Tephrocactus is one of several genera that have been pulled from the large, polyphyletic genus Opuntia, the decision to do so based on studies by Roberto Kiesling (1984), Steven Dickie and Robert Wallace (2001), Wallace and Dickie (2001), James Iliff (2001), and Wolfgang Stuppy (2001). Charles Lemaire described Tephrocactus (type, O. diademata = T. articulatus) in 1868, the name derived from the Greek tephra, ashes, referring to the dull, ash-colored stems of some species.

Tephrocactus is characterized by having distinctive branching, with shoots standing in vertical rows, and unusual areoles with encrypted glochids. Fruits are dry, dehiscent, and have glochids. The seed structure of Tephrocactus is unique with the funicular envelope strikingly different from all other members of subfamily Opuntioideae (Stuppy 2001). Tephrocactus comprises six species, many of the species formerly included in the genus now placed in Cumulo-puntia.

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