Rent Shop Volunteer Join

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

 
rate this answer
Not Yet Rated

Friday - November 21, 2008

From: NEW YORK, NY
Region: Northeast
Topic: Cacti and Succulents
Title: Cactus failing to thrive in New York City
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

My cactus seems to be either weak or dying. Its long stems are bending and softer than the rest. What is happening to it?

ANSWER:

Unfortunately, "cactus" is much too wide a term for an accurate answer. You didn't say if your cactus was a house plant or growing outside. In New York, that, alone could answer the question. If it's outside, it probably can't survive the cold temperatures. Because of the heat generated by a large city, New York City has warmer zones than the rest of the state, but you are still in Zone 6a to 6b, which indicates a minimum average freezing temperature of -10 to -5 or -5 to 0 deg. F. Cacti, generally, are desert plants, and don't tolerate very low temperatures. On the other hand, if your plant is indoors and not getting lots of sunlight, it doesn't tolerate that well, either, for the same reason. It is way out of its native habitat. And if it is in a pot without adequate drainage, and/or you are watering it too much, it is probably suffering from that.

Just to demonstrate our point, see this Eduscapes website on Cactus  (Cactaceae).There you will see a number of pictures showing the variety of plants in that family. It further states that there are over 2,000 species that fall in that category.

Three of the genus members of the Cactaceae family:

Mammillaria Sample North American native: Mammillaria pottsii (rat-tail nipple cactus)

Opuntia Sample North American native: Opuntia engelmannii (cactus apple).

Melocactus  According to this USDA Plant Profile, this plant is native to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but not to continental North America, so it does not appear in our database.

Many plants not even closely related are mistakenly called cactus. We have listed some of these, with native examples and links to pictures.

Yucca Yucca faxoniana (Eve's needle)

Sotol Dasylirion leiophyllum (green sotol)

Nolina Nolina lindheimeriana (devil's shoestring)

Dudleya Dudleya cymosa (canyon liveforever)

Echeveria Echeveria strictiflora (desert savior)

Graptopetalum According to the USDA Plant Profile, this plant is native to Arizona and Texas, but does not appear in our Native Plant Database.

Ocotillo Fouquieria splendens (ocotillo)

So, we hope you understand why we probably can't diagnose your plant's problem, beyond the very broad range of temperature and light exposure.  If you have it indoors, and think the lack of drainage and sunlight might be the problem, we would suggest you repot it in a pot with cactus mixture potting soil (more sand, better-draining), very good drainage, and move it to a sunny window. Beyond that, you can try looking at all the pictures we have linked you to, and if you find one you think is your plant, Google on that plant's scientific name for information on it. 

 

From the Image Gallery


Rat-tail nipple cactus
Mammillaria pottsii

Cactus apple
Opuntia engelmannii

Faxon yucca
Yucca faxoniana

Green sotol
Dasylirion leiophyllum

Devil's shoestring
Nolina lindheimeriana

Canyon live-forever
Dudleya cymosa

Desert savior
Echeveria strictiflora

Ocotillo
Fouquieria splendens

More Cacti and Succulents Questions

How can I eradicate 20 acres of cactus?
April 28, 2010 - Cactus eradication. I have about 20 acres that are covered to the point that it is not safe to walk on the property. What can I do? Are there classes out there for eradication?
view the full question and answer

Starting yucca from seed from Austin
December 24, 2012 - I would like to start a soft leaf yucca recurvifolia from seed. Is that possible? Also, I've looked for seed on dried flower stalks, and I'm not sure that what I'm finding is the seed, and I ...
view the full question and answer

Selenicereus anthonyanus, Rickrack or Fishbone Cactus
February 28, 2007 - A friend of mine gave me a plant he said was a rick rack plant. I have tried to research it on line with no luck and I don't know the scientific name...any help?
view the full question and answer

Sunny and shady lawns from Austin
April 28, 2012 - My front yard has a large bed surrounded by a mix of St. Augustine and Bermuda grass. Last summers heat killed off about 90% of the St. Augustine, which we would like to replace anyway to conserve re...
view the full question and answer

Plants that are deer resistant for high desert climate in Utah
January 23, 2008 - We are building in a high desert climate in Dammeron Valley, Utah. We want plants that are both deer resistant and require little watering. Can you advise which plants (shrubs, flowers, cacti) that ...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.