Discover the Beauty of Plants with Prickly Leaves

Plants with prickly leaves may initially make you hesitant about growing them. However, these plants can surprise you with their beauty and functionality. From aloe vera to agave, there are numerous examples of captivating and functional spiky plants. In this article, we will explore 17 of the most fascinating plants with spikes, thorns, and needles.

1. Barrel Cactus

Spiny Barrel Cactus

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Takes time to grow, reaching approximately 3 feet tall
    • Aggressive spikes surround the ribs
    • Spikes grow in a radiating and downward spiral
  • Common issues: Pythium rot, Root rot

Stout and prickly, the barrel cactus is an excellent plant for use as a barrier against unwanted intruders. Despite its intimidating appearance, it requires minimal maintenance as long as you provide it with its basic growing requirements. These cacti not only serve as beautiful living blocks but also have the potential to quench your thirst in emergencies.

2. Honey Locust

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Can grow up to 145 feet tall and withstand heavy frosts and droughts
    • Can grow in any soil condition as long as it drains water well
    • Fruits are used as human and livestock food, while the wood is used for timber
  • Common issues: Cankers, Root collar rot

Known by various names such as sweet bean, sweet locust, and three thorn acacia, the honey locust is a tree that can bear fruit as early as three years after planting. It is a fast-growing and potentially invasive tree that provides shade in a relatively short period.

3. Porcupine Tomato

Prickly Porcupine Tomato

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Grows rapidly in warm climates but reproduces slowly
    • Thorns on the ribs of the leaves
    • All parts of the plant are poisonous
  • Common issues: Aphids, thrips, root-knot nematode, budworm, cutworms, looper caterpillars, two-spotted mite or red spider mite, tomato russet mite or tomato mite

The porcupine tomato, also known as the Devil’s Thorn, is a spiky tomato plant that serves as an excellent defensive plant for gardens. Its bright red-orange spiky thorns on fuzzy gray leaves and purple flowers make it an attractive protective hedge.

4. Oregon Grape

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Prefers well-draining acidic soil with peat or compost
    • Leaves turn reddish in full sun, where it thrives
    • Minimal maintenance as protective and decorative hedges or borders
  • Common issues: Xylella fastidiosa (Pierce’s Disease), Grapevine red blotch virus, Grapevine leaf roll-associated virus 3
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The deceptively beautiful Oregon grape, with its sour fruits, can accidentally scratch your skin. However, its fruits are used in preserves and jellies, and the roots and barks can be used as natural dyes for wool. It is also a wonderful addition to flower arrangements.

5. Devil’s Walking Stick

Devilish Walking Stick

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • A perennial deciduous shrub that can grow up to 15 feet tall
    • Requires frequent watering in well-draining soil
    • Attracts beneficial insects and birds
  • Common issues: Leaf beetles, Leaf spots

Scientifically known as Ariala spinosa, the Devil’s Walking Stick is a thorny shrub with an unusual appearance. Besides being a showy and attractive ornamental plant, it has flowers favored by pollinators, seeds eaten by birds, and leaves grazed on by deer. Its fruit and aromatic spicy roots were traditionally used for various remedies, including toothaches.

6. Agave

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Can reach up to 6 feet tall
    • Requires well-draining soil under full sun
    • Cultivated to make sugar substitute and tequila
  • Common issues: Anthracnose, Root and crown rot, Phyllosticta pad spot

Agave plants come in various varieties, and most of them have signature spiky leaves. Enigmatic yet intimidating, these plants are perfect additions to tropical and desert gardens. Once an agave plant flowers, it dies, but new baby agave plants usually grow from the base to replace the parent.

7. Aloe Vera

Soothing Aloe Vera

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun, partial sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Quick-growing and adaptable to poor soil
    • Used to relieve burns and cuts
    • Requires very little maintenance
  • Common issues: Leaf spots/fungal infection, Aloe rust, Stem, root, and soft rot

Aloe vera, another spiky succulent, is a wonderful addition to any home, whether indoors or outdoors. Besides benefiting the skin with its soothing properties, aloe vera can lower blood sugar levels when taken internally. It also purifies the air, releases beneficial oxygen, and reduces toxins in the surroundings.

8. Holly

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Requires moist acidic soils to thrive
    • Only female holly plants produce berries
    • Some holly cultivars are self-fertile
  • Common issues: Leaf spots/fungal infection, Aloe rust, Stem, root, and soft rot

Lush and green, holly plants may look inviting but have prickly foliage. They are perfect for creating a winter holiday look or as protective hedge plants. While holly berries are attractive and make great decorations, they are poisonous and should not be consumed.

