Safely Handling Cacti – Learned from Hard Experience!

Selection of South American Trichocereus cactus species

Here’s an overview explaining best practices for safely handling cacti, but it’s of course also relevant to handling any other spiny or thorny plants too. As we suspect you’re already aware, cacti are often extremely thorny, with the spines of some species reaching to a length of twenty centimetres or more! Such spines can cause severe damage to animals (including humans) and plants, ranging from small puncture wounds and scratches right through to impalement. Examples of these most serious of injuries include those necessitating surgery – and a presumably slow death, judging by the occasional dead flying insect we find impaled by a thorn through its midriff! With this in mind, we thought it useful to share some advice based on a lot of pain we’ve suffered in our own cactus garden…


Useful Tools and Materials for Safely Handling Cacti

These are our current notes covering various tools and materials which we find useful when handling our own cacti. Please do let us know of any other useful items you think should be included here.

Cardboard

Corrugated cardboard, such as that used to make medium-to-heavy duty cardboard packing boxes, can be extremely useful when handling shorter-spined and/or smaller cacti. Recycle it from a box laying around your home, or else ask at your local shop for one. Tear or cut this into pieces and then fold them to a suitable thickness (dependent on the length of the spines of the plant you’re manipulating). You can then use two of these folded pieces as a barrier between your fingers and the thorns of the cactus, saving much pain!

Carpet Scraps

Recycle any scraps of carpets, rugs or other thicker materials for use when moving larger, heavier plants by hand (for example, as a sling). Such materials also offer good protection when used to wrap plants – especially when moving larger specimens in a vehicle, etc.

Chopsticks

Chopsticks are excellent tools for (gently) moving cactus seedlings and small young plants between tubs and other containers. Furthermore, this provides a great excuse to eat some Chinese food – and to practice your chopstick technique too!

Foam / Polystyrene

Pieces of recycled foam or polystyrene are a great tool in any cactus grower’s arsenal, as they can be used to protectively cushion your hands from shorter-to-medium-spined and/or small-to-medium-sized cactus species. However, please do take care when handling this sort of material (especially polystyrene and similar), as it often breaks down into a horrible polluting mass of tiny pieces! Notably both during handling and over time.

Gauntlets and Gloves

Gloves and gauntlets are truly essential for any serious cactus grower. Specialist gloves, ranging from lighter-protective gardening gloves to comparatively puncture-resistant ones, such as the popular ThornArmor brand (marketed specifically to gardeners and others who need heavy-duty protection in the garden or nursery). Other puncture-resistant gloves – also available in various degrees of protection, often coated with nitrile or Kevlar – include those used by glaziers, mechanics and other such trades. Gardening gauntlets (commonly made from leather) are distinguishable from gloves by their greater length, covering the whole wrist or forearm completely. Be cautious when wearing gloves of any type, as it’s still entirely possible for them to be punctured by cactus spines given the right circumstances, despite their extra protection.

Newspaper

Newspaper works well for handling smaller and shorter-spined cacti. Ask your local newsagent for some out-of-date stock or else pick up one of the many free papers found in your local area. Once you have some papers, simply fold them to a suitable thickness for the plants you’re handling. Note that newspaper is definitely not recommended when handling larger, heavier plants, which will easily puncture and tear it – and potentially you!

Tongs

Metal or plastic kitchen, canning jar tongs, fireplace and other household tongs are often useful for safely handling cacti of a wide range of sizes and spination, depending on the size of the tongs themselves. We suggest wearing gardening gloves when using tongs, for extra protection. Some types of tongs are tipped with silicone or a similar material, but for those that aren’t, we advise wrapping the ends of the tongs with foam, polystyrene and/or gaffer tape if you’re worried about damaging more delicate plants.

Tweezers

Metal tweezers are particularly useful for handling the smallest cactus seedlings (even more so than chopsticks and especially when grafting) – provided they’re used with care. This is because it’s easy to crush the tiny and tender young plants, puncturing their skin and worse (ask us how we know)! However, as long as this is taken into account, tweezers really are an essential addition to the cactus grower’s kit.


Safely Handling Cacti: Examples

Here’s some examples for safely handling different cactus species, based on our own experience here in the nursery.

Trichocereus pachanoi cv. 'Jim's Special' | 'San Pedro' | Live plant

Handling Short-/Lightly-Spined Cacti

Depending on the specific plant, we generally handle the shortest and shorter-spined cacti using our bare hands or traditional leather gardening gauntlets (which are perhaps three-or-four-millimetres thick). Examples of shorter-spined cacti we grow include some forms of Trichocereus pachanoi, Trichocereus vasquezii and most mutant types too. Folded cardboard or newspaper and suitably-sized tongs also work well for moving this sort of plant.

(Soehrensia species x Trichocereus schickendantzii) cv. 'Orange California' | Live plant

Handling Somewhat/Moderately-Spined Cacti

For cactus species and hybrids with medium-length spination (for example, some forms of Trichocereus bridgesii and Trichocereus chiloensis), we select whatever seems most practical from cardboard or foam, gardening gauntlets and our heavy duty, puncture-resistant gloves, and tongs. Note that heavier plants can weigh their spines down when lifted, the force piercing even quite thick leather gauntlets and sometimes puncturing the skin of the hands or forearms.

Trichocereus deserticolus subsp. fulvilanus '893' | 'Cacto' | Live plant

Handling Fiercely-Spined Cacti

We handle especially spiny species, such as more mature specimens of Trichocereus deserticolus subsp. fulvilanus, Trichocereus macrogonus or Trichocereus werdermannianus, while wearing our ThornArmor 3092 gloves in the first instance. However, these sort of fiercely-spined cacti can easily pierce even these when we’re unwary – often on the back or sides of our hands, as these gloves are only armoured on the palm side. If we’re having difficulties of this nature, our next option is usually to either use thick sheets of polystyrene or other foam, or else improvise using common household and garden tools (for example, small spades and shovels) to manipulate the cactus in question. We always keep the gloves on, even when using some of the other materials listed here – cactus stabbings hurt!   


We sincerely hope that this guide to safely handling cacti saves you from injury – but doesn’t put you off of the wonderful world of cacti!