If you’re new to the hobby, you may not quite know what a copiapoa is, or what makes them special. Why do people get so hyped up about them? What makes them so desirable?
To answer what makes them desirable and attempt to speak to why people get hyped about them boils down to something very simple: people like what they like.
A universal trait for all copiapoas is that they are very slow to grow. This means any plant you see with multiple heads or appreciable size is likely several years old. For many species, once they reach a size that starts to be attractive enough to turn heads, they’re often decades old.
Being this slow to grow contributes to their desirability.
An ancient copiapoa from a Ramona grower’s collection – whether you love or hate this look is entirely personal preference
Glaucous, ancient, and special = recipe for poaching and theft
When you consider that copiapoas in cultivation take years to reach a size we’d consider impressive – and decades to be truly considered a “specimen plant” – the copiapoa cacti you see in situ, or in their natual habitat, become all the more impressive.
A major challenge for people growing them in cultivation is that the plants that look so sculptural, so alien-like in habitat – don’t look like that in cultivation. They’ll develop many of the same characteristics, such as glaucous covering (if the species does that), fuzzy apical growth points, and more.
But they won’t be ghost-white with spines sand-blasted to black coloration by wind and grit. Their lower stems will still have their spines where the wild counterparts typically lose them.
Wild copiapoas have a distinct appearance, including that ghost-white body, sand-blasted black spines (or complete lack of them), with some species developing lichen colonies on their body. Novice collectors often don’t realize that these attractive and unique characteristics are entirely related to being a habitat plant that’s decades old.
In cultivation, copiapoas do not suffer the conditions that lead to such unique development. Some growers in very specific environments/situations can come close, which is often a source of pride for such growers, but it is exceedingly rare. It’s next to impossible to mimic the morning fog rolling in and coating the plants just enough to condense on the body, where the cactus gets just enough moisture to make it through to the next rainstorm. Seedlings rarely survive such harsh conditions, which makes each young plant that grows all the more precious.
This scarcity, and the fact that it’s next to impossible to get the same appearance of these plants in cultivation as you see in habitat, means that poachers view these as prime candidates to steal and sell.
You can learn more about how to spot poached plants (and avoid them!) by visiting @ethicalcactus on Instagram!
Growing Your Own Copiapoas
These slow growing cacti are adapted to extremely low moisture levels, and will need to be sheltered from direct rainfall for the majority of growers. If you can accomplish that, the rest of their care is relatively simple.
As with any cactus, they need well-draining soil, but of any species these do best in a highly inorganic mix. I use a mix very similar to my mesembs, which is roughly 75% pumice and 25% organic material – typically a mix of orchid bark and cactus soil.
I use orchid bark as it holds moisture a little longer than pumice alone, and breaks down slowly, which helps to miminize soil compaction. These plants are not fond of frequent repotting, so the more you can help them stay in one pot for a longer duration, the happier they’ll be.
Water and Fertilizer
In summer, during their growing season, they can take water somewhat regularly. I judge how much and how often to water mine by appearance: if they’re looking wrinkled and deflated, it’s probably time to give them a deep drink.
To encourage a nice powdery farina to develop, keep the frequency low and base it on plant appearance rather than a strict schedule. Through our long, dreary spring this year, I only watered mine about once a month. With high temperatures and plentiful sunshine, I’ll water more often – every 7 to 10 days when the highs outside are in the 90s (making the greenhouse 125F).
I use a balanced fertilizer at half strength all through the hot summer months, which this year, started in July. Now in September, with nights cooling down, I’m planning one last feed and then it’ll just be water until the nights dget below 50F.
Plenty of growers use no fertilizer for their copiapoas at all, but since I’m growing mine in such a high quantity of inorganic medium, I prefer to feed them. I want mine to get some decent size to them, which in my mind, means food.
These are not cacti that do well when grown indoors, unless you are a particularly experienced grower with very good lighting set up.
I do not count myself in that group, and keep mine outdoors entirely. I’ve been able to germinate seeds indoors, but I move them outdoors as soon as I can.
