Types of Cactus in
the Desert Southwest
Including all native Cacti Species in the United States,
from the Southwest, the Midwest, Puerto Rico and Florida.
Updated June 18, 2021
What represents the diversity of the American Southwest better than the cacti? Explore my illustrations and descriptions of every cactus species in the United States. My simple illustrations are designed to highlight the field identifications of each cactus, helping you learn and enjoy them in the wild. This is the world's only complete guide to every cactus in the desert southwest and the United States. Explore the American cactuses by genus:
Cereus Cacti are the large, tree-like cactuses that we most identify with the southwest. While most species occur in Latin America, three in the American Southwest are iconic to the region.
This medium-sized cactus is native to the Southern California and Baja California coast. This cactus features a lemon yellow flower and a unique golden color from its large, yellow spines.
One of the most recognizeable cacti of the Sonoran desert in Mexico, this large species is known only in and near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. It's large pinkish flowers are pollinated only by a single creature; the Senita Moth. This is an example of mutualism in nature; both species' survival depends on the other.
This cactus from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well as northern Mexican states, is known for its short-lived flowers which bloom after sunset. These blooms have a vanilla-like smell, and and an elegant white and green-yellow palette.
This gigantic cactus symbolizes the Sonoran Desert, the state of Arizona, northern Mexican cultures, and even the United States around the world. They are remarkable organisms, living for over one-hundred and fifty years and acting as hotels for myriad animals.
Organ Pipe Cactus
The Organ Pipe Cactus, which can grow as high as twenty-five feet, is named after its resemblance to pipe organs. It grows in primarily in Baja California and Sonora, where it is often the primary element in desert landscapes. It also grows in a corner of southwest Arizona, where it is protected at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The Coryphantha cactuses are small to medium-sized 'beehive' cactuses, often recognizable as a pint-size potted plants. This genus of roundish, barrel-like cactuses with bright flowers is found mostly in the American Southwest and Desert Mexico.
This black-tip spined cactus from Southern California's Mojave desert mountains is medium-sized, and known for its spectacular pink and yellow blooms.
Sea Urchin Cactus
The fragile yellow flowers on this small cactus from the far western deserts of Texas and the Chihuahan desert in Mexico last only a few hours each year. This species grows in desert scrub and degraded grasslands, and rarely grows in clumps.
Nipple Beehive Cactus
This small cactus of the Chihuahan Desert is common in Texas and New Mexico, as well as much of the desert regions of Mexico. It grows in a wide variety of soils, and its purplish-magenta flowers bloom in late summer.
This rare and threatened species from the border between Texas and Mexico is small and spherical, growing in areas where few other plants grow. It features a stunning pinkish-magenta bloom and long spines.
Often called Pima Pineapple or Pineapple Cactus, this small specimen known from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico, grows in sandy and gravel soils.
The Cylindropuntia are often known as the chollas, and they are many people's favorite cactus to despise, for their frightening ability to attach their spines to your body. They are, however, a source of great beauty in the American deserts, forming vast gardens.
Buckhorn Cholla, a large tree-like cholla which grows upwards of 13 feet, is common in both the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. It is most often found on sandy, well-drained soils and gravelly slopes.
Teddy Bear Cholla
This fuzzy, soft looking cactus may look cute, but it is an evil menace! That fuzz means razor-thin spines that will detach from the plant in clusters. It is common to see these spine clusters detached and laying on the ground near these chollas. Teddy-bear Cholla are also a beautiful component of the deserts of Arizona, California, Nevada and northwestern Mexico and form thick desert forests.
This large cholla, known to the coastal regions of far Southern California and Mexico's Baja peninsula, can grow to lengths of nine feet. It features small yellowish flowers. Because it is not as densely-packed with spines as the other chollas, its greenish skin is visible.
This large and common cholla has a broad range in California and the Baja peninsula. It can grow to nearly seven feet in height; forming large, foreboding thickets. Its flowers are most often yellowish-green.
Hoffmann's Teddybear Cholla
This species is limited to the deserts of Southeastern California, mostly in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It is sometimes referred to as the Pink Teddy-bear Cholla, for its pink-tinged spines.
