Growing Browningia hertlingiana – a Beautiful Blue Columnar Cactus

browningia hertlingiana

Written ByJen Greene

Posted: March 13, 2024

When you see one of these that’s been well grown and has size to it, they’re incredibly striking. I first spotted them on Instagram and immediately wanted one of my own. A tall, columnar blue cactus with chiseled tubercles for the spines? Sign me up!

Browningia hertlingiana in habitat

Hailing from the slopes and valleys of the Andean mountains where they poke into Peru, it’s a surprisingly frost-hardy cactus. In their preferred habitat, they are considered relatively abundant, but agricultural activities enroach on their areas of growth. Most specimens grow on steep slopes that are unsuitable for most agricultural purposes, which helps protect them to a certain extent. 

While not currently a threatened species, their primary growing region is fairly small, so increased pressure of human development and agriculture poses a threat. 

Growing in Cultivation

This is one cactus species I would consider very challenging to grow in pots or indoors in more northern climates. For that chiseled, frosty-blue appearance, strong light is absolutely critical. It’s a slow growing cactus, particularly compared to the blue Brazilian cousins of Pilosocereus, which can make them challenging to grow to any meaningful size.


 I’ve grown these in pots and in ground, and find them fairly easy as long as you’re able to follow the golden cactus rule: the soil drains well and is dry before you water again.


My in-ground Browningia hertlingiana earlier this year (2024)

Soil for your Browningia

I’m sure this will come as no surprise, but they need a well-draining, airy mix. Your standard Miracle Grow cactus blend isn’t going to offer the air to the roots or drainage required for these cacti without some doctoring up. Conversely, using a straight porous blend, such as Captain Jack’s, will drain too quickly and not offer the cacti enough opportunity to get moisture before the soil is dry again.

For my potted younger cactus, I use 50% pumice, 50% cactus soil, although I wasn’t overly strict about the exact ratios. They do appreciate more organic matter in their soil mix, but drainage and rapidly drying are just as important. They can be prone to rot if the soil around the roots in a pot stays too wet for too long.

Having said that – my in-ground cactus has been fine even with unusually high rainfall and no protection from wet soil. I have it planted in the front of our house, in what we call “the fountain area” – it’s a small section bordered by our driveway. It gets extremely hot in summer, and is open to plenty of rain in winter. On exceptionally cold years, there’s been a few days that the area gets a light coating of frost. Prior to planting, I amended the soil with layers of mulch (1 – 2 years), and where the cactus went in, I added pumice around the main root ball to help keep it dry.

Cold hardy?

While frost hardy, I wouldn’t recommend putting them in-ground if you experience a prolonged, hard frost. You can likely extend your growing region if you’re willing to cover it with a frost cloth if there’s a freak snow storm, or a week of unusually cold temperatures. As long as daytime highs return back above freezing, you should be able to squeak by.

blue cactus

A few months after first planting – early 2022! 

Watering your Browningia

What I love the most about this cactus is once established, they’re practically bomb-proof. The one I have in-ground is left to experience heat, sun, rain, drought, and cloudy weather. 

I stop watering my in-ground plants entirely around October or November, depending on how hot it is. We’ve had years where it’s still 80 – 90 even in October! More often, once nights are consistently hitting 50 or below, I’ll stop watering. My browningia is planted with my other new-world, summer-growing species, so winter is a bit of a gamble. In general, the gentle slope of the front yard seems to do exactly the type of drainage needed to keep my cacti and succulents from staying too wet in winter. 

In summer, I water at least once a month if it’s over 80 on average. The hotter it gets on average, the more often I try to water the front area. July, August, and sometimes into September, I’ll often water close to once a week! 

For the cacti in pots, they’re watered much more often due to being kept in my greenhouse – at least every week, sometimes more if the daytime highs are 100+! For those growing outdoors in less extreme temperatures, a bit of judgement about the in-between will be necessary. 

The most important part during the summer growing season is allowing the soil to dry out before watering again. If in a hot and dry region, water deeply in the evening, allowing the cactus drink up overnight. In more humid regions, you can not only water less often, but watering in the morning helps give the plants time to (hopefully) dry out before nighttime falls and humidity rises even further. 

Light and Sun Exposure for Your Browningia

Like many columnar cacti, these really need strong bright light to grow well. When you consider where and how they are evolved to grow, their light requirements make sense: they’re evolved to grow almost fully exposed to the sun, and their powdery blue flesh is protection from the intensity of the sun’s rays. 

To get the best growth and appearance, you’ll need nearly full sun for most of the day. My in-ground cactus doesn’t get shade, even at the hottest part of the day. For a cactus as established as that one, the best protection from a heat wave or intense sun is adequate water that’s able to evaporate or dry before the sun gets too high. 

I also have a seedling (not pictured); it’s much younger and smaller (less than 4 years old, still in a 4″ pot) and it’s needed protection from intense sun. It got quite sunburnt when I first put it out in my greenhouse, and has taken nearly two years to fully recover and begin to produce new, healthy growth. 

Both seedlings and newly acquired cacti from a nursery are likely to need some time to acclimate to full sun or intense light. While these plants do need it for long term health and growing, an abrupt change to full sun with no protection after nursery conditions can still sunburn your plant! 

There’s a difference between long-term placement and when you first bring your cactus home! 

When looking at a Browningia hertlingiana at the nursery, evaluate where they have it placed. Is it indoors? Is it outside, but in a greenhouse? Is it in shade? These placements all mean that you’ll need to spend at least a week or more acclimating the cactus to more intense light before you put it in a final outdoor placement. 

Shipped plants won’t give you the same insight, and should be treated as though they were grown under artifical lights or in a shaded greenhouse. Even if they weren’t grown somewhere shaded, the time spent in a box being completely isolated from light warrants some time spent acclimating. 

Acclimating your cactus to full sun (or wherever you plan to keep it): 

Keep the cactus in a more sheltered area for at least a few days. I tend to play it safe after scorching more than a few plants, and will keep the cactus or succulent in a nearly full shade placement for at least a week. From there, I’ll slowly move it somewhere with a few hours of sun, again, for a full week. 

Alternatively, you can make your move to a more intense exposure during winter! In San Diego or more southern areas, winter is the perfect time to move your plants out to nearly full sun. The days are shorter, there’s more cloud cover, which protects your plants as they get used to the exposure. It’s a trade off against winter rains and the risk of frost, though, so be cautious! If you regularly experience frost, or know it’s coming and you’ve just moved plants outdoors, you may want to use frost cloth or keep them sheltered until the risk of frost is past. 

The more north you live, and more likely you are to keep your plants indoors for winter, the more you’ll have to take your time with moving them back outdoors in spring. 

browningia hertlingiana


In-ground, you shouldn’t need to provide extra fertilizer for your Browningia. They are, after all, a cactus! 

For your potted plants, how much and how often you feed them depends on your soil mix. If it’s highly inorganic, feed every 1 to 3 weeks during the growing season with a 1:1:1 fertilizer, at half strength. 

If you used a more organic mix (more soil than pumice), then you can likely skip fertilizing entirely the first year. Following years, a couple of feedings in spring when the cactus wakes up from winter dormancy are likely all it’ll need. 

The longer it stays in the same pot, the more it’ll need extra fertilizer as time goes on. 

And that’s it! 

These are surprisingly hardy cacti that are slow growing – but easy in spite of it. If you’ve got a sunny place to plant one, and lots of patience, these blue columnar cacti are worth adding to your collection! 

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