Not all cacti are created equal, and when it comes to which cacti work better for beginners, that can be a starkly divided topic.
I’ll review a few of the species that are my favorites for different growing conditions, as well as why I prefer them. Your mileage may vary as far as which of these are suited for your climate, and by no means is this one size fits all!
A last caveat is that I live in an ideal climate for cacti. Some of what I recommend is based on reviews and feedback thanks to sales I’ve made through Etsy – after a couple thousand plants shipped, and feedback on a couple hundred, I have a rough idea of what will probably do well in climates that don’t match mine.
Best Indoor Beginner Cactus
You can’t always keep your cacti outdoors, particularly if you’re in a northern climate with long, cold winters. If you need to grow your cactus by a bright window for much or all of the year, you’ll want one that thrives with partial shade conditions. Windows filter out some light, no matter what, and even a very bright room to your eyes may not be enough light for some cacti.
Steer clear of taller, columnar cacti which stretch rather quickly in inadequate light. Instead, a barrel or globe-shaped species is often a good fit. They are hardy, slow growing, and tolerant of less than ideal conditions.
A small, hardy little cactus that would do well with a window seat is Mammillaria “Ginsa Maru”, a Japanese cultivar of Mammillaria discolor. While they prefer hot, bright conditions, a nice warm window can suffice. These stay small and manageable, and when grown with partial shade, retain the blue-green body as a nice contrast against their orange spines. In higher sun exposure conditions, like mine pictured, the blue tones fade to mostly green.
Other species suited for windowsill culture include:
- Crested versions of Trichocereus, Echinocactus, or Echinopsis (the crested/monstrose forms are somewhat less robust, and do well with partial shade conditions)
- Mammillaria elegans
- Notocactus haselbergii
- Echinopsis subdenudatum “Dominos” (may be less likely to flower if indoors)
- Notocactus uebelmannianus
- Gymnocalycium mihanovichii
Note that all of these can and will do even better if they can be grown outdoors at least some of the time. They also need to be near a window, and even though they’re all more globular in shape, they will also stretch if not provided with enough light.
I also do not personally grow any cacti indoors (our house is far too dark); these are species that do well for me in highly shaded conditions.
This is my oldest hedgehog cactus, one I’ve had for nearly 5 years, and it is much less intense in color than the nursery-grown specimens I occasionally offer for sale.
Best Outdoor Potted Cacti: Littles
Looking for a small cactus that can share a pot, or just something cute to collect? There are several easy, hardy species that stay small enough for a 6″ terra cotta pot.
My personal favorite small potted cactus is the Rainbow Hedgehog Cactus, or Echinocereus rigidissimus rubrispinus. While this one can be kept indoors on a windowsill, it does much better and is more likely to flower if you can put it outside and let it get hot.
They’re from Arizona, and thrive in hot weather. They don’t necessarily need full sun, and can look a bit bleached if they’re left in full sun all the time. For best color, some shade during the hottest part of the day seems to do the trick.
They stay quite small, usually 4 – 6″, although old specimens can be taller. I have mine in 6″ terra cotta pots for their roots to have room, but they can be comfortable in a 4″ pot. I tried repotting my older specimen to a smaller pot, but discovered it had really expanded its root system to the full 6″ pot, so don’t be afraid to overpot them slightly.
Other small species that thrive in pots
You can also grow nearly any of the windowsill cacti as outdoor container plants, and they’d be even happier that way. If moving your indoor cactus outdoors, be sure to do so slowly to prevent sunburn.
Best Beginner Cactus if You Like Flowers
Not all cacti bloom much, or often, but the ones that do can put on quite a show. There’s a few options for showy bloomers, but the ones that really produce explosions of color repeatedly are those in the Echinopsis genus, as well as their hybrids.
Best small bloomer: Echinopsis “Rose Quartz” – small, clustering cactus that has thumb-sized little columns and ginormous brilliant pink blooms. Blooms profusely all through summer if watered regularly. Will grow as a cluster to fit whatever pot you put it in.