This treelike cactus, sometimes called the Hanging Chain Cholla, because of the way its branches hang, is a cactus of the Sonoran desert on both sides of the border. Like the Teddy-bear Cholla, Jumping Cholla stems detach easily, almost as if they 'jump' onto your when you brush past one.
Gander's Buckhorn Cholla
This common cholla is widespread in the Sonoran desert, on both sides of the border. It features acid yellow flowers, and untidy plants that can grow as tall as 10 feet.
Cane Cholla, distributed across the southwest and desert mexico, is abundant, and more cold tolerant than other cactuses. It is seen in places like Oklahoma and in the colder parts of New Mexico. It can grow into 15 foot tall clumping trees, and features magenta flowers.
Sometimes referred to as the Christmas Cactus, this unique cholla of the Southwestern United States and desert Mexico features narrow, pencil-like stems. In December, the pencil cactus grows red berries, which explains its alternate common name.
The Coastal Cholla is a grayish-greenish cactus of Baja California, Southern California and the Channel Islands. It is common on the hillsides, cliffs and bluffs of the Pacific Ocean, particularly on the Channel Islands, where it grows alongside the native chapparal and scrub.
The Diamond Cholla, widely distributed in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of the United States and Mexico, is a tree-like cactus with small brown or light-orange flowers, and mostly spineless branches. Its golden spines are few and far between, but they are long and sharp. This cactus gets its name from the diamond-shaped patterns that adorn its stems.
A beautiful cactus, the Hudson Pear features white pines and brilliant pink-magenta flowers. In some parts of the world, including Australia, Hudson Pear has become an invasive.
Also known as the Walkingstick Cactus, this cholla features thin, snake-like stems and beautiful violet-magenta blooms. It is known mostly from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. In the United States, it is seen only in Arizona and New Mexico.
The Sheathed Cholla is one massive arms cache of a cactus. It is just packed with spines! This species lives primarily in the Chihuahan desert of Mexico, and can be seen in Texas' Chihuahan desert as well.
This grassland cholla of the Chihuahuan Desert dwells in higher elevation grasslands and deserts. Its spineless fruits were traditionally harvested for flour.
The Wolf's Cholla is found almost entirely in the Colorado Desert portion of the Sonoran Desert, in places such as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It has long, wooly branches and orange or magenta colored flower.
The Echinocereus genus is composed of ribbed cylindrical cactuses. Many are referred to as 'hedgehog cacti'; referring to the ancient Greek genus name, which means, Hedgehog Candle. Some of the most brilliant blooms in U.S. cactuses are produced in the Echinocereus genus.
Arizona Claret-cup cactus
This lovely cactus of Arizona and New Mexico is known for its immensely colorful blooms, which show shaded of orange, yellow and brilliant red. This species grows in mounds or clumps.
Chisos Mountain hedgehog cactus
This stunning species is known for its extremely limited range within desert shrublands of Big Bend National Park, on the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. It features bright magenta-pink blooms.
Texas Rainbow Cactus
This thickly-bristled cactus, appearing in arid rocky slopes and desert floors of several Southwestern states, has an unusual creamy-light green color produced by its carpet of spines. Its flowers are striking yellow or yellow-green. It's name is derived for multi-colored bands up its spine.
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus
This commom cactus of the desert southwest and desert Mexico produces large clusters of stems, with large spines. It is known for its beautiful magenta flowers, which produce fruit which tastes like strawberry.
Robust Hedgehog Cactus
This species, growing primarily in Arizona's Sonoran desert, is a clumping cactus which features brilliant magenta flowers, often blending toward white.
Pinkflower Hedgehog Cactus
This species, found in dry soils of Arizona, New Mexico and Southwestern Colorado is also known as Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus, named after a naturalist of the 1800's. It's flowers vary from pink, to white to deep purple.
Lady Finger Cactus
This species is found in northeastern Mexico, and can also be found in the Rio Grande Valley of Southeastern Texas. Its magenta and yellow flowers are among the most attractive of the North American cacti.
