How to care for a fishbone cactus: watering, repotting and where to position it

·3-min read
 (Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
(Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Despite having the name cactus, Epiphyllum anguliger — aka the fishbone, ric rac or orchid cactus — does not need desert conditions to survive.

In fact it is native to the forest understory of central Mexico, where it grows as an epiphyte (on the branches of other plants).

How to care for a fishbone cactus

The fishbone cactus sits somewhere between being a cactus, and a tropical houseplant in terms of the care it needs. But don’t let that put you off, they are really easy to care for. It can be hard looking at the plant, trying to work out just what it wants.

It has succulent leaves, which suggest it might like to be in full sun and really hot. In reality, this plant can be treated more like a sub-tropical forest floor dwelling houseplant. It thrives in indirect light, 1-2 metres away from a window is ideal, but will tolerate brighter light as well.

The fishbone cactus also requires more water and humidity than a typical cactus. During spring and summer, it will be fine if you let the roots dry out between watering, but to see real growth, you only want to allow the top 2-3 cm of soil to dry out before watering again. The new growth is worth it, starting a bronze colour before fading to green as the stems mature.

In winter, go easier on the watering allowing the compost to dry out before watering again. Unlike a desert cactus, which typically resent the humidity of a bathroom or kitchen, the fishbone cactus thrives in it. The trailing stems make it an excellent hanging plant for a jungle themed bathroom, or to fill a dark(ish) corner of a kitchen.

How to propagate a fishbone cactus

Growing new fishbone cactus plants is really easy, and a healthy plant gives you plenty of opportunities to propagate. Success is in the preparation. To start, you’ll need a pair of scissors or sharp knife, some sandy, free draining peat-free compost, and a pot or container to root the new plants in. You can use specialist cactus compost, or make your own mix using 50 percent horticultural sand mixed well with 50 percent multipurpose compost.

Rewind three days from getting your compost ready and you’ll have already taken your cuttings from the parent plant. Each one needs to be between 10 and 30cm in length, and left somewhere warm and dry out of direct sunlight to allow the wound to heal over and form a callus.

Rewind to one day earlier, and you’ll have watered the parent plant. The water stored in the leaves of your cuttings are all that’s going to keep them alive until they have made new roots, so this is your opportunity to give it the best possible chance.

Once your cuttings have healed, it’s time to plant them. Fill the pot with compost and firm lightly. Bury cuttings wound side down in the compost about 5cm deep. You can put multiple cuttings in the same pot, and they can be at a slight angle if it is easier to support them that way. Keep the compost moist but not wet, and place somewhere warm, bright but out of direct light.

In a few weeks the cuttings should have rooted, and a few months later, you’ll begin to notice a new ric-rac leaf emerging from the base of the cutting.

George Hudson is the Green London Curator at the Garden Museum, follow him on instagram @georgejwhudson

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