At my house, there’s no houseplant that generates more questions than the fishbone cactus. Its funky appearance and unique growth habit earns it a place of pride on my plant shelf. This fascinating succulent cactus bears the scientific name of Epiphyllum anguliger (sometimes also Selenicereus anthonyanus) and is a native of the tropical rainforests of Mexico. Yes, you read that right – a cactus that thrives in the rainforest (there are others, too!). In this article, I’ll share all the secrets of growing the fishbone cactus and how to help your plant thrive.
What is a fishbone cactus?
While fishbone cactus is the most-used common name, this plant does have others, including the ric rac cactus and the zig zag cactus. As soon as you look at the leaves (which are actually flattened stems), you’ll know how the plant came to earn these common names. Some growers also call it the orchid cactus, a name which makes a whole lot of sense when the plant is in bloom. The breathtaking 4- to 6-inch-wide flowers it occasionally produces are an orchid purple/pink to white, multi-petaled, and they each only stay open for a single night before fading on morning’s arrival.
That being said, I don’t grow the fishbone cactus for its unpredictable flowers; I grow it for its leaves, which in my opinion, are the real and reliable stars. They have an undulating margin with lobes that make them look like fishbones. In its native habitat, fishbone cacti are climbing plants whose stems ramble up the trunks of trees. Each leaf can grow 8 to 12 feet long if conditions are right. The plant produces aerial roots on the undersides of its stems which enable it to cling to the trees it climbs.
As a houseplant, the zig zag cactus is most often grown in a hanging basket or in a pot that’s elevated on a plant shelf or plant stand so the flat stems can trail down over the edge. However, if you want to train it to grow upwards, you can twine the long stems onto a trellis, moss pole, or some other vertical climbing structure.
How hardy are fishbone cacti?
This succulent cactus is a tropical, warm-weather lover and it does not tolerate frost. If you live in a warm, tropical climate, you can grow it outdoors year-round. But in locations where temperatures dip below 40°F, grow it as a houseplant. You can move the plant outdoors in the summer if you’d like, but promptly move it back indoors in the late summer, when autumn is on the horizon.
The ric rac cactus thrives in moist, humid environments that don’t receive too much sunlight. So, if you grow it outdoors, choose a shady location, perhaps in the understory. A slightly brighter location is best if you want to see flowers, but if you are growing it primarily for the funky foliage, dappled shade with indirect light is best.
The best light for a fishbone cactus indoors
When growing fishbone cacti as a houseplant, avoid direct sunlight. If the sun is too strong and it receives too much sunlight, the leaves will bleach out and become pale in color. Instead, choose a location with semi-bright indirect light for a few hours in the morning or late afternoon/evening.
What kind of soil to use to grow a fishbone cactus
Botanically speaking, fishbone cacti are a species of epiphytic cactus that normally grows in the trees, anchoring itself in the crook of a tree branch instead of in the soil. In our homes, however, we grow them in a pot of soil instead (unless you happen to have a tree growing in your home!). Ric rac cacti grow well in a standard potting mix or in orchid bark. Mine is growing in a blend of compost and a cacti-specific potting mix. Since this is a tropical cactus that grows in trees, a cacti-specific, pumice-heavy potting mix alone is not a good option. That’s why I amend it with compost (at a ratio of one-half of each). Fishbone cacti require soil that stays moist longer, rather than a fast-draining soil like plain cacti mix.
When repotting or transplanting this succulent cactus, choose a pot size that is 1 to 2 inches larger than the previous pot to accommodate additional root growth. This should take place every 3 to 4 years, or whenever the plant outgrows its existing pot.
How to get the humidity just right – hint: don’t bother!
Since the fishbone cactus is a native of the rainforest, moist and humid conditions are ideal. However, if you don’t have those conditions in your home (most of us don’t, after all), there’s no need to fret. Don’t rush out and buy a humidifier; this plant is not a diva.
