During the winter months, many cacti plants go into a dormant state where they conserve energy in order to survive until conditions improve. In this state, the cactus may lose some of its stems, and its growth may slow or stop completely.
While a moderate winter won’t harm the cactus, prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures is fatal. Most cacti get damaged in temperatures below 25°F (-4°C). However, the nature of the damage depends on the species and the severity of the freeze.
It’s important to note that freezing temperature is not the only factor that affects the survival of cacti during winter. Moisture, humidity, and light also play a significant role. Therefore, I’ll explain how to keep a cactus alive and healthy during the winter period.
Can cactus survive winter?
Cacti are remarkably hardy, but some are more cold-tolerant than others and can survive freezing temperatures for short periods. Most cacti get damaged in temperatures below 25°F (-4°C). The cactus may even die in prolonged periods of exposure.
Therefore, cacti grown indoors as houseplants will easily survive winter unlike those grown outdoors. In fact, winter is a great period for a cactus to rest. The cold temperatures and short daytime are necessary for blooming particularly in holiday cacti.
Frost damage commonly causes the cactus to get soft and mushy. Other symptoms include discoloration, wilting, and cactus falling over. If your cactus has been exposed to frost, here are some steps you can take to save it:
- Move the cactus indoors or to a warmer place to prevent further frost damage.
- If the damage is minor, wait for the frost to thaw and then remove any damaged or discolored tissue with a clean, sharp knife.
- If the damage is severe, it may be necessary to cut the plant back to healthy tissue or even start over with a new plant.
- Provide extra care and attention to the cactus during its recovery period. Water it sparingly and make sure it receives plenty of bright light to help it recover.
How to keep cactus alive in winter
If you live in an area with cold winters, it’s important to grow cactus species that are adapted to your climate or those that can tolerate low temperatures. To keep your cactus healthy during the freezing spells, here is what to do:
During winter, cacti enter a dormant stage and don’t require as much water as they do during the growing season. Overwatering during winter can lead to root rot and other fungal problems. Water your cactus sparingly, probably once per month, and only when the soil is dry to the touch.
Provide good drainage
Make sure your cactus is planted in well-draining soil and in a pot with drainage holes to prevent water from pooling around the roots. Poor drainage stops air from reaching the roots and this makes them suffocate and die.
Provide adequate light
Cacti need bright light to thrive, even during winter. If your cactus is growing indoors, place it near an east or south-facing window where it can receive as much sunlight as possible. You may also place it under grow lights if your home is not receiving enough sunlight.
Keep the temperature consistent
Cacti can be damaged by sudden temperature fluctuations. Keep your cactus in a location where the temperature is relatively stable, such as near a window or in a greenhouse. Avoid placing it near cold drafts, fireplaces, or heaters.
Protect from frost
If your cactus is growing outdoors, cover it with a frost cloth or other protective material like burlap during extreme cold winters. You can also move your cactus indoors and adjust the temperatures to what it likes.
Do not fertilize
It is advisable not to feed your cactus during winter. The succulents are usually in a dormant state and not actively growing thus don’t need more nutrients. Fertilizing during winter can kill the cactus or lead to overgrowth problems.
Cold-hardy cactus species
There are many cold-hardy cactus species that can survive freezing temperatures. Here are a few examples:
- Opuntia fragilis: This cactus, also known as the brittle prickly pear, is native to the northern United States and several Canadian provinces. It can tolerate temperatures as low as -40°F (-40°C).
- Escobaria vivipara: This cactus is native to the western United States, Mexico, and Canada and can tolerate temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C).
- Echinocereus reichenbachii: This cactus also known as lace hedgehog cactus is native to the southern United States, and northern Mexico and can tolerate temperatures as low as -10°F (-23°C).
- Ferocactus wislizeni: This cactus, also known as the Arizona barrel cactus, is native to the southwestern United States and can tolerate temperatures as low as 15°F (-9°C).
- Coryphantha missouriensis: This cactus also known as the Missouri foxtail cactusis native to the central and western United States and can tolerate temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C).
If you live in a region with cold winters and you want to grow cacti, it’s important to choose species that are adapted to your local climate. Further, provide your succulents with proper protection during extremely cold winters by bringing them indoors or covering them with frost-protective materials.
Since moisture, humidity, and light also plays a significant role, ensure that your cactus is sparingly watered during winter and it is receiving sufficient sunlight. Do not repot or transplant a cactus during winter as this can kill it.
Care of Non-Hardy Cacti & Succulents, by Cornell Cooperative Extension
Prevention and Care of Freeze Damage, by Desert Botanical Garden
Pruning Cacti And Other Desert Succulents, University of Nevada
My name is Diane M Lewik, and I am the founder of this website. I am a degree holder in plant biology from the University of California – Berkeley. Over years, I have cultivated a vast collection of succulents and I have learned a great deal about how to grow and care for these unique plants.