Pachycereus Elephant Cactus Info: Tips For Growing Elephant Cactus At Home

Pachycereus Elephant Cactus
elephant cactus
(Image credit: lnzyx)

Love elephants? Try growing elephant cacti. While the name elephant cactus (Pachycereus pringlei) may sound familiar, don’t confuse this plant with the more commonly planted Portulacaria elephant bush. Let’s learn more about this interesting cactus plant.

What is an Elephant Cactus?

Known as the “tallest cactus species in the world,” Pachycereus elephant cactus is not only tall but grows with multiple branches. The primary lower stem, sized like an elephant’s leg, can reach more than 3 feet (1 m.) around the bottom. This is where the common name elephant cactus originated. Also, the botanical name “pachy” means short trunk and “cereus” means columnar. These are great descriptions of this large cactus plant.

Also called Cardón, or Cardón Pelón, the plant is native to California deserts and islands in the Gulf. It grows in northern Mexico too. There it is found in alluvial (clay, silt, sand, gravel,) soils. There is a trunkless form of elephant cactus as well, with numerous branches rising from the soil. It grows on rocky hills and level plains in desert-like conditions in its native conditions.

As branches appear and the cactus slowly grows taller, you’ll find that a large space in the landscape is required for this plant. Although slow growing, this species can reach 60 feet (18 m.) or taller.

White blooms appear along the spines of the elephant cactus, opening in the late afternoon and staying open until noon of the next day. These are pollinated by bats and other night flying pollinators.

Elephant Cactus Care

Plant it in gritty or sandy soil, much like its native soil. Avoid growing in rich soil but amend a poor soil area if needed to improve drainage. Other elephant cactus care includes providing a full sun environment. 

Growing elephant cacti requires a desert-like setting in full sun. It is hardy in USDA zones 9a through 11b. While it is prudent to start it in the ground, you can also grow it for a limited time in a large container, if necessary. Keep in mind you’ll need to move it later to accommodate its growth.

Otherwise, the plant is basically low maintenance. As with most cacti, too much attention can lead to the death of the plants. Once you have it in the right conditions, only provide limited water when there has been no rainfall for an extended period. 

When growing elephant cactus, if you feel like you must do something, cut a stem and propagate. Let the end callous, then plant in gritty, well-draining soil. The plant propagates easily.

Becca Badgett

Becca Badgett was a regular contributor to Gardening Know How for ten years. Co-author of the book How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden, Becca specializes in succulent and cactus gardening.