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Cactus Flowers - Fake or Real?



On the cacti forum, this is a common situation: A person, new to cactus growing, posts a picture of their "flowering" cactus plant in the identification section. Often times they are quite proud of their long-lasting and attractive blooms. As more seasoned growers respond to the post, they point out that the flowers are, in fact, glued on and not flowers produced by the cactus plant. Now confused and embarrassed, the new cactus grower often insists that the flowers are real because they open and close. Further prompted by those who have "been there, done that", the novice grower investigates further and eventually comes to the realization that the flowers are indeed held on by glue. At this point, the feeling of excitement, since replaced by embarrassment, now becomes anger and inevitably the question follows, "Why would anyone do that?".

fake flowers on cacti
1. Various cacti and succulents for sale with glued-on flowers

In this article, I will discuss the details of this practice including: -what it is, -how to identify it, -what to do about it, and I will even point out an positive outcome from this obvious deception. In doing so, I hope to put at ease those who feel they were duped by pointing out just how common it is to fall for this trick and educating them on future purchases.

fake flowers on cactus 2. At left, a Cereus with different colored straw flowers.

3. At right, a small Cleistocactus with a single glued-on flower at the top.
straw flowers on cactus

One reason that so many people are confused by this, is that the flowers are not actually "fake", but real. Technically it is an inflorescence, but for practical reasons, I refer to them as flowers in this article. They can come from one of several species of plant commonly known as "Strawflowers" or "Everlastings". These are so named because when dried, these flowers have a crisp, straw-like texture and last for many months. They come in a variety of colors, but most the most compelling feature is that they can open and close based on humidity/moisture despite being long dead. For more information on these fascinating plants, here are two links with more detailed info:

www.killerplants.com -info on the open/close action
www.howstuffworks.com -info on various species

Now that you know what the impostors are, you will be better equipped to spot one in the store. If you are a novice, just remember those common names: "strawflower" and "everlasting". Those are both useful descriptive names that are a contrast to real cactus flowers. If it feels papery or straw-like, it isn't a cactus flower. Likewise, if a single flower lasts more than 1 week, it isn't a cactus flower as most cactus flowers only last a day or two at best. As you progress in you cactus knowledge, you'll be able to spot a "fake" from a mile away because you'll know what a cactus flower is supposed to look like. You will also learn where to expect flowers on various cacti - that is not like the picture at the top of this page with flowers stuck all over the place. That being said, it is sometimes not quite so obvious at first glance. In the picture below, are the flowers "real" or "fake"? The answer here is "both"! The orange-red flowers are glued on, while the pink flowers are from the plant.

glued-on flowers cacti
Mammillaria polythele with both "real" and "fake" flowers

I promised an "upside" to this situation, but before discussing that, we will explore the problems. Most obvious of the problems, is the deception. Clearly, these flowers are glued on to entice the buyer and so the phrase "caveat emptor " is proven once again. However, aside from getting something that wasn't what it seemed, there is secondary problem that the new owner must face - how to get the flowers off. While I suspect there are possibly some who don't mind the strawflower/cactus combination, everyone I've encountered can't get them off fast enough once they've been made aware of the situation.

Sometimes pins are used to attach the strawflowers and those can just be pulled out. There will be damage from the pin sticking the cactus, but that isn't life-threatening. Most of the time, however, the strawflowers are attached with a hot-glue gun. Simply pulling off a hot-glue flower is not recommended as it will take the spines and a good chunk of the cactus with it. Again, this is unlikely to kill the cactus plant, but it will make an unsightly scar. The picture below shows the aftermath of removing a strawflower. In this case it wasn't pulled off, but carefully removed - illustrating how hard it is to avoid damage. Note also the left-over glue in the spines. One cactus grower highly recommends using an exacto-knife and heating it on a flame. You then melt/cut the glue off with the hot blade. While not 100% effective, this method seems to minimize the damage.

removing glue flowers cactus
At last, I'll discuss the positive outcome based on my own observations. These artificially attached flowers actually act as an "attention getter" so-to-speak. Many people who would otherwise not give a cactus plant a second look at the garden center, make an impulse purchase because of the strawflowers. Later on, these people realize they don't know much about their new purchase and seek to identify and learn how to care for it. It is during this discovery process that they learn the truth about the so-called flower(s). As logic follows, most want to know what the real flower is supposed to look like. While short-lived, the real flowers are many times more impressive and the new grower wants to know how to get the plant to flower for real. Before long, they are back at the store looking for more cacti to purchase. Hence, the impulse buy based on a deception, introduces another new person to the world of cacti that otherwise wouldn't have had anything to do with them. After all, it isn't often that those with large cactus collections are purchasing these plants, but typically those with no previous cactus experience.

In conclusion, if you have just found out the hard way that your cactus isn't actually flowering non-stop for you, do not dismay! Remember, many others have experienced the same disappointment. More importantly, you have now been introduced to the wonderful world of cacti and are ready to embark on a very rewarding hobby that you might otherwise have missed!

Author: Daiv Freeman

Photo Credits: Pics 1 & 2 -Buck Hemenway, Pic 3 -vsorge17, Pics 4 & 5 -StrUktO
Index of Articles
Introductory and Naming
     Wherefore Art Thou Cactaceae?
     How to Write a Scientific Name Correctly
     Cacti & Succulent Identification
     Cereus Peruvianus -The Least and Best Known Cactus
     More About Cereus Peruvianus

Cultivation and How-To
     The Sun Burned Cacti
     Grafting on Pereskiopsis
     Making Your Own Cactus Soil
     Growing NON-Hardy Cacti in Cold Climates
     Tools of the Trade
     Growing Cactus with Artificial Light
     Making a Hypertufa Planter
     Cactus Flowers - Fake or Real?
     How-To-NOT Build a Cactus Terrarium
     Raising Cactus From Seed
     Growing Cacti in Terracotta

Conservation
     Is Cultivation Conservation?
     Interview: Cactus Conservation in Paraguay with Alex Arzberger
     The Fate of the Minnesota Ball Cactus

Variety
     A Cactus Odyssey in Arizona
     Mangrove Cactus
     Have a Cup of Cactus
     Opuntia as an Invasive Species in Australia
     The Creating of "Springtime Succulence"
     Making Botanical Illustrations
     Adapt or Perish
     Chasing the Wild Epis
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