Dahlia Hedgehog Cactus
This unusual species is known mostly for its distribution in the Mexican state of Coahuila, but is also found in Southern Texas. It's brilliant reddish-pink blooms open in the late afternoon, and close up at night.
Lace Hedgehog Cactus
This cactus of the Chihuahuan desert features purplish-pinkish flowers. It can be found as far east as Colorado and Nebraska.
Mojave Mound Cactus
This stunning cactus, also known as the claretcup, is a close relative of the Arizona Claretcup Cactus, but is found in a more widespread range. It prefers shady areas on rocky slopes.
Nylon Hedgehog Cactus
This small cactus exists in more eastern habitats in both the United States and Mexico. It is found in habitats like dry grasslands and prairies, in eastern Texas and even as far north as South Dakota.
The ferrocactus cacti are the barrel-shaped species of the American southwest and northwestern mexico. They are known for their shallow roots and ability to withstand extreme aridity and heat.
Desert Barrel Cactus
This large barrel cactus of the Mojave desert often has a cylindrical, 'barrel' shape. It can reach lengths of nearly seven feet. It features yellow or maroon-colored flowers, and a yellow-colored fruit. It is one of the most recognizeable and attractive cactus species of Southern California.
This small, globe-shaped barrel cactus grows as a single unit. It is known mostly in the state of Sonora and on the baja peninsula, but is also found in Arizona.
This common cactus of the Chihuahuan desert, is also present in New Mexico and Texas. It forms one single globe, which, at later stages becomes more of a columnar shape, and features an often yellow, but sometimes variable-colored flower.
This rare barrel cactus, sometimes known as the San Diego Barrel Cactus or Coast Barrel Cactus exists mostly along the coast of Southern California and Baja California. It has a globe or cylindrical shape, and grows in cooler climates than other barrel cacti. It is threatened due to habitat loss, agriculture and coastal development.
Arizona Barrel Cactus
This species, often also referred to as the Fishhook Barrel Cactus, can grow up to ten feet tall. It is most often found in Arizona and northwestern Mexico, but it can also be found in New Mexico and Texas.
This genera has extraordinary diversity, with over 200 species known to science throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In the American southwest, there are only five species. These species are united by their typical globe shapes and tubercles or 'nipples' throughout. They are often densely covered with flat spines.
This species is unique to the western part of the Colorado desert, mostly in the western Southern Californian deserts and in Baja California. It features attractive orange-yellow-cream colored flowers.
Graham's Nipple Cactus
A common fishhook cactus of the southwest, this species features bright pink flowers, which are often decoratively arranged around the crown of the cactus.
Lacespine Nipple Cactus
This common cactus of Mexico can also be found in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is among the many cacti that are often smuggled by collectors. It is threatened with extinction.
Common Fishhook Cactus
The Common Fishhook Cactus is widespread throughout the southwest and northern Mexico. It features a small lavender-pink bloom.
Thornber's nipple cactus
This cactus, which often forms multiple clumping stems, features tiny flowers. It grows in Southern Arizona and the Mexican Sonoran desert.
The Opuntia cacti are recognized for their beaver-tail like pads. They are often referred to as the Prickly pears. These are among the classic cactus shapes, and they have played a key role in the cuisine of many native North American groups, particularly in Mexico, where Prickly pears of many species are consumed as a vegetable.
old man's whiskers
This cactus, also called Cowboy's Red Whiskers or Chenille Pricklypear, is native to the Chihuahuan desert of Northern Mexico and Southern Texas. This species is sometimes used as a vegetable. Its fruits are edible and the pads can be cooked.
This Florida Prickly pear cactus, which grows to six feet, forms a single trunk and features yellowish flowers.
The classic southwestern Prickly pear cactus, the Beavertail is common in the Mojave, Sonoran and Colorado deserts. This plant, which can forms hundreds of pads, was a key part of the diet of many pre-Columbian southwestern tribes.
A common prickly pear cactus, the Pancake Pricklypear can be found throughout most of the southwest and the deserts of northern Mexico.