The zig zag cactus will do just fine even without high humidity, as long as the soil moisture is consistent. Thankfully, this is a very forgiving plant. I would even go so far as to say it is a low maintenance houseplant. It’s tolerant of both underwatering and overwatering (and trust me, I’ve done both!). Yes, placing it on a pebble tray to increase the humidity levels around the plant is a good option, but it is by no means a necessity. If you have a window in your bathroom, it makes a great location choice because of the elevated humidity.
How to water a ric rac cactus
Watering this houseplant is a piece of cake. Make sure the pot has drainage holes in the bottom, so the roots don’t sit in water and develop root rot. Just before the soil is fully dry (stick your finger in there and check, silly!), take the pot to the sink and run tepid tap water through it for several minutes. Allow the water to drain freely out the drainage holes. I know mine has been thoroughly watered when I lift the pot and it feels a good bit heavier than it did when I first put the pot into the sink.
Let the plant sit in the sink until it finishes draining and then put it back on display. That’s it. Can’t get much simpler than that. How often should you water your fishbone cactus? Well, at my house, I water approximately every 10 days. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The only time it’s an absolute must is if the leaves begin to pucker and soften which is a sure sign the soil has been far too dry for far too long. Otherwise, do the old stick-your-finger-in-the-soil test every week or so and check.
Fertilizing a fishbone cactus
When growing fishbone cactus as a houseplant, fertilization should take place every 6 to 8 weeks from early spring through late summer. Do not fertilize in the winter when the plant is not actively growing and you don’t want to encourage new growth. I use an organic water-soluble fertilizer mixed with the irrigation water, but a granular houseplant fertilizer works fine, too.
If you want to encourage blooming, give it a little boost with a fertilizer that’s slightly higher in potassium (the middle number on the container). Potassium can support bloom production. Most orchid fertilizers and African violet fertilizers would serve this purpose. Do not use this bloom-boosting fertilizer all the time, though. Only for three applications in a row, just once per year. Even then, there is no guarantee that you’ll see any buds develop, but it’s worth a try.
For the most part, fishbone cacti are trouble free. Over or under watering and too much sun are the most common problems. However, occasionally mealybugs can strike, especially if your plant spends its summers outdoors. These small, fuzzy white insects collect on the leaves. Thankfully, they are easy to remove with a cotton pad soaked in rubbing alcohol or a cotton swab dipped in soapy water. For extreme infestations, turn to horticultural oil or insecticidal soap.
Fishbone cactus propagation
Remember those roots that sometimes grow from the bottom of the flattened leaves? Well, they make for super-simple propagation of the fishbone cactus. Simply take a stem cutting by pruning off a piece of the leaf with a scissors wherever you’d like. Stick the cut end of the cutting into a pot of soil. There’s no need to apply rooting hormone or fuss over it. Just keep the potting soil consistently moist, and roots will form in a few weeks. You can literally cut off a leaf and stick it into a pot of dirt and call it success. It really is that easy.
Alternatively, pin the underside of one of the leaves into a pot of potting soil while the leaf is still attached to the mother plant. Choose a spot where an aerial root is emerging and use a bended piece of wire to pin the leaf flat against the pot of soil. Water the pot every few days. In about three weeks, cut the leaf from the mother plant and move the pot to a new location to continue to grow your new little plant.
Other plant care tips
- Regular pruning is not necessary, but if the plant grows too large, trim off any excessive growth with a pair of plant shears. It doesn’t matter where you cut a leaf, but I like to go all the way down to the base, rather than cutting the leaf in half.
- Zig zag cacti are not a big fan of drafts. Keep them away from cold windows or doors that are frequently opened in the winter.
- Do not place the plant above or near a forced air heat register if you can avoid it. The warm, dry air is not ideal for this humidity-loving houseplant.
I hope you found some useful advice on how to grow a fishbone cactus in this article. They are terrific houseplants for beginners and experts alike, and I encourage you to add one (or two!) to your collection.
For more unique houseplants, visit the following articles:
- String of dolphins
- Kangaroo fern
- The jewel orchid
- Venus fly trap care
- Growing the blue star fern
- The best low-light succulents