- Old Lady cactus care
- Growing Mammillaria Cactus Facts
- Mammillaria Cactus Care
- When And How Often Do Mammillaria Bloom?
- How Long Does It Take Mammillaria To Mature?
- When Should Mammillaria Cactus Be Repotted?
- How Do You Propagate Mammillaria?
- What Are Some Common Pests & Problems Affecting Mammillaria?
- Follow These 9 Smart IPM Tips!
- How Do You Tell If You’re Overwatering Mammillaria Cactus?
- Best Uses For Mammillaria Cactus Indoors or Outdoors
- What Are The Most Popular Mammillaria Varieties?
- 14 Most Popular Mammillaria Varieties
- 13 Less Readily Available Mammillaria Varieties
- Mammillaria Buying Tips
- Mammillaria Cactus Are Fascinating And Easy To Grow
- Ask Mr. Smarty Plants
- Q: What is this white stuff on my prickly pear cactus?
Old Lady cactus care
Thanks for the replies. I emailed the distributor of the cactus about the fake flowers and got this reply:
“We would prefer not to do it, but as you pointed out, they sell 3 to 1 over the ones without the flowers so our customers require us to put them on. We’ve had several people accuse us of being deliberately deceptive which couldn’t be farther from the truth, so instead of using the natural strawflower, it looks like we will be switching to an obviously fake, plastic flower so there’s no question. Too bad, if we have to do it, it is at least nicer to use something that looks at least representative of a real cactus flower – oh well!”
“Removing it can cause some damage which is why we try to keep a supply of “un-strawflowered” plants available in the stores as well for people who would prefer them without, but that doesn’t always work out. Damage to the plant is not life threatening, but may cause a scar as cactus don’t repair damaged tissue. There’s a couple of things you can do. If you leave it on, it will eventually mostly slough off, but we’re talking a LONG time. The other thing to do is to snip it off with a pair of small, sharp scissors – like manicure type. You can trim it down all the way to the lump of glue and then nip most of that off as well, or cut the spines under it to remove it completely. If yours is a particularly hairy one, some of the hair from above may eventually over time, hide the bald spot.”
Resident Horticulturist – Altman Plants
Mammillaria (Pincushion or Nipple Cactus) is the genus name of an attractive type of succulent cactus plants native mostly to the southwest United States and Mexico with some having naturalized into the Caribbean.
There are around 300 species within the genus Mammillaria.
Many of the individual Mammillaria species look so much alike as to be almost indistinguishable. Others vary greatly in appearance and cultivation needs.
In this article, we discuss the care and uses of this interesting plant and share advice on selecting the right Mammillaria for your home, greenhouse, patio, yard, garden or windswept desert property.
These cacti are often confused with several other types of small cacti (e.g. Neolloydia, Epithelantha and Coryphantha). This confusion has led to as many as 400 different species being mistakenly identified in the past.
A great deal of meticulous research in the field, along with genetic analysis has gone into sorting out this jumble.
Now botanists are confident that the genus contains around 300 species.
You won’t find most of these species offered in nurseries, garden centers and shops.
The varieties for sale as houseplants are typically small and grow close to the ground in the wild. To recognize a true Mammillaria cactus, look for its spirally arranged, succulent nipple shaped tubercles.
Interestingly, the spines of true Mammillaria are arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence.
This means that each row of tubercles is equal in number to the sum of the two rows immediately above it.
When you view the plant from above, you should notice that it has a very organized and orderly appearance.
Growing Mammillaria Cactus Facts
Size & Growth vary greatly depending upon the species. Some Mammillaria top out at an inch high, others at a foot high.
Flowering & Fragrance vary greatly from one species to another. All grow in a crown-like formation surrounding the top of the plant.
Light & Temperature: Generally speaking, these plants like warm temperatures (50°-85° degrees Fahrenheit) and bright light.
Watering & Feeding should be sparse year round. During the spring, summer and early fall, water thoroughly when the soil is almost dry.
During the winter, reduce watering by half. Provide a half-strength feeding of a balanced cactus fertilizer at the beginning of spring and toward mid-summer.
