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  Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society

Growing Succulents in the Desert Column

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

Mammillaria, A Genus for Everyone

By Norm Dennis

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

One of the perennial favorite genera for cactophiles is Mammillaria. The genus is commonly referred to as Mamms or pincushions. The reasons for this are several: a wide range of forms, profuse flowers twelve months of the year, cultivation demands that range from very easy to challenging, the presence of local species, mostly inexpensive and locally available from nurseries.

The genus ranges from the southwest US to Texas and down to the northern part of South America and some Caribbean islands. Most species are found in Mexico, but Arizona has M. grahamii, M. thornberi, M. heyderi, M. mainiae, M. wrightii, and M. lasiacantha. They are characterized by tubercles or nipples, areoles on the end of the nipple, flowers from the axils at the base of the nipples, and a fleshy fruit containing the seeds.

Mammillarias typically have two growth forms. Here is a cylindrical form of M. fraileana and a globose form of M. deherdtiana.


Flowers emerge from the previous years growth and open during the day. They can be solid or striped, in pink, red, white, yellow and cream. Some species when injured will exude a milky latex sap. Many Mamms develop showy red fruits, which can persist for several weeks or until found by rodents, birds and ants who in turn disperse the seeds.

In Tucson, starting in January and February, M. haageana, and M. rubrograndis are two examples of good bloomers. They may also be acclimated for use as landscape accents in filtered light.


Cultivation includes many different aspects. For the most part, all of the species can be grown inside on the windowsill. Of course some will get quite large with age, forming impressive multi-headed clumps, while others will remain small. M. magnifica pictured below will make clumps up to three feet across, while M. herrerae stays small enough to fit in a 6 inch pot. Many of the larger forms are appropriate for use as landscape plants in less sun intense areas.

Typically Mamms prefer a very open potting mix with 50% or more inert material such as pumice. They do best if watered only after the soil has dried out during the growing season, which usually falls in the months March through October here in Tucson. Of course your conditions may vary. Monthly feeding during the growing season with ½ strength balanced water-soluble fertilizer is a good recommendation, or use a time-released fertilizer for convenience. Regular feeding will encourage growth and flowering.


With good care, many species of Mammillaria can grow into nice specimen plants faster than one might expect. For example, M. plumosa can grow from a two inch plant to a 16 inch plant as pictured below over a period of 7 years. An important precaution is that M. plumosa is very sensitive to over watering, and in addition should only be watered from the sides or below, and never on the top of the plants – otherwise the plant is very likely to rot. A shallow pot is recommended rather than a deep one that can stay too wet.

Some growers keep their plants in heated greenhouses and have the M. fraileana benefit of a longer growing season,while other growers have plant outside with only protection from rain overhead. Of course there are some species that benefit from our winter rains like M. grahamii and M. heyderi. Others are prone to rot when watered too much, especially with lower temperatures. Also pictured are M. grahamii and M. heyderi v. macdougalii – both of these are local species.


In a period of 5 years, M. hahniana can grow from a two inch plant to a 10 inch or larger specimen plant and flower each year. This species offers a good opportunity as it is easy to grow and readily available. Some forms (as pictured) are M. hahniana forma supra, and are known for their ready formation of offsets and clumps.

Of course, many of us are unable to provide the space for large plants, so why not grow a specimen of one of the many small Mamms, such as M. huitzilopochtli. Over a period of 5 years, the plant may attain a size of 8 inches.

Some of the more difficult species include M. tetrancistra, M. lasiacantha, M. humboldtii, M. solisiodes, M. albicoma, and M. glassii. These are sometimes available from our local nurseries. Easy species include M. hahniana, M. magnimamma, M. spinosissima, M. haageana, M. compressa, M. gemnispina, and many others. Most of these are easily found in our local nurseries, along with dozens of other species in the genus.


If you are curious or want to grow Mammillaria, you will find yourself in good company. The TCSS has several members who are fans of the genus, as are our nurseries. So be sure to ask questions of our members and growers – take advantage of their experience to enhance your fun in growing these always popular plants.

If you are reading this and are not in the Tucson area, remember to consult with your local experts for more information on growing Mamms in your area.

For additional information on Mammillarias:

Book: “Mammillaria”, by John Pilbeam 376 pages., 425 color photos



List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns