Dr Green Fingers: Cacti

by Vicky Hurst
cacti and succulents

Cacti are notoriously easy-to-care-for plants, making them a popular choice for many beginner gardeners and those lacking a green thumb. But if your cactus becomes shrivelled, discoloured and loses its spikes, you may wonder where you went wrong. 

But if you’re asking yourself, am I the first person to kill a cactus? Let us alleviate your worries!

Here we have pulled together a basic guide to cacti that covers the tell-tale sign that your cactus is unwell, dying or dead and how you can save it!

Can You Kill a Cactus?

Although they are generally very easy to look after, cacti can still die if not given the proper care, no matter how little it is required. So, you’re certainly not the first person to kill a cactus!

5 Signs Your Cactus is Dead or Dying

If you’re not sure of the state of your cactus, here are five signs that your cactus is dying: 

1. Shrivelled Appearance

Species of different cacti can vary greatly in appearance, so there is no one-size-fits-all rule as to what a healthy cactus should like. However, if you suspect that the appearance has changed and not for the better, a simple Google search to compare your cactus to images online will help you get a better idea of its state. 

The good news is that a shrivelled appearance may signify that your cactus is dying and not already dead!

Generally, cacti should have plump and firm skin, and if your cacti look more withered and like a husk, it might be time to take action to revive it. 

2. Shaky Cacti 

Just like a person becomes shaky in old age, your cactus can become similarly unstable when its roots can no longer support it. So, if you notice that your cactus is shaky in its soil or has even fallen over in its soil, it is dead. 

Shaky cacti are usually the product of root rot, caused by either overwatering or underwatering, and unfortunately, there is no saving it. 

3. Discolouration 

If you notice discolouration, your cactus might be close to death or, in some cases, already dead. This will usually present as yellow patches on their way to turning brown. 

However, it is also important to note that a changing colour might be perfectly normal in some cases. For this reason, you should pay close attention to your cacti as soon as you start to notice a slight change and adapt your care for the cacti accordingly. 

Older cacti go through a process of ‘corking’, which essentially means they develop light brown skin over their green layer, giving them an aged appearance. 

4. Losing Spikes

If your cactus has strong, healthy spikes and you begin to notice them drop off, this is a sign that they are unwell or already dead. A cactus losing spikes may also be accompanied by discolouration around the spikes before they fall off and shrivelling. 

Once again, the cause of dropping spikes on a cactus is linked to root rot. 

5. Soft Texture and Bad Smells

As previously mentioned, cacti should feel plump and firm, so if you notice your cactus becomes soft or mushy to the touch, it could rot. This is due to cactus stem rot; however, the rot can occur in any part of the cactus and then spread to the rest of the plant. 

You might also be able to smell the rot on your cactus. If it starts giving off an unpleasant odour, the cactus is most likely dying and cannot be saved. 

If you notice just some small, wet spots, you can attempt to save the cactus by cutting these parts off and leaving them to dry out in a very sunny place. 

Why is My Cactus Dying?

Now that you know what warning signs to look for in the event of a dying or dead cactus let’s go over what may be causing it!

You’re Over or Underwatering It

This one might be a little confusing to get your head around, but it is possible to over or underwater your cactus. The plant requires a very specific amount of water for them to survive. However, the general rule of thumb is less is more for these plants. 

If you overwater your cactus, the roots will sit in a water pool leading to root rot. This will kill the cactus slowly but surely, with rot stemming from the roots and working its way to the rest of the plant. 

Many assume these desert plants don’t require any water, so the plant falls victim to underwatering. While the plant can certainly survive without as much water as other plants, it still requires some to survive. 

It’s Not Getting Enough Sun 

It is widely known that cacti are desert plants, and so naturally, they are biologically conditioned for the sun beating down on them. Suppose your cactus doesn’t get enough sunlight in your home or garden. In that case, it might communicate this to you through dropping stems, scraggly hairs, dull colour and little to no flowering. 

Similar to the water balance, it is also possible for your cactus to get too much sun, resulting in sunburn. The best course of action is to place or plant your cactus somewhere it may receive sun in the morning and then shade in the afternoon to find the right balance. 

There’s Inadequate Soil Drainage

Did you know that your cactus has a soil preference? They just can’t tell you!

Cacti thrive best in sandy or gravelly soil, and plant pots they sit in must have adequate drainage holes. If there is nowhere for overwatering to drain, the cactus will be left potted in a pool of water that badly affects the roots. The same result occurs if the cactus is potted in too absorbent soil. 

So, to give your cactus gets all the help and nutrients it needs, ensure any pots have drainage holes, the soil isn’t too absorbent, and you fertilise it infrequently!

Caring For Your Cactus 

We hope that your guide has given you the tools and advice needed to bring your cactus back from the brink. If it is sadly too late for your spiky friend, then make sure you use the advice learned here to take the best care of your next cactus plant

You can also find a range of plant care and food supplies to help you!

Alternatively, you can look for more unkillable house plants available in our collection to find a plant that will live its best life even with the bare minimum of care. 

Look for more care tips and advice in our Dr Green Fingers indoor plant guide.