Recommended Easy to Grow Columnar Cactus
Columnar cacti are great for making a statement in your landscape with only a small footprint. They typically grow straight up, reaching heights of several meters, while the base of the plant only occupies one square foot of ground space. Some rise up as single poles, some grow a tall trunk then start branching, while others branch from the base forming an orchestration of organ pipes. Typically, columnar cacti are found in the wetter deserts, because they can absorb a lot of water to maintain their stout posture. None can be found natively in the Mojave, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan deserts. However, a relatively warm and wet desert like the Sonoran produces some of the most dramatic columnar spectacles to be found anywhere.
Trichocereus terscheckii (Echinopsis terscheckii) - This stout columnar cactus, also known as the “Argentine Saguaro”, we would choose first over the more famous saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). It has a similar form as the saguaro but grows faster, is more cold hardy, and has large bugle shaped white flowers. Before deciding where you want to plant it, make sure it is a location that is permanent, because it gets heavy very fast. You’ll also want to leave room for branching. The large branches start much sooner and lower than the American saguaro, but can get just as big. We don’t even bother wrapping ours in frost cloth in the winter. They are tough as they come.
Trichocereus pachanoi (Echinopsis pachanoi) - We recommend this because it is a very cold hardy columnar cactus with relatively thin stems. It readily branches vertically from cuts and bruises along the main stem. If a branch falls or is cut off it can be rooted to start another columnar specimen. These are typically sold as cuttings because they root so easily. Depending on your climate it can grow half to one meter per year in height. If it gets too tall for your growing space, just trim it to the height you want.
This plant is also used for traditional medicine by the natives of the Andes mountains in South America. It also has the advantage of having very short spines so it can be placed in tight heavy traffic spaces in your landscape. However, we have also found that once the stems get over one meter tall they can flop over if pushed hard enough. Once a stem flops it can not be returned to its original position. So it gives you another opportunity to chop it and plant it.
It’s a highly versatile cactus with many applications and is easy to grow.
Stetsonia coryne - Often nicknamed the “poor man’s saguaro” this columnar cactus looks like miniature saguaro when it starts branching. Another common name is “toothpick cactus” because it has very long three to four inch spines. Stetsonia coryne does not grow as tall as some of the other columnar cactus species but spreads wide with many columnar branches on branches. But it can still grow to 2-3 meters tall. We’ve found that it is not very cold hardy and should be protected below 27F (-2.8C). It is also another columnar cactus that gets very heavy very quickly.
An upright Stetsonia coryne and spine detail on a young one.
Stenocereus thurberi - The Organ Pipe cactus is an American columnar cactus that grows near the border with Mexico in Arizona. The Organ Pipe National Monument was named after this plant. The region in southern Arizona rarely experiences freezes. But some winters temperatures do experience freezing dawns. The stems of this columnar cactus can grow 2-3 meters (6.1 to 9.3 feet) tall. It will form a clump of stems all coming from the base of the mother stem. It’s really an imposing display of robustness when walking close to a mature specimen. It takes many years before it starts branching, but even a single stem is quite attractive up to a meter or so. The dark dark brown neatly arranged spines on smoke stack stems give it unique beauty. Once established in the ground it is more cold hardy than in a pot. To provide additional protection you can wrap each stem with insulating blankets until the threat of cold has passed.
Stenocereus thurberi is a very robust and attractive columnar cactus with multiple stems branching from the base.
Carnegiea gigantea - The saguaro cactus is a poster child for all cactus plants. There has been more artwork, statues, jewelry, and desert landscape paintings and drawings created with the saguaro cactus as the theme than any other desert plant. It is a very slow growing columnar cactus in which you will never see mature in your landscape during your lifetime if you plant one less than two meters tall.
It’s weight can change dramatically depending on the time of year. After the summer rainy season it’s weight can be three times the amount after a long dry spell, which is usually early summer after a dry spring. It’s native habitat, which is central and southern Arizona, has two rainy seasons: mid to late summer and then mid-winter. The summer rains come from Mexico. The winter rains come from the Pacific ocean to the west. In between these two periods the weather can be very hot and dry.
Young saguaro are typically protected by what is called a nurse plant. This is typically a thorny shrub or desert tree, such as a Palo Verde (Parkinsonia species). The nurse plant protects the young saguaro from the sun’s intense rays. Once the saguaro cactus is large enough it does not need the protection of the nurse plant. This also gives it time to spread its roots in a radius equaling it’s height just below the surface of the soil so that it can capture as much moisture as possible during a rain event.
Like other cold sensitive columnar cactus species, if it is rooted into the ground it tends to be more cold hardy than in the pot. However, you’ll still want to wrap the entire plant in a protective blanket before a hard freeze arrives.
If you are lucky enough to find a large rescued saguaro, you’ll want to make sure that the harvester marks the orientation of the plant in its original position. The north side of the plant will sun burn easily if it is not replanted in the same direction as it was raised. Sunburn does permanent damage to the cactus.
Cleistocactus strausii - A candle looking cactus species that is fairly cold hardy. It produces many skinny white spine stems nestled together in a tight vertical formation. It is cold hardy to at least 20F (-6.7C), but should be protected below that. When established it produces many horizontal red-pink tube flowers several times per year.
Oreocereus trollii and O. celsiana - These popular short columnar cactus species are also known as one of the many “Old Man Cactus” groups. They look very similar when young, having a mostly hidden body covered with white wool and barely protruding thick central spines. However, O. trollii stems stay shorter. As they grow older they begin to clump multiple stems from the base. O. celsiana stems will grow to 1.5 meters tall, O. trollii will top out at about half that. Both are fairly cold hardy and can handle bright sunlight. The white wool protects the body from sunburn.
Myrtillocactus geometrizans - This is another columnar cactus that has many uses, forms, and can be cut to suit.