The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Try Cacti and Succulents for Easy-Care Houseplants

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator


by Sandra L. Mason

Unit Educator Horticulture/Environment

University of Illinois Extension

Champaign County


Release Date: November 24, 2007

Title Development Information

Try Cacti and Succulents for Easy-Care Houseplants

I prefer plants that are quick-change artists. I expect a plant to metamorphose into a bigger plant, a flowering plant, a fruiting plant, or even a dead plant but to somehow change into a different form. I imagine that was the source of my once lukewarm feelings about cacti. As a kid I sometimes wandered through the dime store [larval dollar store] where I was fascinated by the rows of small round cacti adorned with fake straw flowers. I was enamored by their total lack of change. Were they dead or alive? Who knew? Over time my appreciation for all plants has changed. Cacti and their kissing cousins called succulents are no longer just passive prickly orbs of fake flowers.

First let's clarify some terminology. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. While both cacti and succulents have the ability to store moisture for use when times are tough, the similarity ends there according to Greg Stack University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

According to Stack a true cactus has an areole. It looks like a patch of cotton from which spines, flowers, and roots grow. While some succulents may have spines, they will not have areoles.

Although some succulents are winter hardy, many are quite content as houseplants. All they need is a bright, sunny location, proper temperature, and occasional watering.

Succulents are happy next to southern exposure windows. Their need for bright light can also be fulfilled with a fluorescent bulb if needed. If light is too low, any growth may appear thin and elongated.

Cacti and succulents have growth cycles usually in response to water and temperature. Most go dormant during the fall and winter when temperatures are cool and moisture low and do their best growth in summer.

Even though cacti and succulents can tolerate dry conditions for extended periods, they appreciate some water especially during their active period. When they are growing, let soil dry a few days between thorough waterings. Be sure to use a well-drained cactus soil mix. Keep dormant plants on the dry side for longer periods. Overwatering dormant succulents can lead to rotting.

Dormant plants prefer temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees F. Flower buds are more likely to form at the cooler temperatures according to Stack.

Areas right next to windows often provide the perfect growing environment during the winter and can satisfy the cool temperature requirement. Growing at normal room temperatures will not harm the plant but according to Stack if you want flowers, cold helps.

Most cacti and succulents have their active growth cycle during the spring and summer. Plants with this growth cycle include the Echinocactus, Ferocactus, Opuntia, and Notocactus.

During the summer, cacti and succulents like to be outdoors. Locate them where they get light shade and keep them watered.

Unusual is the operative word when describing cacti and succulents. One look at the variety of sizes, textures, and colors will make a fanatic succulent collector out of many gardeners. Stack recommends a few succulents as good starter plants for their ease of maintenance.

The Mammillarias, or Pin Cushion cactus are commonly sold. Their silky hairs give rise to names such as birdnest cactus, old lady cactus, and feather cactus. They flower readily to produce a halo of white to pink flowers.

One of my favorites for their architectural look is the Aeoniums. These succulents grow in flat pinwheels in colors of green, bronze, or silver.

One look at Lithops and you will easily know why their other name is Living Stones. In contrast to other succulents their dry dormant period is in the summer. With the proper care daisy-like flowers may appear in November or December through "cracks in the stones".

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