Abstract. The Zapotitlán de las Salinas valley, central Mexico, harbours a high diversity of cacti. Pattern analysis indicated that the establishment of two columnar cacti, Neobuxbaumia tetetzo and Cephalocereus hoppenstedtii, and of three small globose cacti, Coryphantapallida, Mammillaria colina andM casoi, is aggregated and associated with perennial nurse shrubs. Some nurse species, Castela tortuosa, Caesalpinia melanadenia and Eupatorium spinosarum have a higher number of cacti beneath their canopies than would be expected by chance. A replacement pattern was found between the columnar cacti and their nurses, an aspect which was not found with the globose cacti. Following the assumption that protection against excessive radiation is the main factor determining the nurse effect, the azimuth orientation of the cacti with respect to their nurses was evaluated. Only Coryphanta pallida presented a non-random distribution with a tendency towards the North and West. The difference in maximum temperature between the soil surface under the different nurse species and of open spaces, which is reached at midday, was 16 °C. No significant differences were found in beneath-canopy temperatures for the three nurse species considered. Soil nitrogen levels were significantly lower beneath the different nurse plants than in open spaces. This result suggests that soil fertility is not an important factor in the nurse-plant phenomenon in Zapotitlán.