Cacti and succulents to me are the terrestrial versions of the ocean’s bizarrest sea creatures. To look at their needle-packed or plump branches, their rainbow of colors, their “I can’t believe that thing is alive” appearance is to imagine you are looking at some sort of dry coral reef. And unlike outfitting a saltwater fish tank at home, creating a collection of easy-to-grow and odd-looking cacti and succulents of your own is way simpler and much more accessible.
Let’s first look at a few entry-level cacti and succulents as well as some that are true oddballs. Then we’ll set you up for success with the basics of care for your collection.
Start With These Low-Maintenance Cacti and Succulents
Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis) is not only a fun succulent to grow, but it is also functional. Its plump leaves contain a liquid that is packed with vitamins, enzymes, minerals, salicylic acids and amino acids that soothe burns, inhibit fungal and bacterial growth and enrich skin. Needing only the occasional watering, Aloe Vera is a superb entry plant for anyone wanting to get into succulent growing.
Jade Plant (Crassula ovata) is another popular and recognizable succulent. Another low-water plant, give it a bright window and it’ll grow slowly and happily for years to come. The Crassula genus in general offers dozens if not hundreds of different species and varieties to choose from. Here’s a VIDEO of some Crassula varieties so you can get an idea of the range of shapes and sizes.
String of Pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) is a classic succulent for hanging baskets. Its little ball-like leaves are connected together via string-like stems. In nature, these stems vine along the ground with the stems taking root as they go. This means it’ll be easy for you to root, replicate, and share String of Pearls for yourself.
Bunny Ears Cactus (Opuntia microdasys) is a cactus with flat but thick leaves studded with small needles. It’s one of the more recognizable cacti out there, and its paddle-like leaves do indeed look like rabbits’ ears. Bonus: When the leaves become heavy and fall off, just pop them into some soil for easy rooting and replication.
Golden Barrel or Golden Ball Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) is just as it sounds—a round or barrel-shaped plant with long, spike-like thorns covering its soft spots. It is hardy to USDA Zone 7, but can also be grown as a houseplant, where you can expect it to become about 2 ft. tall. And because it’s a slow grower, it may take 20 years to get there!
Old Lady Cactus (Mammillaria hahniana) is another squat ball-shaped cactus, but this on is completely covered with a network of white spines and white down. What’s lovely about this cactus is that its small pink flowers create a halo at its top, giving it a slightly angelic appearance.
A Few Oddball Cacti and Succulents
As for a couple of oddball-looking options, here are two:
Lithops (Lithops sp.), otherwise known as the “living stone,” truly looks like a cube-shaped rock that has been cleaved down its middle. This plant evolved with this stone-like appearance to survive in desert environs without hungry animals taking notice of it as food.
Lithops sp. with a String of Pearls to the right.
Brain Cactus (Mammillaria elongata ‘Cristata’) forms as a small mound of tight clumps of folding stems, looking for all the world like a human brain.
General Cacti and Succulent Care
The best advice about cacti and succulent care is to consider where these plants originated from. Most all cacti and succulents are from deserts, which means:
Light: They all do well in bright direct or indirect light. This means placing them in west- or south-facing windows for direct light, or on a wall opposite a south-facing window for indirect light.
Water: Water cacti and succulents infrequently. Allow them to dry out completely between waterings.
Soil: Consider what a desert soil consist of—rocks and stones, minimal organic matter, and larger air spaces due to gravel size. Cacti and succulents evolved in conditions such as this and so prefer a soil that is well-draining. We designed our all natural Cactus & Succulent Blend to provided just the type of drainage these plants require for optimal growth, with tons of drainage but just enough moisture holding capacity to satisfy their needs. The peat-free formulation includes shale, sand, rice hulls and pine bark for good drainage, while coir and compost provide just enough moisture-holding to suit cacti and succulents. We add earthworm castings and softwood biochar for nutrition for both the plants and the soil microbiome. And because it’s available in both 2 qt. and 8 qt. bags, you can buy enough to pot up one or two new plants or build out that coral reef, er, I mean dry terrarium with all sorts of interesting cactus and succulent creatures.
Hype for the Hybrids
Author, horticulturist and certified plant nerd Leslie Halleck is a giant cactus and succulent fan. She gets most excited about the new succulent intergeneric hybrids (i.e. a cross between two plants in different genera within the same plant family). For example, Mangaves are crosses between a Manfreda and an Agave. Gasteraloes are crosses between Gasterias and Aloes, Graptoverias are crosses between Graptopetulum and Echeverias. The Gasterhaworthias (Gasteria crossed with Haworthia) and the Gasteraloes. are the types that do best indoors in a western or southern window.
Leslie’s favorite tiny potted plant is this Haworthia chloracantha (you may see it with the variety name ‘Liliputiana’). Not a hybrid, but a lovely little succulent in its own right!
As for cacti, Leslie’s favorites are in the Astrophytum genus. She has made them bloom in bright windows with great success in making them bloom in bright windows. But for the best results, she says, you might consider positioning your cacti and succulent collection under grow lights.
Editor’s Note: Leslie includes a lot of cool and tiny succulents and cacti in her book Tiny Plants, some of which are included in this post with Leslie’s permission. Thank you, Leslie!