Potting Soil & Transplanting: These cacti prefer a fairly rich, well-draining cactus mix. Repot or transplant infrequently as these plants do well when slightly root bound.
Grooming is Simple: Keep an eagle-eye out for any signs of rot, and cut it away immediately if you notice it. Otherwise, separate and repot pups when they become overcrowded.
USDA Hardiness Zone: Mammillaria are generally hardy in USDA zones 8-11; however, this may vary from species to species. Refer to the USDA Plant Profile Pages for more specific information.
The various species are native to habitats ranging from low desert to both cold and tropical forest settings. Their natural range extends across the southwestern US and throughout Central America.
Mammillaria Cactus Care
Care instructions for this genus of cacti vary greatly depending upon the species you select and how you choose to use this succulent plant.
Rugged outdoor plants require very little care. Keeping a cactus Indoors is another matter entirely.
When you keep indoor cactus, be sure to set up a sunny location in a room with a south-facing window during the winter time.
This setting provides the most sunlight. A window location is typically a bit cooler than the rest of the room, and this cool temperature during the winter months is necessary to spur Mammillaria to bloom during the growing season.
In the spring and the summertime, vary the location to provide your cactus the most light and heat.
Giving your plant an outdoor vacation in direct sunlight is a good idea.
How Often Should Indoor Mammillaria Cactus Be Watered?
During the growing season, let the top couple of inches of soil dry out before watering. Water the plant thoroughly, allowing excess water to run off. If your plant has a drip tray, be sure to empty it. These plants should never stand in water.
How Long Can You Go Without Watering A Mammillaria Cactus?
In wintertime, cut back on watering. You should only water about once a month, and then quite sparingly. Just give the plant enough water to prevent having it shrivel up. Be sure to keep your plant at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter and provide plenty of light.
How Much Fertilizer Does A Mammillaria Need?
You can fertilize your Mammillaria with a specially formulated cactus fertilizer or a very weak solution of houseplant fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus.
Don’t overfeed your cactus as this will encourage green growth and discourage blooming.
What Type Of Potting Soil Is Best For Mammillaria Cactus?
When you repot your Mammillaria, you can use a prepared cactus/succulent potting mix, or mix up your own combination of one part potting mix; one part coarse builder’s sand and one part loam.
When And How Often Do Mammillaria Bloom?
Only mature Mammillaria bloom, and when they do bloom they display an attractive crown of flowers surrounding the top of the plant.
Flowers come in a wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes, depending upon the species of Mammillaria.
Some of richly fragrant and very attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators.
Flowers of Mammillaria lenta up close
How Often Do Mammillaria Bloom?
In an ideal outdoor setting, these plants produce buds during one growing season and then go dormant through the winter and into the spring and early summer.
After the first summer rain, the buds open and the flowers last for about seven days. Healthy, happy Mammillaria may bloom several times during the growing season, always following a rain.
Flowers may mature into edible fruits. Some are tart and tasty, while others are quite bland. Generally speaking, these fruits are very small, and it is hard to gather enough to provide much nutrition.
How Long Does It Take Mammillaria To Mature?
It can take many years for a plant to mature, so you may not see a flowering plant for a very long time. You should also realize that desert cactus kept indoors may never bloom because they simply cannot get enough light. The only way of being sure you are getting a mature plant is to purchase one that is already in bloom.
When Should Mammillaria Cactus Be Repotted?
You should not need to repot your cactus more than once every couple of years. They do well when root bound but will need repotting if the cactus becomes top heavy or the pot becomes overcrowded with offsets.
Naturally, you should replace the soil every couple of years because it will become depleted and salts may build up from watering over time.
It is best to repot at the start of the growing season. Don’t water before repotting cactus as it is easier to knock away dry soil from the roots, and potting in dry soil helps prevent root rot.
Examine the roots carefully and cut away any portions that appear to be dead or rotten. Treat the areas you cut with a spritz of hydrogen peroxide or a fungicide. Learn more about using Hydrogen Peroxide for plants.
Put the plant into its new pot and surround it with your prepared cactus mix. Spread the roots out to give them room to grow. Don’t water right away. Wait about a week and then give the plant a light watering. Doing this helps prevent root rot.
