The world of plants is often one of strange beauty and pure wonder. Coming in many shapes and sizes, plants are all unique in some way, yet cacti are some of the most amazing plants in the world. Protected by an outer layer of spines, cacti endure some of the harshest and demanding environments. Relying on their incredible water storage abilities and thick skin to prevent water loss, cacti are hidden deep in the driest deserts and even up in the peaks of some mountains. While cacti are certainly unique amongst other plants, some are bizare—even by cacti standards.
1. Agave Cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)
Known as the Agave cactus, Leuchtenbergia principis is unique because of the straight, finger-like protrusions from its main stem. These “fingers” are tipped with small clusters of spines that, in older specimens, can grow into a tangled, protective web on the top portion of the plant. The Agave starts off as any normal cactus seedling would and soon develops its points. As it ages, these form into its thick photosynthetic “fingers”. Once the protrusions have formed, the Agave maintains its shape and gets wider and sturdier but remains a single plant. This is abnormal because most cacti will either start to produce small offspring at some point, or even “arms” in taller plants.
2. Living Rocks (Ariocarpus fissuratus)
Cacti are associated with spines, yet a few species have no spines or lose them once they reach adulthood. Ariocarpus fissuratus is an extremely slow-growing example of spineless cacti. Some of them can take up to 50 years to reach 4-5 inches in diameter. As a seeding, these plants have very small, weak spines that grow from the points of its geophytic structure. As the plant ages, these spines fall off and no new ones grow to replace the original set. This results in a strange-looking plant with no defense, which seems counter-intuitive to the health of the species. Due to its lack of defense, A. fissuratus grows in hard-to-reach crevasses and similar locations and produces small amounts of psychoactive substances to prevent animals from eating it.
3. Astrophytum caput-medusae
One of a kind in form, Astrophytum caput-medusae grows as its name implies, like the snake hair of medusa. Recently discovered, A. caput-medusae was first put into its own classification until it was discovered that its flowers were identical to those of the Astrophytum genus, as well as its small tufts of soft wool-like hairs from its the stem. This secured its place as an Astrophytum species. Producing brilliant yellow flowers with red centers, A. caput-medusae readily produces some of the largest seeds among cacti, measuring between 1/8th and 1/4th of an inch across.
4. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
One of the most well know and well regulated cacti is the Lophophora williamsii, commonly known as Peyote. Illegal to grow or own, Peyote is known for its powerful psychedelic effects thanks to high concentrations of mescaline. It’s only legal for use by members of Native American tribes because Peyote has long been a central aspect of Nativa American rituals. According to these tribes, use of Peyote would often result in the understanding of spirits and other intangible entities.
5. Discocactus horstii
When mature, the Discocactus discocactus develops a cephalium—a densely spiked growth—from which its large, white flowers bloom. While it is green in the early stages of its life, Discocactus eventually develops a red tint. Although it looks like a standard desert cactus while young, they grow at elevations of around 304 meters (1,000 feet) above sea level. Discocactus can be difficult to grow since they have a tendency to rot if over watered and to dry out completely if left without water for shorter periods than what most cacti can endure.
6. Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus)
When someone brings up flowers, cacti don’t immediately spring to mind, even though cacti flowers can be enormous and beautiful. The Hylocereus undatus flower can exceed 35 centimeters (about 14 inches) in length and 23 centimeters (about 9 inches) across. The H. undatus blooms only at night, and each flower opens only once before seeding and becoming a dragon fruit or falling off and dying. The flowers give off an extremely potent vanilla fragrance that can be overwhelming if the flower is smelled directly.
7. Alfilerillo (Pereskiopsis diguetii)
Some cacti are in a primitive enough state that they actually have both leaves and spines. The Pereskiopsis diguetii is one of these: with small spines, gloichds, and leaves sprouting from a single point. Tropical and extremely fast-growing by nature, P. diguetii is often used as a grafting base to speed the growth process of seedlings of slow-growing species. While still capable of flowering, it’s rare to find a P. diguetii that is being grown for its appearance or flowers. Most specimens are simply cuttings that were rooted from a mother plant, resulting in numerous clones that can also be cut and replanted.
8. Turbinicarpus subterraneus
When think of cacti, we often think of tall, thick-stemmed plants that are coated in spikes, but (as this list has already shown) this is often not the case. With Turbinicarpus subterraneus, the true surprise is below the soil’s surface. The small, club-like heads are supported by a tuberous root—often the same size as the exposed stems. This root allows for the T. subterraneus to survive long periods of drought by storing large quantities of water. Being below the surface also allows it to be cold resistant enough to endure short periods of exposure to temperatures as low -4°C (28.4°F).
9. Atrichoke Cactus (Obregonia denegrii)
Commonly referred to as the Artichoke Cactus (Obregonia denegrii), it the only species in the Obregonia genus. Similar to the Ariocarpus and Leuchtenbergia genus, the artichoke cactus grows in a geophytic manner, having its body points spiral from the growth point. While it does have spines, they often shed from the plant—resulting in sparse patches of spines on the ends of the areoles. This spiraling combined with the type of stem results in the signature artichoke shape. Smal flowers bloom from the tips of young growth in the summer, resulting in an edible, fleshy fruit when fertilized and ripe.
10. Blossfeldia liliputana
Often growing between rocks in the Andes mountains, Blossfeldia liliputana earns its name from the the land of Lilliput in the novel Gulliver’s Travels, where all of its citizens were tiny to Gulliver. This because B. liliputana is the smallest cacti, maxing out at 1.3 centimeters (half an inch) across. Their size, as well as their growth patterns, make these small wonders especially unique. Cacti often have a rounded growth point, yet B. liliputana grows from an indent at the center of the plant. Flowering during the summer months, B. liliputana self-fertilizes and produces seeds that are so small they easily blend in with the surrounding rock and sand.
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