This article was written by Scott McMahon, Collections Manager, Cactaceae.
People often wonder how we handle cacti without getting hurt or stuck by the spines. Well, there’s no trick, but rather experience combined with having the right tools on hand for getting the job done.
It is possible to move and plant all sizes of cacti, from small globular species and medium columnar types to large specimens that require heavy machinery. We can handle and plant unexpectedly large plants if the process is well researched and planned ahead.
For the individual gardener, the important point is to be prepared before getting started.
Dress for success
Part of being prepared is wearing the right clothing. Sturdy boots and pants such as jeans will help you keep from getting scratched, and long-sleeved shirts are preferable.
Be careful not to brush up against other cacti in the area, especially chollas and prickly pears, as those spines will detach and remain in your clothing to surprise you later when you least expect it.
If the cactus is marked for sun-related orientation, be sure to maintain its former direction when it is planted. If its new location is sunnier, place some shade cloth on the plant to make sure it doesn’t sunburn.
Tips for moving smaller cacti…
Cacti come in a variety of forms that require different ways of moving them around. For example, a pair of leather gloves is all you need to pick up or un-pot many species of cacti that are what is called globular—short and rounded.
Many globular species like pincushion cacti (Mammillaria) will have hooked central spines. If you get stuck on one, great care must be taken not to pull the spines out of the plant while detaching yourself from it. Pulling the central spine out of the cactus runs the risk of taking the entire areole with it, causing permanent damage and disrupting the uniformity of the spine pattern.
Even though a single spine might be able to penetrate a leather glove, a plant with numerous spines can be handled without any of them reaching your fingers. This is the “bed of nails” concept. Many spines will support the weight of the plant and distribute the force evenly.
That concept goes out the window when handling chollas and prickly pears, though, as many of you may attest. These plants have spines and glochids that are barbed and will stick to your gloves or skin like Velcro.
One of the tools you can use for this job is no farther away than your barbecue. Long-handled tongs are well suited for picking up small cholla stems and prickly pear pads.
For larger chollas and prickly pears, we use a more specialized tool called a beaker tong that has curved pincers that can encircle pads and stems without penetrating the delicate tissue. In this way, the stem can be picked up near the center of gravity and held at arm’s length, minimizing the risk of becoming a pincushion.
…and the larger ones
But what about handling those really large, heavy plants? Our exhibits often call for more mature barrel cacti, small saguaros, chollas and prickly pears. One tool we use extensively for moving them are pieces of carpet (no shag, please).
The other tool to use is a garden hose cut into six to ten-foot lengths—no need to cut up a new one, your old one will work just as well. The rubber surface of a hose will typically not catch the spines of a cactus, reducing damage to the plant during handling.
With hose pieces, we can lift and manipulate large plants onto carpet for easy transport to a planting site. The carpet can be used by itself to carry and raise a large cactus into a hole, or in combination with hose pieces. The bigger the plant, the more people will be needed to accomplish the task.
When replanting a large cactus, proper centering in the hole is critical for it to remain standing. This may require people in different places to steady the plant with hoses or carpet until the vertical position is established and backfill can begin.
We don’t like using props unless they are for big saguaros, and these are installed by companies equipped to transport and plant specimen-sized cacti.
We have had success using small boulders carefully placed at the base of a medium-sized cactus after the hole is partially backfilled. After they have done the job of compacting the soil, the boulders are then covered up to appear as if the plant has no extra support. For larger, heavier plants, use boulders that are partially above ground.
Techniques for transport
Whether they are big or small, cacti can be damaged during transport if they are not properly secured—in the back of a pickup, for example.
Again, it is essential to place carpet pieces under the plant to protect the spines and provide a cushion. Bags of potting soil can be used alongside large plants to keep them from rolling around.
Remember, the sheer weight of a large cactus could cause it to partially crush itself during transport, so slow down for bumps!
While saguaros and cardones have substantial skeletal structure, others such as totem poles, Espostoas, Cephalocereus, and other species with thin ribs are at risk of breaking if part of the plant is not supported, such as when they are hanging off the back of a vehicle. An extra board or sheet of plywood extending from the pickup bed will prevent this.
Planning ahead using these techniques will prevent many mistakes and ensure your cactus has the best chance for establishment in its new location.