Other Mammillaria Cactus Varieties to Grow:
- Mammillaria Cristata (Brain Cactus)
- Mammillaria gracilis (Thimble Cactus)
How Do You Propagate Mammillaria?
These cacti are easy to propagate either from seed or using offsets (pups). The pups spring up in clusters around the base of the parent plant. To propagate them, remove them carefully using a very sharp, sterile blade, or simply pull them away.
Lay the offsets on a clean paper towel in a sheltered, airy setting for a few days. This will allow a callus to form over the cut or area where the pup was separated from the parent plant.
When a callus has formed, you can put the pup into its own pot. Keep it in a warm, sheltered place with bright, indirect sunlight until it takes root. This may take a few days or a few weeks. Once the plant has established roots, you can treat it as a mature plant.
What Are Some Common Pests & Problems Affecting Mammillaria?
Most problems with cactus grown as houseplants involve fungal or bacterial diseases that are caused by excessive watering.
This is why it is very important to establish a sparing watering schedule and observe your plants carefully for any signs of rot.
These include black spots around the base of the plant and mushy flesh.
In addition to problems caused by overwatering, common houseplant pests are sometimes problematic. Among these are:
- Root Mealy Bugs
- Fungus Gnats (small black flies)
- Spider Mites
- Mealy Bugs
- Scale Insects
It can be very hard to get these pests under control once they are established because they are very small and hide quite effectively. Some of these pests have protective coatings that make it difficult to reach the actual insect with a pesticide or natural treatment.
To make matters worse, many common plant pests have developed resistance to commercial pesticides.
That’s why it is smart to maintain an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy when dealing with any and all garden and houseplant pests.
Follow These 9 Smart IPM Tips!
#1 – Keep your plants healthy by providing the right environment and the correct care. Healthy plants are better able to resist disease and pests.
#2 – Always quarantine new plants for at least three weeks to avoid bringing in illness or hitchhikers. If you discover problems with a new plant, keep it separate and treat it or toss it.
#3 – Use natural treatments first. Spider mites and mealybugs can often just be washed off with a strong spray of water. Remember to cover the soil with plastic to prevent overwatering your cactus in the process.
#4 – Examine and clean the roots of cactus when repotting or transplanting. Root mealybugs can be washed off the roots with a strong spray of water. Blot excess water from the roots and allow them to air dry for a few hours before continuing with repotting or transplanting.
#5 – Examine your cacti often for signs of scale and mealybugs. If you see just a few, you may be able to remove them easily with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
#6 – You can spray your cacti occasionally with a diluted rubbing alcohol solution. Mix up one part alcohol with three parts water for a spray that will help deflect these pests. Be sure to test spray a small spot on the plant before spraying the entire plant. Some cacti are sensitive to rubbing alcohol.
#7 – Trap fungus gnats with yellow sticky traps or set up small jars of apple cider vinegar (ACV) to trap them. To do this, you’ll need a small jar with a lid. Punch small holes in the lid (or use an old spice bottle that already has a lid with holes).
Pour about half an inch of ACV into the jar and screw on the lid. Place the jar among your plants. Gnats will fly in to get the ACV and won’t be able to get out, so they’ll drown in the ACV.
#8 – Make milder insecticides your first choice, applied sparingly and only when necessary. Neem oil and pyrethrins are good choices.
#9 – If you have a problem with pests that are hard to reach with sprays, use systemic insecticides such as acephate and imidacloprid. Follow packaging instructions carefully.
How Do You Tell If You’re Overwatering Mammillaria Cactus?
Remember that cactus doesn’t just tolerate drought, they need it. Their roots are very susceptible to rot, and it’s easy to kill them with too much water.
It may not seem that way at first, though. When a cactus first receives too much water, it may become very plump and begin putting out new growth.
Even when this is happening above ground, the roots are sure to be suffering under the soil.
When cactus roots become waterlogged, they start dying and rotting. Gradually, the rotten roots cause the seemingly healthy plant to start deteriorating.
The flesh becomes discolored and begins to soften. When this starts to happen, it may be too late to save the plant.
