Guide to Different Types of Cacti: What You Should Know

Cacti are one of the world’s most interesting plant species. They have been around for an estimated 20 to 25 million years and are one of Earth’s most resilient species. They can live for extremely long periods. Some types of cacti can live up to 300 years — a much longer lifespan than most plants.

Furthermore, their ability to thrive in a hot, dry, hostile climate sets them apart from other plant species. Cacti are mostly associated with arid, desert-like regions of the world. However, many species of cacti can live in areas of the rain forest.

Taxonomic Classifications of Types of Cacti

types of cacti and succulents on a table
Different cacti and succulents

Unlike a lot of other members of the plant kingdom, cacti are so diverse that it is difficult to group them. However, there have been many attempts to classify them into different types of cacti, culminated mostly by the formation of the International Cactaceae Systematics Group (ICSG) in 1984.

This organization consists of experts and pioneers in cacti research. The classification of cacti has evolved and continues to evolve to this day. There are four subfamilies, each containing different types of cacti. Each group has unique features that set them apart from other types of cacti.

Before we dive into different types of cacti for the home or garden, let’s talk about some background information regarding different types of cacti, and how they are classified. The two most common ways of classifying cacti are the taxonomic classification, as well as the growth pattern classification. If interested, there is more basic information regarding cacti.


First, is the pereskioideae subfamily. This group of cacti contains seventeen species. This family is the most basic and primitive. Plants in this family are shrubby with round stems. Also, the stems have the crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) pathway, while the leaves have the C3 carbon fixation pathway.


Next, the opuntioideae subfamily is particularly large. This group contains 331 species of plants and is the most abundant of the four. This subfamily has short, hairy prickles known as glochids. Also, their stems are segmented, and each segment is called a cladode.

As far as growth and shape, there is a large amount of variation. Members of this group can range from short and shrubby to tall and tree-like.


Furthermore, the Maihuenioideae subfamily is the least common, with merely two species. The plants in this group are short, cushion-like plants with stem clusters. Also, due to their shape, some confuse their grouping with the opuntioideae subfamily.

However, members of this subfamily solely have C3 carbon fixation pathways. This sets them apart from other subfamilies. This subfamily grows in Argentina and Chile.


Lastly, the cactoideae is the largest of the four types of cacti families, with nine tribes and over 1,500 species. There are varying growth patterns among its members.

All cacti in this subfamily are indigenous to North and South America. Also, members of this group have little to no leaves. However, growth ranges from tree-like to short and stubby.

Some members of this group live on other trees, soaking up water and nutrients this way. Furthermore, the stems on plants in this subfamily rarely have segments, unlike the opuntioideae subfamily.

These four subfamilies are a good way of classifying cacti. There is more information on the taxonomic classifications of cacti. Now, let’s move on to another type of grouping.

Classifications of Types of Cacti by Growth Pattern

There are several different ways to classify cacti. The taxonomic classification method is still actively in use. However, growth pattern is also an accepted method of classification. This method entails grouping different types of cacti by their shape and appearance.


Columnar types of cacti

First, the columnar group is what pops into the heads of most people when they think of cacti. These plants are mostly tall, with cylindrical stems. Also, some members of this group have branches, and others do not. Out of all the types of cacti, this group is the tallest.


Next, the cushion group is mostly made up of plants that have short stems in a cluster. However, while they are small and cute, these plants tolerate extremely low temperatures. These cacti are indigenous to places with high elevation levels and thrive in the Andes mountains in South America.


Also, This group contains stems that look like leaves. However, these leaves are not like those of your average shrub. These leaves are prickly, somewhat hard, and protect the plant from bugs that seek to prey on the plant’s leaves.

Many of the members of this group are part of the opuntia genus, and are called “prickly pears.”


The globose group could be an excellent choice for home decoration. Hence the name, these plants have a spherical base. However, some plants in this group have stems that protrude from the base of the plant. Some globose plants have slightly elongated stems, although they are always round in shape.


The shrubby group appears just as the name suggests. Most plants in this category have one central stem, with branches protruding from it. Also, this group mostly contains plants of considerable size when fully grown. This group’s plants look like a combination of tree-like and shrubby.


arborescent types of cacti

Last, but not least, is the arborescent group. This group of cacti is also known as tree-like, as they have one outstanding trunk. Also, branches grow out of these plants in an upward direction. This group contains the largest plants out of all of the groups, and some can grow to be up to 40 feet tall.

Each group has unique features that set them apart from each other. Growth patterns are an excellent and popular way to categorize the types of cacti.

Popular Types of Cacti for Your Home or Garden

Cacti are popular plants for garden enthusiasts or anybody who enjoys beautiful plants. Most do not require much care. Furthermore, many of the popular choices for gardeners and enthusiasts are hybrids. These genetically modified plants stand out from the naturally occurring plants in the wild.

Easter cactus

A great first choice for anyone looking to add to his or her garden is the Easter cactus. Also known as the Whitsun cactus, it is a very popular addition to any home or garden. This plant has a lot of branches and has flat, green stems. Also, it bears bright, gorgeous flowers.

Christmas cactus

types of cacti: christmas cactus

Another excellent addition to any home or garden is the Christmas cactus. This plant gets its name due to the fact that it blooms around Christmas time. Also, the flowers vary in color, ranging from pink and red to white and orange. It grows well in most environments. However, you should never expose this plant to frost.

Pincushion cactus

types of cacti include this beautiful pincushion cactus with pink flowers.

Also, the pincushion cactus is a great addition to add to any room in the house. A rather small plant, the pincushion cactus will look great on any windowsill. They rarely grow to be over 6 inches in height. Also, this plant has tiny flowers that bloom directly between the areoles of the plant.

Golden barrel cactus

The Golden Barrel types of cacti
Golden Barrel Cactus

Finally, the golden barrel cactus is perfect for any garden. It is extremely popular among garden enthusiasts. However, the naturally occurring species are endangered. This species of cacti grow to be 1 to 2 feet tall and is part of the globos growth classification. They grow well in a hot environment and are indigenous to Mexico.

Good Luck on Your Journey to Find the Cactus That Prickles Your Fancy

This is just scraping the surface when it comes to cacti choices for your home or garden. It’s time to get started on your journey to improve your home, garden, or wherever you feel a cactus belongs. They require little care and can help turn any room or garden into a much more appealing place.

Hopefully, out of all the different types of cacti, you have an idea of what you could possibly add to your home or garden.

Now that you have learned about cacti, maybe it’s time to learn about the possible addition of tomatoes to your garden, or maybe something else. Happy gardening!

Out of all of the types of cacti, which one are you considering as an addition to your home or garden? Let us know in the comments section below.

Featured Image: Unsplash License, by George Pagan III, via Upsplash

About the Author Alex Jackel

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