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What is an Old Man Cactus?

By Micki Elizabeth
Updated May 16, 2024
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Old man cactus is a common name for the species Cephalocereus senilis, a type of cactus indigenous to the eastern part of Mexico. The striking name refers to the fuzzy, white hairs that grow on the cactus in its early stages; this hair is also the cause of its various other names, including White Persian Cat Cactus, Bunny Cactus and Viejo, meaning old. The cactus often grows as a singular stem without branches and may reach heights ranging from 16 to 50 feet (5 to 15 meters). It is generally grown as an ornamental plant and, like many cacti, is relatively easy to care for. While the old man cactus is considered endangered in the wild, the species is not believed to be on its way to extinction because of the many nurseries that sell the cactus.

The white hairs that give the old man cactus its distinctive look and name often fall off in later years. One should note that these “hairs” often hide the cactus’ sharp spikes and may break the skin if they are touched. The hairs serve to shield the cactus from too much sunlight or other harsh conditions and predators while the cactus is young.

One can add this succulent to a garden by following a few steps. Seeds may fair better if sown indoors first. One may also begin with stem cutting, but it is important to allow time for the stem to grow hard before planting it.

An old man cactus may be started indoors in a fairly small pot, as the cactus grows slowly. In the summer especially, the cactus will require a lot of direct sunlight. The proper foresight should be taken into account when deciding where to place the cactus.

Like most succulents, this plant does not need much water. In fact, watering too often could harm or kill the cactus. When the soil has completely dried, planters should use a liberal amount of water and let the soil dry out again. Several days may pass before an old man cactus needs to be watered next.

A dry soil is typically the best to use for the old man cactus. There are some types of soil manufactured specifically for potting cacti. Some gardeners find that mixing sand in with the soil is beneficial.

If the hairs become dirty, one should use gloves and a rag, sponge, or even a toothbrush with water and soap to clean the hairs. After 10 or 20 years, flowers in white, red or yellow tones may begin to blossom. These flowers, which typically only grow on outdoor cacti, usually bloom from late spring through the middle of the summer.

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