Cactus and succulents Gardening

How to Recognize Fake Cactus Flowers

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All of these are real cacti … with but there isn’t a real cactus flower among them. Source: http://www.eastsidepatch.com

Every year, many houseplant enthusiasts, especially beginners, are taken in by a long-standing horticultural rip-off: cacti bearing fake flowers. This has been going on for at least 40 years, as I can remember seeing them when I was a kid. Cactus growers stick fake flowers on their plants simply to boost sales. And it works! I spoke (actually, I complained to) a local garden center owner and he said he keeps offering cacti with fake flowers them because they sell much better than healthy cacti.

The fake flowers are actually real, at least in a sense. They are the dried inflorescences of strawflowers (Xerochrysum bracteatum, syn. Bracteantha bracteatum and Helichrysum bracteatum), a garden annual. They’re used because they last for several years and are very easy to dye in a wide range of colors. But they’re not cactus flowers and that’s the rub.

Curiously, the fake flowers actually open and close. It’s in the nature of strawflowers, even dead strawflowers, to react to atmospheric humidity. Thus, the flower opens wide when the air is dry and closes when the air is humid, giving the impression that the flower is alive.

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This cactus has revealed its true color: yellow! The fake red flowers were glued on. If you look carefully, you can even see wounds where two fake flowers came loose leaving spineless scars on the plant. Source: gray cat, http://www.koiphen.com

In addition to having been tricked, the novice cactophile now has to deal with a plant that may have been damaged by the hot glue used to attach the flower and whose future growth is compromised by the flower permanently blocking sunlight from reaching vital cells on the plant’s stem.

How to Recognize a Fake Flower?

The easiest way of handling cactus with fake flowers is to avoid buying them. And for that, you’ll need to examine the flowers.

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Cacti simply don’t grow with a flower dead center on the tip of the stem, proving all these flowers are fake. Source: imgur.com

First, look where the flower is placed. Often, the grower sticks the flower directly on the growing point, that is, right the center of the stem. Real cacti never bloom that way. Their flowers always grow from more mature parts of the plant, sometimes squarely from the side of the plant, sometimes closer to the center, but never smack dab in the middle. If the flower is perfectly centered, it’s therefore not a real one.

The flower color can be an indication. Cactus with fake flowers usually arrive in trays and are so displayed in nurseries. If you see purple, violet or blue flowers in a group of what appears to be flowering cacti, they’re fake. Those just aren’t cactus flower colors. The same goes for bright green flowers. There are a few cacti with lime-green flowers, but never bright green.

And don’t be afraid to touch the flower. Real cactus flowers are soft as silk and don’t resist when you push on them. Strawflowers have a papery texture and are likely to crack if you try to bend them too much.

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Real cactus flowers (left) are borne on the tip of a stem (in fact, a receptacle). Fake cactus flowers (right) are simply glued on. Sources: Mario Morais, Wikimedia Commons and reddituploads.com

Or look at what connects the flower to the plant. Real cactus flowers are borne on a tubular stem (receptacle) that can be short or long depending on the species and is often spiny. On some smaller-flowering cacti, such as pincushion cacti (Mammillaria spp.), the stem is very short, but you can still see it has one if you look closely. Fake flowers, on the other hand, were attached to the plant using hot glue. If you gently lift the “petals” (actually, ray flowers), you’ll be able to see the glob of whitish glue underneath the flower.

Of course, you could always delay the purchase for a week or so: real cactus flowers are ephemeral, rarely remaining in good condition for more than 10 days. Indeed, some only last 24 hours! Strawflowers, though, are forever … well, almost: they can persist for two years or more. So if the same plant is still there two weeks later and apparently blooming just as heavily, its blooms are artificial.

Of course, if the blooming cactus that interests you has been in the store for a while, it may have dusty flowers … that is, it will if they’re fakes. Real cactus flowers aren’t around long enough to collect dust.

Grafted Cacti: Not Flowers Either

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These colorful globes aren’t flowers, they’re actually grafted cacti. Source: JHistory, Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes novice gardeners mistake the growths on top of grafted cacti, including the famous red cactus ball (Gymnocalycium mihanovicii friedrichii ‘Rubra’, also Hibotan), for flowers, but they’re actually a colorful cactus grafted onto a green cactus. So, the colored part is not a flower, but a plant. For more information on this phenomenon, read Red ball on a Green Cactus.

Removing Fake Flowers

Applying hot glue to a cactus stem damages it permanently, killing nearby cells. So, ideally you simply wouldn’t buy cacti with fake flowers. If it’s too late, you can remove them if you’re careful. This will, of course, leave a scar (there’s already a wound, after all!), but not always one that will be very visible.

