How to Grow and Care for an Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis)
Cephalocereus senilis, commonly known as Old Man Cactus, is one of the most popular and identifiable Cactus family members. It is native to Mexico in areas such as Guanajuato and Hidalgo, located in the east. The fine white hairs cover the entire fleshy, columnar body and hide the sharp spines. Aside from its charm, the hair serves an important purpose. It protects against the harsh desert sun, which is common to this plant's native home.
This cactus can go outside in USDA hardiness zones 9 and 10. Native to Mexico, they need hot, dry climates and bright sunlight. The long hair is used by the plant to keep itself cool in its natural habitat. As an outdoor plant, they can get 45 feet tall but are generally slow-growing as potted plants.
Old Man Cacti are mostly grown as houseplants. They stay small and are easily kept in containers for their entire lives. Indoor cactus growing requires a southern- or western-facing window and temperatures of at least 65˚F. (18˚C). For best growth, give it a winter hibernation period in an area below 65˚F (18˚C).
Photo via plantsrescue.com
Use a cactus mix or blend of sand, perlite, and topsoil for indoor cactus growing. Also, use an unglazed pot for growing Old Man Cactus. This will allow the pot to evaporate any excess moisture. Old Man Cactus like their soil on the dry side. Overwatering is a common cause of rot and disease.
Allow the top couple of inches of soil to dry out completely between waterings. In winter, reduce watering to once or twice during the season.
Fertilize with a cactus food in early spring, and you might be rewarded with thick pink flowers. In the plant's natural habitat, it grows a pinkish-red fruit, but this is rare in cultivation.
Old Man Cactus needs a sunny, warm location but has few other needs. You should watch it carefully for pests, however, which can hide in the hair. These include mealybugs, scale, and flying pests.
Old Man Cactus is easy to propagate from seeds and cuttings.
Seeds take a long time to grow into something recognizable as a cactus, but it is a cheap and fun project for children.
Cuttings need to lie out on the counter in a dry location for a couple of days to callus. Then insert the cut end with the dry, white callus into a soilless medium, such as sand or perlite. Keep the cutting in moderate, but not scalding, light where temperatures are at least 70˚F (21˚C) for best rooting. Don't water until the little cutting has rooted. Then treat your new Old Man Cactus houseplants as you would a mature specimen.
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How to Grow an Old Man Cactus
Use a cactus mix or blend of sand, perlite and topsoil for indoor cactus growing. Also, use an unglazed pot for growing old man cactus. This will allow the pot to evaporate any excess moisture. Old man cactus houseplants like their soil on the dry side and overwatering is a common cause of rot and disease.
Old man cactus needs a sunny, warm location but has few other needs. You should watch it carefully for pests, however, which can hide in the hair. These include mealybugs, scale, and flying pests.
It is actually best to grow this cactus from seed. Some experts say is the only way to grow them.
Trying to grow from cuttings or grafts can be a very tricky, and it’s easy to order seed online or purchase it from a cactus specialty nursery.
Like succulents, to plant it, prepare a shallow tray or pot of good potting soil. Spread the seeds evenly over the surface of the soil and mist with a spray bottle.
Cover the soil lightly with plastic wrap to hold in moisture and place the tray in a warm place with plenty of bright, indirect light.
Mist as needed to keep the soil very slightly moist. It may take three months for your seeds to sprout.
Here is an alternate method for starting cactus seed in vermiculite and then transplanting the seedlings to a 50/50 sand and potting soil mixture.
Although growing the Old Man cactus from seed can be fun, it does take a very long time.
In addition to the three-month germination period, these are very slow growing cactus. It will be quite a while before you have a nice specimen to add to your collection.
For these reasons, you may decide that purchasing one is the best idea.
As with all cactus, when buying check the base of the plant carefully to be sure you are not getting a cactus with root rot.