That’s why it is so important to monitor your cactus carefully and look for soft, discolored spots around the base of the plant.
How Do You Save An Overwatered Mammillaria Cactus?
If your cactus is showing signs of rot around the roots, you must remove it from its pot and use a sharp, sterilized blade to cut away the rotten parts.
Work from the bottom up, removing thin slices until you reach fresh, unaffected flesh.
Seal off the open cut with cornstarch, and allow the cutting to dry on a paper towel for a period of several weeks.
If your cutting is going to survive, it will produce a few roots during this time.
When this happens, carefully brush away the cornstarch and provide the cutting with its own new pot and fresh cactus mix.
Best Uses For Mammillaria Cactus Indoors or Outdoors
There are so many different types of Mammillaria cactus that, no matter what your setting or purpose, you can surely find a variety to suit your needs.
Some species are quite delicate and suited to a sheltered indoor setting. Some are rugged, low growing and fast-spreading and make marvelous additions to rock gardens and other challenging settings.
Still, others grow quite tall and exhibit isolated growth patterns, making them ideal as specimen plants in a cactus garden or centrally located planter.
A mini cactus garden is a good way to display several different varieties of Mammillaria indoors!
This video shows many of the more rugged varieties in their natural habitat and could inspire some great ideas for using Mammillaria in your own desert landscape.
What Are The Most Popular Mammillaria Varieties?
There are multitudinous species of Mammillarias cactus (Pincushion Cacti). All flower freely, and those that are readily available commercially are quite easy to take care of.
Many species of Mammillaria have very colorful, descriptive names based upon their appearance.
Still, others do not have common names in English but do have common names in Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish and/or Swedish.
Very often the common names are used interchangeably to refer to similar species within the genus.
Some have no common names at all. Here are just a few representatives of this interesting and abundant genus of cacti.
14 Most Popular Mammillaria Varieties
Mammillaria lower classifications.
#1 – Mammillaria tetrancistra (common Fishhook cactus) is found in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in the northern part of Mexico and in the southwestern US. It grows happily in a wide variety of desert settings. This plant has soft, white spines with a central, curved spine. Flowers are showy and pink.
#2 – Mammillaria backebergiana (Pincushion Cactus, known in Ukraine as Bakerberg Mammillaria) is a columnar cactus. Its spines are yellow or yellowish/brown. The cactus produces large, purple flowers.
#3 – Mammillaria plumosa (feather cactus) is a low-growing, clumping plant. It forms dense mounds that can cover quite a bit of ground with close-set, white, feathery spines. The flowers are off-white/yellow and sweetly fragrant.
#4 – Mammillaria spinosissima (Red-Headed Irishman) is very common the world over. It is easy to find this cactus offered in nurseries and other purveyors of plants. The plant has reddish, rusty colored spines.
#5 – Mammillaria baumii (Golden Pincushion Cactus)is a low-growing, clumping species with dense spines which obscure the stems. The funnel-shaped flowers are golden yellow and very fragrant.
#6 – Mammillaria elongata (Gold Lace Cactus, Ladyfinger Cactus) is available in a variety of shapes and colors. One version has copper-colored spines, another has regular white/tan spines, still others are oddly shaped (crested and brain-shaped). Flowers may be either pink or yellow.
#7 – Mammillaria zeilmanniana (Rose Pincushion Cactus)grows in clusters covered with dense, white “hair”. The flowers are deep red/violet.
#8 – Mammillaria bocasana (Snowball or Powder-puff Cactus)is extremely hardy. This cactus grows in clumps and is covered with dense, soft-looking white “hair”. Be careful, though, sharp fish-hook spines are hidden beneath the hair. The flowers of this species are quite small and may be white, yellow or pink.
#9 – Mammillaria candida (Snowball Pincushion) is a clumping cactus covered with pink-tipped, white spines. Cream-colored flowers emerge early in spring and transition to pink as the season progresses.
#10 – Mammillaria elegans (Pincushion Cactus)is a globular cactus hailing from Mexico. The cactus has white spines, soft wool and deep magenta flowers that last for an extended period of time.
