When you think cactus, chances are you don’t think Coco Chanel. But the goddess of French fashion and sartorial pioneer used African milk tree (euphorbia) in the stairwell of her Villa La Pausa home off the Côte d’Azur. Its tall stalks created a sculpturelike element that caught the eye without the need of bronze or marble.
“La Pausa was so incredibly contemporary and fresh, just like Chanel’s fashion,” says designer Sherry Hayslip. “Cacti suited La Pausa. It was amazingly ahead of its time—using that sculptural quality of the plant.”
To create your own climbing vignette like Chanel’s Mediterranean home, Dave Forehand of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden says plants like the euphorbia do well indoors because they tolerate less light.
“There are houses that have areas where you get full sun, but euphorbias lend themselves to creating that type of look,” he says. “It’s the right kind of plant.”
Richard Sunshine of Sunshine Miniature Trees agrees that light is the key to creating handsome indoor arrangements.
“There are homes we’ve put plants in where there are cactus galore, because there’s so much light with lots of contemporary windows,” he says. “Cacti do extremely well inside, and it’s pretty uncommon to see problems with them when they’re grown indoors.”
Even without floor-to-ceiling windows, prickly arrangements work with grow lights, used specifically to cover plants. With that and “neglectful watering,” any home can showcase some crafty cacti. Sunshine also recommends the euphorbia trigona—the “good-luck cactus,” the euphorbia acrurensis—the “candelabra cactus,” and the Peruvian column cactus: “It’s so simple, it appeals to people who want that minimalistic look.”
Though all agree euphorbias are the most beautiful option, beware: The sap is toxic, so it’s not recommended for homes with babies or animals. Alas, beauty comes with a price—even the pencil cactus.
“It’s upright and has hundreds of shoots that go straight up that are very striking, but if the sap gets in your eye, it will make you blind,” Forehand says. “Knowing that, people can go forward, and they’re great plants.”
One beauty without the danger is the night-blooming cereus, a tropical, flowering cactus not typically sold as a houseplant that achieves a tall, climbing structure.
“It can survive indoors for a long time, and you can buy them already four or five feet tall,” Forehand says. “It does, indeed, bloom at night in good conditions.”
A trade secret: You can achieve the same look with plants that aren’t technically cacti. The stick yucca is another tall plant that grabs attention with individually potted stalks leading up a staircase. The euphorbia itself is technically a succulent—much like the ponytail palm.
“It has a big, almost elephantlike base like an elephant foot, and at the top is a stalk with a curly, palmlike leaf structure that’s really neat,” Forehand says.
Throw them in several potted containers, dab on some Chanel No. 5, and you’ve got an arrangement that would garner the approval of Coco herself.
Hero Image Cactus: (from left) Blue Candle cactus, Variegated Prickly Pear cactus, Barrel cactus, Paper Spine cactus, Easter cactus, Prickly Pear cactus, Prickly Pear cactus
Hero Image Vase: (from left) Atelier Stella vase (third from left), West Elm ($10); Carnivale large white planter (far right), Crate & Barrel ($50); All others from Nicholson-Hardie ($10-30)