Types of Cactus in
the Desert Southwest
Including all Cacti Species in the United States,
from the Southwest, Hawaii, the Midwest, Puerto Rico and Florida.
Updated April 15, 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. Explore our 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.
My favorite doors and windows are playful and colorful and describe the pallete of a place. I am aware of nowhere on Earth where the doors and windows are so endowed with color and character as the Latin American tropics.
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.
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.