9. Bull Thistle

Majestic Bull Thistle

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun, partial sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Considered an invasive weed that can quickly take over gardens
    • Tolerant of droughts and poor soils
    • Can cause contact dermatitis on humans and livestock
  • Common issues: None
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The bull thistle, also known as bird thistle, blue thistle, spear thistle, and swamp thistle, has thorny leaves and a menacing appearance. Surprisingly, it is the sixth-largest provider of nectar to birds, bees, and butterflies. In Australia, it is cultivated as a commercial crop for its therapeutic benefits.

10. Prickly Pear Cactus

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Leaf pads are flat, broad, and vibrant green
    • Presence of large and small spines
    • Produces yellow flowers during early to the middle of the summer season
  • Common issues: Cactus borers, Phyllosticta concava or dry rot

The prickly pear cactus has deep and wide roots that easily absorb rainwater. Its thick fleshy stems store water, making it highly efficient at preventing water loss. This low-maintenance plant is perfect for those looking for houseplants that act as a protective barrier.

11. Lace Aloe

Graceful Lace Aloe

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun, partial sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Similar in appearance to Haworthia
    • Fast-growing plant with attractive dark green leaves and white bumps
    • Leaves are wide at the bottom, tapering into a point
  • Common issues: Leaf spots/fungal infection, Aloe rust, Stem, root, and soft rot

The lace aloe, also known as the torch plant, bristle tip aloe, and guinea fowl aloe, forms clumps of attractive rosettes with soft spines. It produces bright showy coral-orange blossoms in mid-summer.

12. Venus Fly Trap

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Carnivorous plant that preys on insects, worms, and even small mammals
    • The leaf is composed of two hinged lobes
    • Inside the lobes are small hair-like growths that cause the lobes to close upon contact
  • Common issues: Aphids, Fungus gnats, Gray mold

The Venus Fly Trap is a carnivorous plant known for its unique leaf structure. It captures insects, worms, and small mammals with its hinged lobes and small hair-like growths, resulting in the lobes closing upon contact.

13. Haworthia

Exotic Haworthia Plant

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Each succulent leaf has spikes on its surface
    • Tolerates drought but requires a high amount of sunlight
    • Low-maintenance plant with colorful leaves and attractive flowers
  • Common issues: Aphids, scales, mealybugs, fungus gnats, aloe mites, spider mites, snout beetles

Haworthia plants have tightly packed leaves that grow up to 5 inches tall. They are often cultivated indoors as desk plants due to their low maintenance requirements. They can act as decorative deterrents to unwanted visitors.

14. Snake Plant

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun, partial sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Low-maintenance, versatile, and adaptive plant
    • Releases oxygen into the air
    • Removes chemical toxins present in the air
  • Common issues: Root rot, Mealy bugs, Spider mites
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The snake plant, also known as sansevieria, is a succulent plant with upright pointy leaves. It is considered spiky by many, but it is difficult to kill as long as it receives occasional water and light. It is often grown as an attractive border outside and as a low-maintenance decoration indoors.

15. Yellow Tower Cactus

Towering Yellow Cactus

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Initially globular in shape but becomes round and columnar as it grows
    • Covered with orange spines that are harmless to humans and livestock
    • Mature plants may produce showy yellow flowers
  • Common issues: None

The yellow tower cactus may have an intimidating appearance with its orange spikes, but it is harmless. It adds visual and textured appeal to any garden or landscape. When grown in pots, it stays small, but if left in the ground, it can cluster and reach a height of up to 3 feet.

16. Dragon Tree

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • The stems produce tufts of glossy, lance-like leaves with sharp tips
    • Leaves are colored deep green and edged with reddish colors
    • Higher light levels result in more vibrant and visible colors
  • Common issues: Scale, Mealybugs, Aphids

The dragon tree can grow over 6 feet tall and produces tufts of glossy, lance-like leaves with sharp tips. It adds vibrant colors to its surroundings, especially when exposed to optimal sunlight, water, and fertilizer. Additionally, it helps remove toxic chemicals from the air while releasing oxygen.

17. Yucca

Hardy Yucca Plant

  • Growing season: Spring, Summer
  • Growing conditions: Moist, well-draining soil; full sun
  • Distinguishing characteristic:
    • Low-maintenance but slow-growing
    • Waxy leaves adapt to prevent water evaporation
    • Studied for its resveratrol content, which can alleviate blood issues
  • Common issues: Scales, Yucca weevil, Mealybugs, mites

The yucca plant is renowned for its ability to produce large amounts of oxygen and eliminate air toxins, making it ideal for indoor environments. Certain yucca cultivars are edible and produce flowers and fruits. They depend on the yucca moth for pollination, while the plant relies on the moth for reproduction.

Conclusion

Plants with spiky leaves may appear intimidating at first, but they offer numerous benefits. The thorny leaves serve as protection against animals and intruders, and many of these plants attract birds, bees, and butterflies with their nectar. Moreover, most spiky-leaved plants have health benefits when properly processed. With so many advantages, feel free to grow as many as you wish!

Discover more about plants at the Ames Farm Center.