Lake Mead Pricklypear
The Lake Mead pricklypear has a limited range. It exists only within the vicinity of Lake Mead. It features large, bright yellow flowers.
This is a common pricklypear of the eastern portions of the southwest, appearing often in Texas, Louisiana and even Missouri. But it is also common in the true southwest, and desert Mexico.
Sometimes called the Grizzlybear Pricklypear, for its furry spines, this cactus forms low, but large clumps. It is often found in higher elevation deserts.
This is a common cactus of the western portions of North America, and is common even in northern latitudes of British Columbia. Its a tiny clumping cactus. It features small yellowish flowers.
This beautiful cactus, with its often brilliant purple pads, is known only to Pima County in Arizona, as well as several states in northern Mexico. The species features bright lemon yellow flowers.
This cactus, sometimes called the Indian Fig, occurs in the eastern states. A distribution map would show it completely absent west of the rockies, and distributed in every state around the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard. This cold tolerant and sun-loving species' fruits are sometimes consumed.
This pricklypear is known from the chapparal environments of the Southern California and Baja coast. It is known as a spreader, forming clumps. Its fruit is edible and known to have been consumed in prehistory.
Long-spined Purplish Pricklypear
This pricklypear forms deep purple coloration on its pads, bright yellow flowers and edible fruit. It is found in northwestern Mexico, as well as diverse desert environments in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.
The twistspine pricklypear, sometimes referred to as the Plains Pricklypear, is a common cactus of the midwest, known to thrive in my home state of Minnesota. It features bright yellow flowers, and edible fruits.
A prickly pear of the chapparal regions of southern California and Baja, this species can grow to six feet in height, and features yellowish-orangish flowers.
A common cactus of the desert southwest and great plains, this species is known to form dense thickets. It is sometimes referred to as the Plateau Pricklypear.
This pricklypear, common in many regions of North America, from Chihuahua to western Canada, is sometimes known as the Starvation Pricklypear, for its ability to aid those in need of emergency hydration.
This genus is often referred to as the pincushion cactuses, and like two other genera, the hedgehog cactuses. These cacti are generally small and unbranched.
Marble Canyon Cactus
This cactus, sometimes called Brady's Pincushion Cactus, is one of the rarest species in the United States. It is an endangered species restricted to Marble Canyon, the attractive section of the Colorado River near the Grand Canyon. It is a tiny cactus, and is admired by collectors, who threaten its existence.
San Rafael Cactus
This small cactus, with lovely orange flowers, is extremely rare, and exists only in the San Rafael swell, a long geological depression in southeastern Utah. Only about 6,000 individual plants remain.
Knowlton's Miniature Cactus
This small cactus is known only to a single county in New Mexico - San Juan County in the northwestern corner of the state. It features yellow and lavenderish flowers. Only about 6,000 plants remain.
Navajo Pincushion Cactus
This cactus, which grows only to about 6 centimeters in heights, is often hidden or even buried in the substrate. It features yellow flowers.
This species of the border between Utah and arizona, has a unique cylindrical-egg shape, and is known to prefer soils rich in gypsum. Mining, especially of uranium, is one of the key threats to this vulnerable species.
This small cactus, known only in two counties of Utah, is a tiny globular cactus that is often hidden in rocky environments. It is listed as a threatened species, under threat mostly by cactus poachers.
Sclerocactus cacti are commonly known as the fishhooks, and sometimes as the little barrel cactuses. They often feature a larger hooked spine in their spine areoles, and they range in cooler, higher and harsher climates than other genuses.
Shorthook Fishhook Cactus
This small globe of a cactus, endemic to Texas, is endangered. It features cream or green colored flowers.
This rare cactus is known only to the state of Utah, specifically, a single draw (a low ground between two ridges), in Duchesne County. It features violent-magenta flowers.
Colorado Hookless Cactus
This threatened cactus is known only only from a narrow corridor in Southwestern Colorado. It features magenta flowers and multicolored spines.
Mesa Verde Fishhook Cactus
This species from the borders of New Mexico and Colorado is extremely rare, and is an endangered species. It features yellow and white flowers, which sometimes show purple stripes.
