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4 Easy Rules to Keep Your Cactus Happy & Thriving

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Is there any plant weirder and more magical than the cactus? The dinosaurs of the plant world, cactuses embody the inhospitable places from which they come: “barren, hostile, repellent” landscapes, in the words of the late desert advocate and author Edward Abbey. The qualities this environment fosters in its vegetal habitants are too many to draw a clear picture of a cactus; imposingly huge or oddly tiny, limbs rising into the sky or snaking out wildly along the ground or contained in dense spheres, covered in psychedelic flowers and spiky thorns, the 2,000 species defy singular description.

Which means that, for people who love cactuses, there is much to delight in. Take the men of Cactus Store, a cactus nursery founded in 2014 by Max Martin, Carlos Morera, and Jeff Kaplon. “We are die-hard phytophiles with a particular interest in desert-adapted plants,” says Martin, broadly describing their obsession with sourcing, cultivating, and sharing cacti. And while the men are deeply interested in cactus horticulture (their site offers many useful tips for how to care for cacti), their mission is larger than simply growing and selling cactuses.

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“We like to think of Cactus Store as less of a ‘business’ than an adoption agency for homing rare and remarkable desert flora,” he says. And that’s what you’ll find in their stores, both their Echo Park shop in Los Angeles and their Lower East Side pop-up in New York: cactuses that push the visual boundaries of what you thought cactuses could be. From the reaching, tentacled South African Euphorbia stellata to the studded globular Astrophytum myriostigma topped with flowers that look like sea anemones, the plants they sell are not merely home decor but an invitation to a larger conversation about beauty, evolution, and the natural world.

Euphorbia stellata and Astrophytum myriostigma...now say that ten times fast. Photos by Cactus Store

“Enter at your own risk,” Abbey wrote of the desert. “Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures. Pray frequently.” The same words of warning could apply to those interested in domesticating a cactus. Luckily, we have a guide through the wilderness. Here are Cactus Store’s Max Martin’s thoughts on the best time of day to water a cactus, their recent rise in popularity, and why these plants are so special.

Cactus Store's New York shop is located at 5 Essex Street. Get there!
Cactus Store's New York shop is located at 5 Essex Street. Get there! Photo by Max Martin

SARAH WHITMAN-SALKIN: First off, do you prefer "cactuses" or "cacti" when speaking about these plants in the plural?

MAX MARTIN: Flexibility with nomenclature is a virtue in the plant world. We wouldn’t presume to correct anybody.

SWS: Where do you source your cactuses from?

MM: We get our plants from a myriad of sources: growers, other collectors, plant conservatories, retiring researchers, or people relocating to Siberia who can’t bring their desert collection with them.

SWS: When purchasing a cactus, what are some signs that people should look for to make sure that they're getting a healthy cactus from a good vendor?

MM: We see a lot of cacti in N.Y.C. storefronts that are dying from thirst. We also see cacti and succulents being sold in pots without drainage. These vendors are the unwitting executioners of otherwise innocent plants.

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SWS: There are so many different types of cactuses and thus different ways of caring for them...but is there one good rule of thumb to keep in mind when trying to grow a cactus indoors?

MM: Four rules actually:

  • Lots of bright sunlight.
  • Weekly water during spring and summer.
  • Decent air circulation.
  • A well-draining mineral soil.

SWS: Cactuses are naturally outdoor plants, but is there a certain type that thrives particularly well indoors?

MM: All plants are naturally outdoor plants. If however, a plant can get what it needs indoors, it will thrive there.

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SWS: Generally speaking, what's the best way to water cactuses?

MM: Two things to keep in mind:

  • Soak the soil completely until water drains out of the bottom of the pot.
  • Because the stomata [tiny pores on the surface] of a cactus remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, watering at dusk is the best way to hydrate a cactus.

SWS: What's the No. 1 mistake you see people make when caring for cactuses?

MM: Three equally-common and equally-grave mistakes: Too little sunlight indoors, underwatering in summer, and overwatering in winter.

SWS: If a person has neglected their cactus and the plant is looking small and shriveled, is there any hope for reviving it?

MM: A shriveled cactus is a thirsty cactus. If the problem isn’t fixed by proper watering, you can bring your plant in to our store and we will help you diagnose the issue.

Now that's what we call a cactus store!
Now that's what we call a cactus store! Photo by Max Martin

SWS: Succulents seem to be very popular these days (evidence: cactuses all over my Instagram feed). Why do you think they've become so fashionable and what do you think of this trend?

MM: Plants seem to be in vogue. So do clean air, organic food, and healthy living. We suspect this is more than a trend. Humans seem to be recalibrating to their relationship with nature itself. Something deep is underway and we feel privileged to be a part of it.

SWS: You recently expanded from L.A. to New York. What inspired the new shop?

MM: When the opportunity presented itself, we jumped. What continues to inspire the New York store is the enthusiasm that folks in New York have for our project. We are lucky to be propelled by that energy.

SWS: Are there cactuses that fare better in L.A. versus New York and vice versa?

MM: Absolutely. N.Y.C. presents some unique challenges. These set the parameters for what we are able to bring. We will not sell a plant in New York if it won’t also be happy there.

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SWS: Why do you love these plants?

MM: I like that you use the word “love.” Cactus Store wouldn't work if the relationship between plants and people didn't extend beyond simple notions of biological symbiosis. Like any love relationship, it is bigger than our ability to understand it. Our project is based on that relationship.

SWS: What's your current favorite cactus?

MM: Our favorite cactus is a happy cactus.

Are you a cactus fan? Tell us about it below!

Tags: New York City