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If you gently wiggle the fake flower back and forth, the glue will eventually come loose and you can remove it. Source: cactusmain

First, don’t simply try to yank the flower off: they’re not bandaids, after all! You risk tearing off a piece of skin or an areole (cottony growth from which spines emerge) and possibly some cactus flesh too, leaving a wound worse than the hot glue caused. Instead, try to gently pry the flower loose. Move it forward and backward, to the left and the right, then repeat. Eventually, you’ll feel the glue coming loose. Try doing this in hot weather: the glue will be softer and easier to remove. Some people recommend heating the glue first with a hot hair dryer, but that can damage nearby plant cells.

Sometimes the flowers are stuck more directly onto cactus needles rather than to the plant’s stem and if the needles are dense and intermingled, a few globs of glue may remain on the needles even after you’ve worked the flower free. If so, try carefully scraping the glue-covered needles with a sharp knife, moving from the base of the needle towards the tip. If you work on the plant carefully, you can sometimes remove all the glue.

Or just wait! Your cacti are not stones: they’re living plants and will continue to grow. As they do so and the shape of the stem changes, the glue may let go and if so, the flower will sometimes off fall all on its own.


That said, the best thing remains being aware of the rip-off and simply leaving cactus with fake flowers in the nursery. Caveat emptor!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

17 comments on “How to Recognize Fake Cactus Flowers

  1. I checked on my cactus today and noticed all the flowers were on the side….I was confused and touched them and they fell off. Then I saw the hot glue. I was like “I got swindled!”. Then I realized I know nothing about cacti except how to care for them so I googled and, MIND BLOWN, they’re pretty much all glued on 😂😂 My friends and I have recently delved into succulent planting, having plant & sips, and finding neat planters for eachother, so I shared this to my facebook so they won’t feel as silly as I did haha. So glad you wrote this!

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  3. Lizel Meyer

    Thank you for a very insightful piece of information!

  4. Should probably retitle this article. I thought you were actually going to share how to remove the glue. Not helpful.

    • Sorry, but the title is about recognizing the problem. You really can’t remove the glue without hurting the plant. Ideally, you would avoid buying mistreated plants.

      • Nicholas

        For what it’s worth, I don’t think you need to re-title this article. It’s informative and very helpful. Shame on those nurseries and retailers for damaging perfectly healthy cacti! Hopefully this will help some consumers avoid being tricked.

  5. At least they’re just glued on. They used to (maybe some nurseries still do) have the fake flowers molded to plastic spikes that punctured into the cactus, often at the top. Yikes.

  6. Sigrid Greve

    so fake flowers damage the plant, but will it kill the plant? can i still buy fake flowered cacti?

  7. Gaby Bailey

    Is it common for cactus growers to also put fake ‘buds’ on cacti as well? I bought a cactus at one of my local grocery stores and after reading this article I realized the ‘flower’ was indeed glued on. However, there are two other ‘buds’ and I am unsure whether they are actually a part of the cactus or if they are also glued on. There is no glue that I can see and I am wondering if it is just better to leave them be.

    • Some dried flowers can in the shape of a bud (many indeed close under the effect of humid air), but if so, will be brightly coloured. If the bud is green or greenish, it’s probably part of the plant. Certainly no harm comes from waiting to see what happens!

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  9. Keely Nicholas

    First off no one is being swindled. I see these everywhere and they all include “decorative” and/or “faux” in their names, right on the label. Second, it’s pretty, if you like it, buy it. My daughter purchased one on a home depot trip last month and is throughly enjoying caring for him( his name is Toby, he’s a cowboy cactus:) ) This is a very informative piece as we were confused about how a fake flower hotglued to a real plant actually opens and closes everyday, but your tone is disdainful and distracting. After reading this my ten year old felt she somehow did something wrong buying this cactus. Isn’t it better to purchase and nurture an injured plant, rather than leave it to perish on a dusty shelf? Toby is thriving in his new pot and will proudly wear his fancy hat until he decides it’s no longer fashionable. Lemons to lemonade

    • Interesting points. Where I live, though, there is absolutely no indication that the flowers are not real. It’s wonderful that at least this one merchant is finally being honest!

      • Patricia

        I’ve seen these in various shops where I live and it never mentions that the flowers are fake. I instinctively avoided them because I thought the flowers looked unnatural. I did some research and got myself some nice cacti last year, watched they develop their buds and flowers over spring. Some of them are still blooming now and the flowers are truly beautiful and delicate.

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