Additionally, because Cephalocereus senilis is endangered in its natural environment, only purchase nursery-grown plants and not those “poached” in the wild. [source]
Unlike many other types of cactus, the Old Man of the Andes needs a bit of special care. This does not mean the Cephalocereus senilis is hard to grow, just needs special attention.
It just requires It likes very specific soil and environmental conditions.
This, along with “cactus poaching” may explain why it is endangered in what has been its natural habitat.
The Cephalocereus senilis likes lots of bright light and heat. During the summertime, they should be kept in full sun in a window or setting with southern or western exposure.
It is important to allow the soil to dry completely and then drench the plant thoroughly. Light, frequent watering can cause rot.
In the wintertime, keep your Old Man Cactus in a very bright, cool, dry setting. It prefers temperatures ranging from 50° to 60° degrees Fahrenheit and very little watering.
It is also very important to get the soil just right. A good quality cactus mix is fine, or you can make a cactus mix using regular potting mix and sand – 50/50.
The potting soil you use should have a high mineral content and provide plenty of nourishment.
Grower Tip: Plant your Cephalocereus senilis in an unglazed or terracotta pots to absorb excess moisture and keep the soil medium on the dry side.
Once potted, these cacti do not like to be disturbed. Only repot once every three-to-five years.
In addition to needing extra care in terms of temperature, sun exposure, and watering, Old Man Cactus may also need an occasional shampoo.
If the hair becomes dirty or discolored, you can wash it with a mild mixture of water and organic soap, such as a liquid castile soap.
Rinse the plant under the tap with clear water to remove all traces of soap, and comb the hair in an upward direction to dry.
Place the plant in a warm area with good air circulation to facilitate quick and thorough drying.
Quick Old Man Cactus Care Growing Guide
Not only does this furry cactus with white hairs look like an Old Man, but it is also incredibly long-lived.
When grown in the wild in their homeland, some of these cacti have been known to live as long as two-hundred years and grow to be 20′ feet tall.
Cactus experts say the main reason they are able to live for so many years is that their long, soft, white hair protects them from both heat and cold and helps them retain moisture.
Although the long white hairs on the top are soft, this cactus must still be handled with care. The shaggy hair covers yellow sharp spines.
The scientific name of Old Man cactus is derived from both Greek and Latin. Cephalocereus comes from the Greek word, kephale, which means “head”, combined with the Latin word, cereus, which means “candle” or “wax taper”.
The name of the species is the Latin word, senilis, which means “Old Man”. Loosely translated, this cactus is a tall, thin Old Man with a head.
Frequently Asked Questions
The website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has declared Cephalocereus as safe and non-toxic for cats and dogs.
There are 3 probable factors that may contribute to the death of your Cephalocereus senilis: Overwatering, pest infestation, and fungal infection.
Read about these factors in the sections below.
As a member of the Cactus family, Cephalocereus senilis can tolerate extreme heat temperatures but will require a bit more water than most varieties of succulents. Giving it too much water, especially in the cold months, will cause its roots to rot.
The silky white hairs of Cephalocereus senilis may protect it from the threats posed by extreme weather conditions but they are also used as a hiding place by mealybugs and spider mites. Use a mild insecticide to get rid of these pests.
Overwatering and excessive use of fertilizer can lead to Old Man Cactus developing a type of fungal infection called phytophthora. The signs that point to this condition include sudden wilting and the plant acquiring green discoloration.
You can reduce the risk of Cephalocereus senilis developing infection by ensuring good drainage and following a tightly-controlled schedule for fertilization.
Cephalocereus senilis produces flowers in the summer but only after 10 to 20 years. The flowers come from its cephalium which does not develop until the plant reaches maturity.
This succulent’s whitish-yellow flowers measure 3-inches (8cm) long with a diameter of 2.75-inches (7cm) and are shaped like a trumpet. When in full bloom during the summer season, the flowers will be accompanied by fruits that are pinkish-red in color with yellowish hair and measure 0.8 to 1-inch (2-3cm) long.