#11 – Mammillaria hahniana (Old Lady Cactus or Superba) grows as a solitary specimen. This cactus is spherical in shape and produces dense, short white hairs. Flowers are reddish/purple. These very attractive cacti are hardy, carefree and easy to grow.
A Mammillaria hahniana (Old Lady Cactus or Superba) growing in gravel as a solitary specimen in Scotland greenhouse.
#13 – Mammillaria longimamma (Nipple Cactus, Finger Mound, Peyotillo)is unusual looking and quite popular with its “long nipples” (longimamma). The spines of this cactus are thin and sparse. Its flowers are a lovely, bright yellow.
#14 – Mammillaria rhodantha (Rainbow Pincushion)is a very popular, easy-to-find, easy-to-grow cactus. It has a solitary growth habit and may have either red or golden spines. Its flowers are pink.
13 Less Readily Available Mammillaria Varieties
#1 – Mammillaria grahamii (Fishhook Pincushion or Graham’s Nipple cactus) is also called the Cabeza de Viejo (Old Man’s Head) in Spanish. This cactus grows in abundance in the Arizona Upland, where it can be found amidst debris underneath various desert shrubs.
This cactus prefers partial shade. It is a rugged, robust cactus that grows abundantly in challenging settings throughout the deserts of the southwestern US and Mexico. It can do well in landscape settings such as desert gardens and rock gardens.
#2 – Mammillaria compressa (Mother of Hundreds)grows in rather large mounds. Its spines are sparse, and its flesh is a dull, pale shade of green. Flowers are pink.
#3 – Mammillaria decipiens (Bird’s-nest Pincushion) has an interesting, low-growing growth habits. It’s limbs are prominently nippled, and its long, curling spines whorl together to create a bird’s nest appearance.
#4 – Mammillaria formosa (Owl Eyes or Royal Cross) is a globular plant with extremely short spines that do not stick in skin.
#5 – Mammillaria karwinskiana (Owl Eyes or Royal Cross)is a solitary specimen plant that produces offsets in a slow and sporadic manner. Its spines are sparse, and its flowers may be either bright yellow or pink.
#6 – Mammillaria geminispina (Twin Spined Cactus) comes in several forms. Some have long spines, and others have short spines. Some have a clumping growth habit, and others are columnar and grow in small groups. Some types have pink flowers, and others have light yellow flowers.
#7 – Mammillaria matudae (Thumb Cactus)has a tall, columnar growth habit. The plant tends to get top-heavy and may fall over if it is not braced. Spines are extremely short and close-spaced. The flowers are bright pink, and this species can be counted on to bloom year-round.
#8 – Mammillaria gigantea (Ukrainian common names Mammillaria Huge, Giant or the Giant) is a very large (4′ high) globular species with strong, fierce spines and stunningly beautiful flowers that range in color from deep pink to a silvery shade of yellow. This rugged plant may grow as a solitary specimen or grouped with others. It thrives in hot, dry sunny desert settings.
#9 – Mammillaria mystax (Cactus Mystax) is a barrel-shaped cactus with a solitary growth habit. It is very similar to Mammillaria gigantea. These hardy plants have short, thick spines and a very orderly, architectural appearance. This is a rugged species that does well with hot sun and very little water.
Flowers of Mammillaria mystax
#10 – Mammillaria vetula / Mammillaria gracilis (Thimble Cactus) is a very small and fragile species. It is globe-shaped and tends to produce lots of little offsets that fall off very easily if the plant is moved. The spines of this plant are pale colored and flat, so handling the plant does not cause injury. Even so, this plant is not usually kept in private collections because of its tendency to fall apart when moved. It’s best left in its natural habitat.
#11 – Mammillaria nivosa (Woolly Nipple Cactus) is a mat-forming cactus that can produce deceptively soft looking, wooly white mats a little over a foot wide. Its flowers are yellow and open at night. Flowers become interesting, deep red, club-shaped fruits.
#12 – Mammillaria mainiae (Counter-Clockwise Fishhook) is native to the washes, badlands and valleys of the Sonoran desert. This globe-shaped, small, slow-growing cactus thrives in rocky soil on slopes, hillsides and sand dunes. It likes lots and lots of sun and very little water. It is not a good candidate for container planting, but if you try, you must use a mineral based potting medium, and keep the plant completely dry during its winter dormancy.
