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What Are Tropical Cacti?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tropical cacti may or may not be recognized as actual cacti species. These plants generally grow in humid conditions with bright but diminished light exposure. When removed from their native tropical climates, they are often found as ornamental plants in homes. Specific types include coral cacti, holiday cacti, and prickly pear cacti.

The native climates of tropical cacti are humid areas with plentiful vegetation. While these areas have both dry and wet seasons, when rain does fall, it is usually abundant. In general, the tropics references regions around the earth’s equator. Various types of ecosystems may characterize these areas, ranging from deciduous forests to tropical rain forests.

Specific types of tropical vegetation are classified as tropical cacti, or shade cacti. As a general rule, these varieties thrive with plenty of water and fertilizer and relatively little sun. Numerous species classified under the broad term holiday cactus — such as the Christmas Cactus — comprise one popular type of tropical cactus. Another prominent example is the coral cactus, which is native to tropical rain forests. An adaptable cactus known as opuntia — or prickly pear cactus — may also grow in tropical climates.

Sometimes, tropical cacti are not recognized as actual cacti, as they have some key differences from the traditional plants. Chiefly, regular cacti are found in very dry desert regions, and thus they are succulent, or water-storing plants. Tropical cacti, on the other hand, originate in areas where water supplies are abundant, such as rain forests. In order to adapt to their environment, traditional cacti possess certain features that are often absent in tropical varieties, including the following: a thick stem, a limited growing season, wide roots, and structures called spines in place of leaves. Tropical varieties frequently have leafy segments called phylloclade instead of spines.

These plants are often used as household or garden plants, with soil bases often consisting of sand mixtures. Proper watering and lighting care is important for cultivated tropical cacti. Light exposure should be bright and plentiful, but the plants are often resistant to direct sunlight. For some varieties, such as coral cacti, moisture in the soil should be fairly constant. Many types of holiday cacti, on the other hand, can get by with a watering every couple of days. An indoor plant can be kept in a pot in a colder climate, while outdoor plants should be moved indoors when the weather gets colder.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On May 05, 2013

I always thought that cacti do well in hot and dry climates. How do tropical cacti bear all the rain? Don't they rot?

Maybe tropical cacti really are a different type of plant altogether.

Does anyone here grow tropical cacti? Is it more difficult to care for than regular cacti? What kind of tips do you have for those who want to grow it?

By bluedolphin — On May 04, 2013

@ddljohn-- Prickly pear cacti has fruit and it's delicious. I've eaten it a couple of times, it's very sweet when ripe, tastes kind of like syrup. I think South Americans cook with prickly pear fruits but I always eat it raw.

You have to be careful about the seeds though. I once ate the seeds and it gave me diarrhea. Now I just pick the seeds out. Cacti fruit is a super food, it has tons of antioxidants so it's worth the trouble.

By ddljohn — On May 03, 2013

Do tropical cacti have fruit? Can the fruit be eaten?

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