Best mid-size bloomer: Echinopsis “Rainbow Bursts” – These come in, you guessed it, a rainbow of options, although you can’t usually tell the bloom color from the body until you see actual flowers. Often available in 4″ pots, these will grow in size and cluster to be 2′ tall and produce many pups (all of which will also bloom!).
Best large cactus for blooms: This varies depending on your bloom preference. A happy cleistocactus strausii will produce tons of small, brilliantly colored trumpet-shaped flowers, while Cereus peruvianus will create oodles of giant, night-blooming white flowers (that will produce edible fruit!). Personally, I’m a fan of Pilosocereus blooms, which are somewhat small but dripping with nectar and very attractive to bats.
Echinopsis hybrid “L.A.” – the names can often help you find a specific hybrid or variety that has the color you like.
Notable Mentions for Blooming Cacti
Other species that will repeatedly bloom during their bloom season include:
- Most Gymnocalyciums; I am particularly fond of Gymnocalycium pflanzii
- Notocactus magnificus
- Astrophytum capricorne (all astrophytum will bloom, but I feel the capricorne are the most prolific and showy)
- Neoporteria senilis – late winter/spring bloomer, but it’s constant
- most Lobivias
- Epiphyllums (although these may be better suited to those with more experience)
This is a Pilosocereus azureus, not a Peruvian Apple Cactus, but it can be a decent cactus for beginners if you’re able to keep it warm and bright enough. In the southern parts of the US, as long as you don’t experience a hard frost, these would likely do well for you. They do not tolerate cold at all, and can get quite large, so it’s something to consider when picking out a cactus.
Best Columnar Beginner Cactus
A columnar cactus is one that grows in the tall, slender columns similar to the well known Saguaro cactus. While Saguaros aren’t ideal for novice growers, there are other columnar cacti that can be beautiful potted specimens for a patio grower, or even planted in ground in the right climate.
While you can bring a potted columnar cactus indoors, expect to use a grow light and to try to cycle it outdoors whenever the weather is good – they rarely thrive indoors unless it is by an exceptionally bright window or with supplemental lighting. They may look fine for many months, or even a year or more, but they are dying a slow death.
For novice growers looking for a big statement cactus, the Peruvian Apple Cactus, or Cereus peruvianus, is an excellent candidate. Usually available as cuttings, these are a large, pale blue-green color that often develops a light coating of powdery farina. They also produce huge, showy blooms if kept outdoors, and can eventually produce edible fruit that is reminiscent of a dragon fruit.
In ground, they will get very large, up to 15 feet tall or more with numerous branches, so plant carefully!
Best Uncommon Beginner Cactus
Sometimes, you want to learn but you don’t want to get the same things everyone else has. I feel you. I am the exact same way.
If you want some easy to care for, hardy species that most people don’t have, here’s a couple to try.
Coryphantha andrae is a clustering, smaller species that develops a wooly white crown and produces huge, showy yellow flowers.
Does best in partial shade, particularly for the hottest time of day, but otherwise needs little in the way of special treatment. Water when dry, use well-draining soil, and don’t let it experience a hard frost.
Matucana madisoniorum is a smaller, singular species that can have both spineless and spined varieties, as well as different colored flowers.
I like their slightly sparkly green bodies, and how beautiful the spines are – yellow at the base, darkening to a deep brown/black by the tip. They need shade for best color, but mostly for the hottest parts of the day. They would do well on a porch or patio, and love it hot.
The hardest part about their care is protecting the delicate body from scarring, either from spines, sunburn, over or under watering, or pests.
A lot of care depends heavily on your growing environment, and without exposure to direct sunlight, growing cacti can be challenging. In humid climates with regular rainfall and high humidity, particular in summer, the cacti can get more water from the air than they do here in San Diego or in Arizona. Their watering regime will likely be much less frequent than I need to water things here.
I hope this was helpful for you in searching out species to try! I definitely have a preference recommending smaller, globe-shaped species for beginners. This is largely due to spines being of a type that can be managed by gloves, and the size does not get overwhelming too quickly. Smaller species also can stay happily in smaller pots, meaning you can enjoy it for years without worrying about just how big it’ll eventually get.