#13 – Mammillaria dioica (Strawberry Cactus, Strawberry Pincushion, California Fishhook) grows naturally in Baja and northwestern Mexico.
The plant prefers rocky soil and often springs up in crevices between larger stones. This very small cactus may grow individually or in a grouping of small stems.
Maximum height for this species is 6″, but this is rare. It has short, firm “nipples” with an aureole of straight white spines. The central spine is longer and hook-shaped. The plant produces very small, yellow flowers.
Species without common names include:
Mammillaria theresae is a very small, very hardy species that produces almost non-existent spines. Showy flowers are a lush shade of violet/pink.
Mammillaria voburnensis grows to be about three inches high. It is a globe-shaped plant with interesting deep green/maroon flesh. The plant produces lots of offsets. Flowers are small and nondescript.
Mammillaria supertexta and Mammillaria albilanata look very much alike. They have very short, close-set spines that do not cause injury when the plant is handled. These species grow in a columnar shape. They produce offsets slowly. Both have pretty pink flowers.
For images of even more Mammillaria species, along with some good inspiration for container planting, view this Mexican video en Espanol!
Mammillaria Buying Tips
When shopping for Mammillaria or any cactus, there are a few things you can do to be sure of making the best purchase.
Buy your Mammillaria from a reputable dealer. Don’t gather them in the wild or purchase them from someone who may have done so. Cactus poaching is often illegal and leads to species extinction, which is a big problem.
Be sure the soil is dry. Remember that an overwatered cactus may look good on the top (for now) but bad things are happening underground.
Be sure that cactus is standing up straight. Leaning can be a symptom of lack of light or of root rot.
Bring a box to carry your cactus home. A plastic tote or cardboard box will protect your cactus (and you) from damage on the trip home.
It will keep the plant upright and prevent spilling soil out in your vehicle.
If there happens to be a little snake hiding in the soil (as has happened to this writer) it won’t be able to slither under the seat of your car if you put your new cactus in a box or tote.
Mammillaria Cactus Are Fascinating And Easy To Grow
Even though there are so many species, and a few of them are a bit picky, if you have had good luck with succulents and cactus in the past, you should be able to grow Mammillaria with great ease.
Just remember to place your plants correctly in winter and reduce watering to give them a good rest period.
Provide lots of bright sunshine and warm temperatures in the spring and summer, and before you know it your cacti will reward you with beautiful, fragrant blossoms.
Remember that a light touch on the fertilizer and the watering can are your most important keys to success with Mammillaria.
sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
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Thursday – July 04, 2013
From: tulsa, OK
Topic: Pests, Cacti and Succulents
Title: How to Control White Fungus on Prickly Pear Cactus?
Answered by: Anne Van Nest
Is there any kind of spray for our prickly pear that will help with the white fungus that has appeared on it?
Most often when a white fungus-like substance appears on prickly pear it is an insect infestation not a fungus disease. It is easy to confirm this by seeing if you can scrape off the white fluff and if the white substance produces a bright red juice when it is squeezed between your fingers. If this is the case it is in fact the cochineal insect that is on your prickly pear. The Cactus Doctor, www.thecactusdoctor.com has a discussion about this insect on this website. He writes, “When you see that your prickly pear and cholla cactus have white sticky mounds covering them, it means you have a cochineal (mealybug) problem. This is not a disease; it is actually an insect infestation. The white sticky mounds are the housing for cochineal bugs (also known as mealybugs). When these white sticky spots first start to appear it is best to spray them off the cactus pads with a power nozzle attached at the end of your hose. If the infestation begins to get out of control, I suggest treating the areas by scrubbing them with insecticidal soap or unscented dish soap. In small areas you can scrub with a toothbrush but for larger areas it is best to use a long-handled brush.”
Previously Mr. Smarty Plants answered a question about controlling cochineal insects on cholla cactus (similar to your prickly pears). Here’s what Larry and Brigid Larson wrote:
Feeding cochineals can damage the cacti, sometimes killing their host.
