A dramatic potted indoor cactus (plural “cacti”) has become an evergreen and popular interior design staple because they are so compact and easy to care for. But while a cactus may be perfect for your needs, others in your household might not agree after a short, sharp altercation with those razor-sharp spines! Are there spineless cacti that are safe for households with pets and kids?
There are cacti with no spines, cacti with spines so fluffy that they won’t hurt you, and others with just a few spines that are easily avoided during handling. However, while some cacti don’t have sharp spines they do have clumps of short, stiff, hair-like glochids that can easily lodge in the skin and cause pain or irritation.
There’s no need to give up on easy-to-care-for cacti. Spines don’t always have to hurt. If you are looking for a harmless cactus for a home with small children or pets, read on to discover how wide your choices are.
What are Spines and Glochids?
Spines are usually conspicuous and easy to identify. They are firmly attached to the plant and have very sharp points, though the points are not generally barbed. Spines are designed to easily puncture the nose and paws of animals, and can certainly pierce human skin.
Glochids or glochidia (singular “glochidium”) is a feature of cacti in the sub-family Opuntioideae. They are short, stiff, hair-like spines or prickles that grow directly from the areoles. Each tuft can contain hundreds of glochids, and can almost cover the stem surfaces of some cacti. They came off immediately when you brush against or touch them, and lodge in your skin. They are very hard to spot and remove and will cause itching, some pain, and a lot of irritation.
When choosing a spineless cactus, you should steer towards varieties that are either completely without spines or glochids, or have very soft, tufty spines or glochids, or cacti whose spines don’t point outwards like a bristling hedgehog.
Spineless Cacti, Cacti with Soft Spines, And Cacti With Spines That Don’t Hurt
Each of the three categories offers a variety of cacti that are perfect for house and home, and we have compiled a shortlist of the options:
- Lophophora Williamsii (Peyote or dumpling cacti): The peyote is probably the best known spineless cactus. It’s a slightly odd-looking, globe-shaped cactus with a dip or saddle in the middle and small pink flowers emerging from the center. Despite its suitability for interiors, it’s not recommended to keep peyote in households with children or pets because it contains the hallucinogenic mescaline.
- Astrophytum Myriostigma (Bishop’s cap): This cactus has pretty, small white dots on the stem and produces yellow flowers with a sweet scent.
- Astrophytum Asterias (sand dollar cactus, sea-urchin cactus, star cactus, and star peyote): A small, grayish-green globular cactus with white dots in the middle of the areoles, and delicate yellow flowers.
- Rhipsalis cacti (mistletoe cacti): The mistletoe cactus family originated in the tropics and therefore don’t do well in harsh, direct sunlight or arid conditions, and with their hanging stems that produce day-blooming flowers they don’t have that classic ‘cactus look’ since they lack spines.
- Schlumbergera cacti (Christmas cacti): Schlumbergera is a well-known spineless cactus that bloom around Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Cacti With Tuft
- Echinopsis Subdenudata “Tufty”: Hybridized from E. ancistrophora with a globular shape and no sharp spines, but with lovely white cotton wool-like tufts. The large white flowers open up at night.
- Mammillaria Hernandezii: Another small globular cactus with a short wooly white tuft and pink flowers.
- Epiphyllum Oxypetalum (Dutchman’s Pipe Cactus or Queen of the Night: This cactus branches easily and you may have to re-pot it to larger pots every few years. It produces large, sweet-smelling white flowers that bloom only at night and which develop into a fruit.
- Blossfeldia Liliputana (Liliput cactus): A tiny cactus with a short stem and delicate white fluff growing from areoles.
Cacti with radial spines that don’t hurt
Mammillaria genus: Mammillaria is a very big genus with many species and variations. They are mostly small, globular cacti covered in very small spines that enclose the cactus protectively to form a sort of protective ‘chain mail’. Since the spines don’t point outwards it’s possible to handle the plants carefully without getting hurt or damaging the plant.
- Mammillaria Herrerae, Mammillaria Humboldtii, and Mammillaria lasiacantha are just a few of these beautiful tiny globular cacti that produce lovely flowers but no fruit.
- Mammillaria Plumosa (feather cactus): The feather cactus is a quite spectacular plant with 3 inch-thick spherical stems that grow in clusters and are completely covered in delicate white, downy spines.
- Mammillaria Hernandezii: A tiny plant with a unique spine pattern and white or cherry red to fuschia-red flowers. Like many cacti, the flowers are diurnal and therefore close at around sunset for the night.
Cacti With Some Spines
- Pachycereus Marginatus (Mexican Fencepost Cactus): This cactus has an instantly familiar silhouette! You can successfully start it off indoors and then transplant it when it grows too big. It can grow to around 10-16 feet (3-5 meters) tall, but the stems only have 4-7 ribs and a few radial spines, and can therefore be handled – carefully! – without much harm.
- Echinocereus Rigidissimus (Rainbow Cactus): The Rainbow Cactus grows in a cylindrical shape that can reach up to 1 ft (30 cm) high. The short, sturdy pines are pink, coloring to purple and lighter pink, and are curved inwards towards the stem, which makes it possible to handle them without getting hurt. It produces very large pink-purple flowers.
- Opuntia Aurea (Golden Prickly Pear): The golden prickly pear can be somewhat hit-and-miss. They sometimes have no spines, or just a few short spines, perhaps growing from aureoles. Nevertheless, they produce spectacular yellow, pink and purple flowers followed by brownish-grey fruits during June and July.
Caring for Your Spineless Cacti
Cacti are often planted in individual pots because they require a special watering regimen. They dislike standing water and over-watering, and it is important to plant them in light, well-drained soil. Most cacti will do well in a potting mix consisting of equal portions of ground fir bark and peat moss, with some added sand or vermiculite.
You can occasionally use low-nitrogen fertilizer that is high in phosphorus during the growing season, but don’t fertilize your cacti during the winter when they go dormant.
Water lightly during the growing season, making sure the soil dries out before watering again. If they start turning yellow, you’ll need to water them more often. Most cacti will go dormant in winter. During this time they should be watered very lightly, perhaps once every 5 or 6 weeks.
Although cacti love bright, warm environments, few of them do well in full sunlight while planted in pots. They will do better in temperatures of around 70 to 90 F in bright indirect light or filtered light and should be taken indoors when the temperature drops below 50 F (10° C).
Cacti will always grow in the direction of the light source, so it’s a good idea to rotate the pot by a quarter turn every two weeks to prevent your cactus from over-developing in one direction.
If you love the idea of cacti in the house but have been hesitant to get one, there’s no reason to wait. Cacti can make a fantastic design statement, and if you take some care to pick a slightly more exotic-looking variety, you’ll get double the aesthetic impact and double the fun for the same low-maintenance investment.