The common name “cactus” refers to nearly 2,000 species of plants that belong to the Cactaceae plant family. They’re most recognizable for their fleshy bodies and spikey spines. However prickly they may be, cactus plants have a rich cultural tradition filled with meaning, symbolism, myths, and cultural significance.
The Meaning and Symbolism of Cactus Plants
The word cactus comes from the ancient Greek word κάκτος (kaktos). The philosopher, Theophrastus, used the word to describe a spiny plant thought to be Cynara cardunculus (commonly called artichoke thistle or cardoon). Despite its spiny appearance, cardoon is not a cactus but a member of the Asteraceae (aster) plant family.
Cactus Meaning in Floriography (The Victorian Language of Flowers)
In the Victorian language of flowers, cactus plants have several symbolic meanings that vary from one floriography text to another. These symbolic meanings include:
- I shall not survive you.
- When the stem dies, the leaf that grew out of its heart must perish too.
- I burn.
Modern Cactus Symbolism
Today, cacti are most strongly associated with power in the face of adversity, resilience, survival, strength, endurance, and courage due to their ability not only to withstand harsh environmental conditions but to thrive in them.
Additional symbolic meanings include chastity due to their spines, maternal or parental love and warmth for a child, and the ability to draw inspiration out of emptiness.
Cactus Colors and Their Symbolic Meanings
On top of the basic symbolic associations of cacti, the colors of their flowers can also impart unique meanings.
- White and Yellow – Both white and yellow cactus flowers symbolize endurance and strength, the same symbolic meaning as any cactus.
- Pink and Orange – Pink or orange flowers on a cactus symbolize youth and beauty.
- Green – Green flowers on a cactus symbolize good luck.
- Blue – Blue cactus flowers represent loyalty and faithfulness.
- Red – A cactus with red flowers is often given as a birthday gift to symbolize well-wishing, longevity, and good health.
Cacti in Japanese Hanakotoba
In the art of Japanese hanakotoba (Japan’s version of floriography), cacti and cactus flowers symbolize sexual attraction and lust. So, giving someone a cactus as a gift is like sending a love letter.
Cacti in Feng Shui
It is said that placing a cactus in the bedroom can harm your relationship, putting one in the office can attract people with bad intentions, and putting one in the living room can cause discord with your family.
If you love cacti, however, healthy cactus plants can be placed in windows or on balconies to help neutralize the poison arrows coming toward the dwelling from the outside environment.
Cacti in Art
The famous Tucson, Arizona artist Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia frequently featured saguaro cactuses and their flowers in his artwork depicting the Native American peoples of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Cacti in Native American Culture
Certain cactus plants have a prominent place in Native American culture. For example, the saguaro cactus is regarded as sacred by the Tohono O’odham people, who believe it sustains them both physically and spiritually, as the saguaro’s summer fruits follow its crown of white spring flowers and are an essential food source for both the people and the wildlife of the southwestern region.
Their mythologies tell the story of the creation of the first saguaro, which sprang to life after a young woman sank beneath the ground and arose from the earth as an enormous cactus with its arms raised toward the sky. Now, the maiden puts a ring of white flowers in her hair each spring and bears the fruit called bahidaj. People harvest the fruits of the saguaro cacti each year with long poles. The fruits are then rubbed over the heart and placed on the ground to be dried by the sun. The sun takes up the moisture and makes the rain that arrives during the region’s monsoon season.
Arizona’s State Flower
Home to the Saguaro National Park, Arizona’s state flower is the waxy white blossom of the saguaro cactus. The blossoms appear in clusters atop the cacti arms during May and June.
Suitable Occasions to Gift a Cactus Plant
With a variety of symbolic meanings, cacti can make great gifts on a variety of occasions. A symbol of strength, a cactus is suitable for anyone who is enduring a difficult situation. Symbols of motherly love, a cactus can be an exciting alternative to carnations on Mother’s Day. They’re also a fun gift for a romantic partner. Cacti with red flowers are also commonly gifted on birthdays.
Uses and Benefits of Cactus Plants
With such great variety in the cactus family, many types of cacti have different uses. Plants of the Opuntia (prickly pear) genus have a long history of use as a food source for the peoples of the Americas, and they are still eaten today. Additionally, several cacti species produce fleshy fruits that are almost always edible.
Additionally, certain species of cacti are used in herbal medicine practices, and others contain psychoactive ingredients (mescaline) that have been historically used for their vast array of hallucinogenic effects.
A specific type of scale insect that lives on certain species of prickly pears is responsible for the production of cochineal, a popular red dye used worldwide.
About Cactus Plants
The Cactaceae plant family is nearly entirely endemic to the New World, with a native range spanning from the southern tip of South America to southern Canada. However, one species of cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) is also found growing in the Old World in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and parts of central Africa.
The family of plants features waxy, flesh-like foliage, spiny or spiky leaves, segmented stems, and areoles. The family has significant variability in appearance with branched, unbranched, clustered, short, tall, globular, epiphytic, and tree-like growth habits. Cactus roots are often fine, shallow, and far-spreading.
How Many Different Types of Cacti Are There?
The Cactaceae (cactus) plant family contains 150 accepted genera of plants and nearly 2,000 individual species.
Where Do Cactus Plants Typically Grow?
Cacti have unique adaptations that enable them to thrive in extremely arid environments. As a result, they are commonly found growing in deserts.
What Symbolic Meanings Are Associated With Cacti?
Cacti are most commonly associated with strength, resilience, endurance, courage, and power in the face of adversity.
What Is the Spiritual Meaning of Cacti
Spiritually, cacti are associated with ideas of strength, endurance, protection, courage, and adaptability. They represent the ability to persevere through difficult times, a strength that deep spirituality and faith can help to cultivate.
Do Cactus Plants Really Bring Bad Luck?
Certain traditions, like Feng Shui, classify cactus plants as bad luck because, in these traditions, they are believed to attract negative energy. However, in emergency situations in the desert, coming across a suitable cactus species (prickly pear or fishhook barrel cactus) can be pretty lucky, as these cacti hold potable water within their fleshy structures. Although most cactus water is not safe to drink, finding the right cactus at the right time could save your life in a dire situation.
Prickly but Tough, the Symbolism of Cactus Plants
Although cacti might be prickly to the touch, they are beautiful to look at, rich in symbolic meaning, fun to collect, and famously easy to grow, thanks to their low-maintenance needs for almost no water and no feeding. So, don’t be afraid to bring a cactus into your home or give one to your partner, your mom, or a friend going through difficult times.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.