, Epiphyllum; given a few more weeks and the various plants’ buds open to spectacular red, pink or white blossoms.

Caring for a cactus is easy and can be summed up as follows: Provide good drainage by adding extra sand or perlite to any potting mix. Do not overwater.

I water my cactuses two or three times, or even not at all, in winter. In summer, once every week or two is plenty. Watch the stems. If the plants shrivel or pucker, don’t worry; just water them. If in doubt about whether or not to water, don’t.

More in Opinion

Promise garden flowers are assembled for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Let’s keep momentum in the fight against Alzheimer’s

It’s time to reauthorize these bills to keep up our momentum in the fight to end Alzheimer’s and all other types of Dementia.

Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., questions Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 14 on Capitol Hill.
Opinion: Music to the ears of America’s adversaries

Russia and China have interest in seeing America’s democracy and standing in the world weakened

Dr. Sarah Spencer. (Photo by Maureen Todd and courtesy of Dr. Sarah Spencer)
Opinion: Alaskans needs better access to addiction treatment. Telehealth can help.

I have witnessed firsthand the struggles patients face in accessing addiction care

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski speaks on a range of subjects during an interview with the Juneau Empire in May 2019. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Need for accounting and legislative oversight of the permanent fund

There is a growing threat to the permanent fund, and it is coming from the trustees themselves

(Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Imagine the cost of health and happiness if set by prescription drug companies

If you didn’t have heartburn before seeing the price, you will soon — and that requires another prescription

Mike Arnold testifies in opposition to the use of calcium chloride by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on Kenai Peninsula roads during a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Peninsula Votes: Civic actions that carried weight

Watching an impressive display of testimony, going to an event, or one post, can help so many people learn about something they were not even aware of

The Kasilof River is seen from the Kasilof River Recreation Area, July 30, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Helicopter fishing a detriment to fish and fishers

Proposal would prohibit helicopter transport for anglers on southern peninsula

The cover of the October 2023 edition of Alaska Economic Trends magazine, a product of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. (Image via department website)
Dunleavy administration’s muzzling of teacher pay report is troubling

Alaska Economic Trends is recognized both in Alaska and nationally as an essential tool for understanding Alaska’s unique economy

Image via
5 tips for creating a culture of caring in our high schools

Our message: No matter what challenges you’re facing, we see you. We support you. And we’re here for you.

The Alaska State Capitol is photographed in Juneau, Alaska. (Clarise Larson/Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Vance’s bill misguided approach to Middle East crisis

In arguing for her legislation, Vance offers a simplistic, one-dimensional understanding of the conflict

A rainbow appears over downtown as residents check out rows of electric vehicles at Juneau’s EV & E-bike Roundup on Sept. 23. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: We should all pay more for the privilege of driving

Alaska has the lowest gas tax in the country

Opinion: Sports saves

ASAA has decided to take a vulnerable subgroup of these youth and reinforce that they are different and unwelcome