Larger copiapoa species are adapted to full sun, but as smaller seedlings, they are more sensitive and should get some partial shade. Smaller species grow in habitat in the edges of rocks, or under other plants, and also prefer to grow with some shade. At right, you can see my two lizard skin Copiapoa hypogea showing some pretty significant sun stress with the yellow coloration.
Those two hypogea are new to my collection, and only recently potted up and added to the greenhouse. Compared to the other copiapoas next to them, they’re a small species that grows in crevices and prefers more shade.
The others are a Copiapoa haseltonia, a Copiapoa grandiflora, and visible behind the grandiflora is my Copiapoa coquimba. They’ve all been in the greenhouse since it was built, and are clearly adapted to the sun level.
For your own plants, you’ll need to consider where they are commonly found, how well-established the cacti are, and your own sun intensity. When acclimating a new cactus, especially one that’s been greenhouse grown or spent time in a dark box for shipping, giving it cover with shade cloth for at least a week will help it establish. Too much light, too quickly, will scorch your copiapoas. With their slow growth, you’ll see that scarring for a long time!
Speaking of slow growth…
Below are two photos of my Copiapoa haseltonia – I first purchased as a seedling from @cactusupdate in 2021. It’s in a 4″ pot in the left hand photo, a couple months after getting it potted and seeing it become established.
On the right, it’s in a slightly bigger pot, but still roughly 4″ across. In the 2 years in my care, it’s become noticeably larger, but you can see that the growth for this year has less farina coating. I repotted it this spring, and the new soil combined with a long spring was very well received by the little cactus.
Seeing a well-cared for, relatively pampered cactus take years to gain size should help illustrate just how old the large specimens in habitat truly are. Wild plants aren’t being watered once they look a touch wrinkled, they aren’t being protected from too much sun, and they aren’t getting fertilizer.
When nights start dropping below 50F, copiapoas will go dormant for the season.
They should be kept dry for the entire winter, which keeps their roots from rotting. If you, like me, get occasional days or even a week or more of unusual warm weather in December or January, a light sprinkle to moisten the soil is often appreciated.
For the coldest time of year (January and February, usually), I’ll ensure that they are bone dry. In the greenhouse, it’s easy to keep them sheltered, but depending your growing conditions you may need to protect them from too much wind, humidity, etc. Getting a sprinkle in winter isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but it’s a major risk for root rot.
When days are regularly in the 70s and 80s, and nights are 50+, they’ll start to wake up and grow again. At this point, a light watering will be appreciated. Don’t give them a deep drink right away! After months being dry, too much water too quickly will cause them to split and crack.
My non-lizard skin Copiapoa hypogea showing cracks on the sides from being given too much water too quickly after winter dormancy.
If you go too long between waterings in summer, you’ll see cracks as a result in that season as well, but it’s more common with the wake-up after winter.
They do not need fertilizer in the early weeks; instead, focus on slowly getting them plumped up and looking like they’re growing again before you add fertilizer to your rotation.
A large, well established Copiapoa haseltonia from the SDCSS show and sale.
Note the wooly tops, and the well preserved farina on the main stem and heads. You can see that the apical growth points of the pups are all green, but the top of the main stem is less so.
A Copiapoa cinera at the SDCSS summer show and sale – in habitat, these can be 3 feet tall! In cultivation, however, this plant has decades to go to get significant size.
This may be a Copiapoa lauii but I’m not 100% certain – this is from an experienced grower’s greenhouse as well.
Copiapoas are a delight
If you have the sheltered space to grow these, particularly outdoors, these are a delightful genus that will become a hidden gem in your collection.
Be on the lookout for potentially poached plants, and steer clear. Learn to recognize a poached plant, if you’re interested in getting heavily invested in these plants, or simply ask about the provenance of a plant you’re looking to purchase. Despite being slow to grow, most species are fairly easy to germinate and grow from seed, so most desireable species should be attainable from domestic cultivation efforts.
You may not have a plant that looks like the jaw-dropping sculptures of the wild specimens, but you’ll find it more rewarding to grow one to size yourself. If you want to skip the cultivation, and purchase a large specimen, be prepared to fork over multiple benjamins to get a cactus-show ready specimen.
Do you grow copiapoas too? Share your photos with me on Instagram! @TrexPlants