The Cactus Doctor discusses cochineal eradication. Their recommendations are:
1) A power nozzle attached at the end of your hose.
2) If the infestation begins to get out of control, treating the areas by scrubbing them with insecticidal soap or unscented dish soap was suggested. Neem Oil was also mentioned for a natural approach.
And Nan Hampton wrote the following for another Mr. Smarty Plants question about cochineal bugs on prickly pear cactus. (As you see it is a frequent question.)
Your cactus sounds as if it is infested with cochineal bugs (Dactylopius sp.). They are small scale insects that feed on the cactus. They produce fluffy white wax that hides their bodies as they feed on the cactus and protects them from the elements (drying out, in particular) and from predation. The fluffy wax also serves as a sail or balloon to float on the wind and take the bugs to a new patch of cactus. The bugs produce carminic acid that also helps protect them from predation, especially from ants. This carminic acid in the bugs has been used by indigenous peoples of southwestern North America, Central America and sub-tropical South America to make a brilliant red dye for centuries, perhaps millennia, to produce beautifully colored textiles. Originally, the cochineal bugs were limited to the New World. When the European explorers visited and saw the beautiful red cloth of the natives, they took the cochineal bugs back with them and now they occur all over the world. When a synthetic red dye was produced the demand for cochineal bugs decreased, although they have also been used to help control cactus populations. Recently, however, after it was determined that the synthetic red dyes can have adverse health side effects, there has been a renewed interest in growing cochineal bugs for red dye. The dye made from the bugs is currently used in cosmetics and as food coloring. Because of this, controlling cochineal bugs hasn’t really been a priority and, therefore, there isn’t a lot of information that I have been able to find for controlling them. If your infestation is small, I suggest scraping them off (carefully, to avoid the sharp cactus spines) and disposing of them. You might also be able to wash them off with a water under pressure. Test a small area first to be sure that you don’t injure your cactus and gather up and dispose of any of the insects that you wash off the cactus.
A similar set of solutions are also recommended by the University of Arizona Extension in a publication on Cactus Diseases.
Several webpages mentioned the use of insecticides, and Wikipedia mentioned several natural predators: “Several natural enemies can reduce the population of the insect on its cacti hosts. Of all the predators, insects seem to be the most important group. Insects and their larvae such as pyralid moths (order Lepidoptera), which destroy the cactus, and predators such as lady bugs (Coleoptera), various Diptera (such as Syrphidae and Chamaemyiidae), lacewings (Neuroptera), and ants (Hymenoptera) have been identified, as well as numerous parasitic wasps.”
Here’s some additional information about the fascinating world of the cochineal scale insect called Dactylopius coccus and the carmine dye that was so prized in the 15th century for coloring fabrics.
Mr. Smarty Plants also offered some further information about cochineal bugs and how they are harvested for natural dyes if this is of interest.
From the Image Gallery
Spineless prickly pear
Opuntia engelmannii var. engelmannii
Texas prickly pear
Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri
Texas prickly pear
Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri
Low prickly pear
Tulip prickly pear
Blind prickly pear
More Cacti and Succulents Questions
Non-blooming yuccas in Brooklyn CT
July 14, 2013 – I have outdoor yucca plants that don’t flower – – in full sun. Why?
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Getting rid of Adams needle (Yucca filamentosa)
June 24, 2009 – My friend is changing her flower beds around and is wanting to eliminate an Adam’s needle that has been there for several years. She has already dug it up and now is trying to get rid of all the new…
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Trimmng and fertilizing yucca
September 07, 2007 – Should I cut the stalks of the Yucca that have already bloomed or wait until they dry? How often should I fertilize?
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Topmost leaves on yucca are brown
June 08, 2009 – I live in the Lansing, Michigan area, in the lower peninsula and have a couple yuccas whose topmost leaves are brown emerging from winter. Do I prune those, or has the plant died? Thank you.
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Freeze damage on Barrel Cactus in Llano TX
March 04, 2011 – I believe my barrel cactus has freeze damage. The flesh turned yellow and is now turning dark. The base is still green. If I cut off the damaged top portion, leaving the green base, should it survive?…
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Q: What is this white stuff on my prickly pear cactus?
A: Thanks for bringing in a sample. The pest is actually called a cochineal insect. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp.) are native to the Americas. They are easy to grow and propagate making them an excellent choice for low water use landscaping. For fun, carefully scrape some of wax mass from the plant with a knife and crush it on a piece of paper. If this results in a deep red color, then you know you have the cochineal scale (Dactylopious spp.)
Cochineal remained one of the most important sources of red dyestuffs until the 1850s, when the first synthetic dyes, called aniline dyes, were produced. Cochineal is still commercially produced in Mexico and India to furnish the permanent brilliant red dye for foods, drinks, cosmetics and artists’ colors. The dye made from cochineal is often called carmine or carminic acid. You may want to look for these ingredients on the labels of some of your favorite shampoos, gelatins, fruit juices, candies, and other red-colored products.
The cochineal scale is a piercing/sucking insect which uses the cottony wax to shelter female insects and egg masses. The crawler stage is when they spread on and among cactus plants. Once settled, they spin the waxy fiber to protect them from predators and the weather. While these small insects utilize the plant for food, the damage is usually negligible. If a plant is seriously colonized and showing signs of decline, you can prune off the worst pads and discard them (always prune at the joints). Blast the remaining portion of the plant with a high pressure hose. This should expose and weaken the insects. Then spray the exposed scale with and insecticidal soap.
Posted: June 30, 2017
Category: Home Landscapes, Pests & Disease
Tags: cochineal scale, Dactylopious spp
Q: I don’t know what is on the beavertail cactus. It just appeared this summer. It’s about seven years old and I’ve never seen this white stuff before. The cactus doesn’t have a water source — no bubblers, no overspray — it’s completely on it’s own. I sent you a picture. What should I do?
A: This problem is called cochineal scale. This is a tiny insect that produces a white covering over its body to protect itself from the environment.
At the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Orchard in North Las Vegas we grow the prickly pear cactus, or beavertail, as a food for both its pads and its fruits, which Mexicans call nopales and tunas respectively.
Some of the cochineal scales produce a red dye that can be seen when the insect is physically harmed. These insects can crawl from place to place but once they find a location they like and set up house by producing that white outer covering they usually stay put and begin feeding. They feed by sucking plant juices from the cactus. When hundreds of them find homes on a cactus they can cause enough damage to kill the cactus.
You have so many of these scale insects that they merely cover the entire plant and its pads.
It is possible that a bird could have visited another cactus that was infested and transported them to your cactus. But it does not have to be birds, it could be people, insects or anything else that could transport them to your location.
They are difficult to control. We usually control these insects with a high-powered stream of water through a sweep nozzle attached to a hose. The stream of water or simply blasts the scales off all of the plant. During the heat of the summer, this has to be done about twice a week to keep them off.
Soapy water also can be used, but it seems not to add much of an advantage over straight water.
The insecticide Sevin also can be used but only after the scale insects have been swept off of the pads with a hose. However, you might be able to add an additive to the spray called a spreader and get adequate penetration of the white covering to control the protected insect. I’m sure it will take several applications of this insecticide each year to control this insect once the plants have been infested.
Some people believe that only stressed beavertail cactus are infested. I have seen both stressed and nonstressed plants heavily damaged by this insect.
Q: Our once-thriving and lovely 15-year-old or more Mimosa tree is still dying after watering with shock stuff and trimming dead branches.
A: The usual problem with Mimosa is mimosa wilt and, unfortunately, there is not much you can do about it. The disease is fungal and plugs the water-carrying system inside the tree.
This is a common problem with Mimosa, or silk tree, and is probably the reason we do not see very many old ones around. It is recommended to remove the tree and replace it.
The disease spreads from the soil into plant roots, particularly when the tree is in a weakened state. Mimosa trees should never be planted in rock mulch or in a dry area of a desert landscape.
Mimosa should be planted in the wetter areas of a desert landscape and would be best served with an organic mulch, regular watering and adequate fertilizer applications.
Bob Morris is an associate professor with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Direct gardening questions to the master gardener hot line at 257-5555 or contact Morris by e-mail at [email protected]