Grama Grass Cactus
This Chihuahuan desert cactus, grows in grasslands in northern Mexico and Texas. It flourishes especially in the blue grama grasses of this region. It features white and green flowers.
Redspined Fishhook Cactus
This cactus of the Mojave desert grows in clusters, and produces highly variable reddish-violet flowers.
Silver Fishhook Cactus
This tiny cactus, rare in northern Arizona and in miniscule populations in Utah and Nevada, features small white-yellow flowers.
Uinta Basin Hookless Cactus
This rare cactus, is known only to a portion of Duchesne County in Utah. It grows on rough, rocky and gravelly mesa slopes. Its flowers are magenta and yellow.
Wright's Fishhook Cactus
This federally endangered cactus grows in sandy shrubland soils in a limited range in Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park and the San Rafael swell. It features small flowers, which may be white, yellowish or pink.
Other Cactus Genuses
One of my motivations for creating this list of all the types of cacti in the United States is the many inaccurate online depictions of what cactuses are and are not. Cactus is a biological term, referring to related species. North America has a lot of other plants that look like cactuses - yuccas, joshua trees and ocotillo are some of the most commonly misinterpreted as cacti. The following species are the remaining cacti species that do not fall in the main genuses represented above.
Fairy Castle Cactus
This unusual cactus, native to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Florida, and broadly distributed in Latin America, is tall and grows in large thickets. Its flowers bloom only at night.
This cactus is one of our most unusual, and is sometimes called the Living Rock Cactus. It is often brownish gray, or dull green in color, and can resemble a small rock. It is threatened by cactus poachers.
This unusually shaped cactus, known for its pincushion appearance and yellow and orange flowers, is found only in Texas, north of the border. It grows mostly in thorn scrub habitat. It is endangered, and threatened by poachers.
Redspine Butterfly Cactus
This cactus of the Mexican, Arizonan and New Mexican Sonoran desert is known to grow on limestone. It features purple and pink blooms.
This tiny cactus was so sought after by collectors, that is now an endangered species in the wild. It's hative habitat is restricted to a single county in Texas. Today, only three native populations remain. It is an attractive pygmy cactus with pink and yellow flowers.
Missouri foxtail cactus
One of the few Midwestern cacti, the Missouri Foxtail Cactus grows in prairie grass of the Great Plains. It is widespread across the Midwest, and also occurs in the Desert Southwest. The flowers are large and unique, with a pale green coloration.
This small, oblong or globe-shaped cactus is widely distributed across North America. It is found as far north as Alaska, and is known from my native state of Minnesota. It features brilliant magenta flowers.
This cactus of the Mojave and Sonora deserts grows in spreading mats, low to the ground. It features yellowish flowers, tipped in reddish-pink, and long, sometimes red spines.
This cactus of the Mojave Desert grows in salt flats, sand dunes and alkali basins. It has stunning pink and yellow flowers, large relative to the smallish size of this cactus.
The thin, long Prickly Applecactus originates from the gulf coast of Florida and features a stunning white flower.
This federally endangered cactus, like many other wild things in Florida, suffered from overdevelopment in the one county where it originates. Like many Florida cacti, this one prefers sandy scrub and coastal hammocks.
This is small, erect cactus sometimes called the Queen of the Night. It is native to the state of Florida.
The endangered, and federally protected Key-Tree Cactus of the Florida Keys, Bahamas and Cuba grows in the porous limestone habitats of this subtropical region. These cactus trees can grow thirty-three feet tall, and often have beautiful shapes.
A small barrel cactus from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Devilshead grows mostly in limstone soils. This rare species has several colorful nicknames.One nickname, "The Horse Crippler Cactus," comes from the danger this small cactus, often hidden in the brush, could inflict on a horse.
Cotton Top Cactus
This rugged species features wooly fruits, which give it its common names. These cacti live in rugged terrain, in places where other cactus species are unusual.
Vine-like Moonlight Cactus
This is an elongated cactus that is native to Mexico, but may have native populations in southern Texas. It features elegant and unusual night-blooming flowers.
The following species will be published in late summer and fall 2021: