Cacti / Desert Succulents

Flowers with pointed pink petals and yellow centers are scattered amongst a sea of prickly thorns on cacti.
Close up of pink flowers on prickly cactus.

NPS Photo / Michael Quinn

Common Cacti and Succulents at Grand Canyon

Cacti are flowering plants with green, fleshy stems which have a waxy coat to retain water. They have spines, as opposed to leaves, and some have glochids, which are tiny barbed bristles. Grand Canyon cacti most commonly have flowers of red, purple or yellow. The majority grow in the inner canyon, although several species are found on the rim. This plant list barely scratches the surface of what is found at Grand Canyon. For an in-depth look, refer to a more complete list of plants in the park.

Cluster of white oval shaped flowers are centered between large narrow green leaves with pointed ends and spirals on their edges.
Banana Yucca
Yucca baccata – Asparagaceae

NPS Photo / Robb Hannawacker

Banana Yucca

Yucca baccataAsparagaceae

  • Perennial succulent with long wide spine tipped leaves (about 40 inches long) and curly fibers that come off the leaf edges.
  • Flowers are a creamy white color and flower in the spring. They often are in the shape of a banana! Flowers never get taller than the length of the leaves surrounding it.
  • Pollinated by the yucca moth, which lays its eggs on in the flowers and depends on the seeds for food.
  • Fruits were roasted and eaten as a delicacy and fibers were used to make rope, sandals, and baskets by native people.
  • Often confused with Utah Agave (below); main differentiation is the stringy fibers on the Banana Yucca.
A spherical shape plant with long narrow spiky leaves sits perched on the edge of Grand Canyon.
Utah Agave/Century Plant
Agave utahensis – Asparagaceae

NPS Photo / Ty Karlovetz

Utah Agave/Century Plant

Agave utahensisAsparagaceae

  • Large leaves form a spherical shape; each leaf is a succulent-like texture and has pointed tips and spines running up either side
  • Flowers between June and August, but only flowers once in it's lifetime. Stalks can be 6 to 20 feet (2 to 6 meters) tall! During their blooming year, they will appear green and fleshy; afterwards they turn brown and have died off
  • Live in very procarious locations: steep cliffsides, dry slopes, and at a huge elevation gradient, from 3000 to 7500 feet (900 to 2300 meters)
  • Fibers are used to make brooms, brushes, and blankets among various native people
Green paddle cactus with multiple sets of two thorns has an open bright yellow flower on top.
Prickly Pear Cactus
Opuntia spp. – Cactaceae

NPS Photo

Prickly Pear Cactus

Opuntia spp. – Cactaceae

  • Stems can branch off of each other and appear as staked paddles on top of each other
  • Hard to differentiate specific species of Opuntia due to their ability to hybridize (cross-breed) with each other; there are over 180 species in the genus
  • Some have long sharp spines (modified leaves), while others are non-existent
  • Flowers come in a variety of colors, such as yellow, orange, pink, purple, and red
  • Both fruits and paddles are used as food sources, and still regularly eaten today
Cylinder shaped cactus branches with many sharp white needles features four fully bloomed yellow flowers.
Whipple Cholla
Cylindropuntia whipplei – Cactaceae

NPS Photo / Ty Karlovetz

Whipple Cholla

Cylindropuntia whippleiCactaceae

  • Clusters of 4 to 14 spines per areole, scaled upwards along each stem of the cholla
  • Flowers are yellow, with yellow green centers
  • Stems are long cylinder shapes and come in a dark green hue
  • Found in a variety of habitats, but generally between 4500 and 7000 feet (1400 to 2100 meter) elevation, and throughout Grand Canyon
  • Used as a food source: fruits could be eaten raw, cooked, or dried
  • Also used to create ceremonial objects in the form of cactus prayer sticks
Small ball shaped cactus with radiating spines has a bright pink centered flower that gradiates to white on the tips.
Arizona Fishhook Pincushion
Mammillaria grahamii – Cactaceae

NPS Photo / R. Anderson

Arizona Fishhook Pincushion

Mammillaria grahamiiCactaceae

  • Grows either by itself or branched and clustered with other stems
  • Spines radiate around the areole in sets of 26 and 33 needles; also contains a hook-shaped spine which are a darker color
  • Flowers gradiate from a dark pink center to white tips, with yellow stigma in the center
  • Fruits are bright red and a long cylinder shape
  • Prefers sandy or rocky soils, and can be found at 2000 and 5000 feet (600 to 1500 meters) elevation
  • Fruits can be eaten fresh or dried, and made a great snack for children; could also be boiled and used as an ear ache remedy
Small green cactus balls with symmetrical spines have multiple red orange flowers in bloom.
Claretcup Hedgehog Cactus
Echinocereus triglochidiatus – Cactaceae

NPS Photo / Ty Karlovetz

Claretcup Hedgehog Cactus

Echinocereus triglochidiatus Cactaceae

  • Lots of ball shaped branches that form a large mound, making up the plant
  • Modified "leaves," or spines, are bunched between 3 and 11 per areole
  • Flowers generally point upward and form a cup-like shape; they are some shade of red, whether more orange or more deep red.
  • Prefers to live in sandy areas, particularly on slopes; can generally be found between 3500 and 9000 feet (1000 to 2700 meters), making Grand Canyon the perfect place for this cactus
  • Used for emergency water sources; fruits were used as food supply, and could be made into jam or even baked
Dome shaped cactus has pale tan curved needles and sits on a ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon.
cottontop cactus or barrel cactus
Echinocactus polycephala

NPS Photo

Cottontop Cactus

Echinocactus polycephalusCactaceae

  • Can grow in solitary, but as it matures, modified stems tend to bunch into multiple mounds
  • Spines can be a red or tan color and can curl at their ends; they can cluster in 10-19 spines in one areole
  • Flowers are generally yellow all around, except for the tips; tips look like they were dipped in red paint
  • Fruits look like tiny cottonballs, hence the common name
  • Prefers to live on rocky soil and in washed out areas of the canyon
Four tiny small cacti form one plant, with tiny spines, and five pink flowers with yellow centers.
Pincushion Cactus/Spinystar
Escobaria vivipara – Cactaceae

NPS Photo / Ty Karlovetz

Pincushion Cactus/Spinystar

Escobaria viviparaCactaceae

  • Multiple "stems" (rounded shapes) can form togehter and create a mound, making one large cactus, or grow in a solitary (alone) manner
  • Each set of "leaves" can have between 12 and 40 individual spines!
  • Flowers are generally a pink or purple hue with a yellow center
  • Prefer to live in sandy soils, especially within layers of limestone
  • Fruits can be used as a food source, eaten either raw or boiled

Last updated: October 8, 2021

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