The fishbone cactus gets its name from the zig-zag shape of its leaves that resemble a fishbone. Unlike most cacti, the fishbone cactus does not call the desert home; in fact, its natural habitat is the jungles of Mexico. These are epiphytic plants, meaning that they prefer to live attached to trees rather than on the ground.
In this article, we will discuss the proper cultural care of the fishbone cactus, as well as how to propagate it correctly.
If you love cacti, or if you are considering adding this plant to your collection and wish to learn more, just keep reading.
Fishbone Cactus care
There is no set schedule for watering this plant because the frequency of watering depends on factors such as your local climate, the season of the year, and the current weather conditions. A fishbone cactus grown in a place with a cold climate, during the winter with plenty of snow and rainfall, will not need to be watered as much as the same plant grown in a warm climate, during the summer, with little to no rainfall. The faster the potting mix in the plant’s pot dries out, the more frequently it will need to be watered.
The easiest and most foolproof way to know whether your fishbone cactus needs to be watered is by touching the soil in the pot. If the top two inches of soil are dry, water the cactus, but if the soil is still a little damp, wait one or two days and check it again.
The worst watering mistake you can make is to overwater your fishbone cactus. Overwatering will result in the plant’s roots drowning and dying, and the dead roots will start to rot and become susceptible to opportunistic pathogens. These pathogens will help the rot spread even faster to the rest of the plant until the entire plant succumbs to the rot.
The fishbone cactus prefers bright, indirect light, but it can tolerate light that is either more direct or lower than it prefers. However, if you want the cactus to grow well, bright, indirect light is best.
Placing the plant under direct light for long periods is not good for it and can lead to sun damage.
If the plant is kept indoors, you might need to buy grow lights to keep your fishbone cactus happy, especially during the winter when sunlight is scarce. Place the grow light some distance from the cactus for the first few days and observe how it reacts. Then, adjust the distance between the grow light and the plant accordingly.
Temperature and humidity requirements
These plants do just fine at room temperature. Make sure you bring your plant indoors before winter starts because it does not do well in frost. Remember that this plant’s natural habitat is the jungle. Do not place the plant near doors or windows where cold air from outside can hit it; the same goes for spots near heating vents or air conditioning vents. These warm or cold drafts can dry the plant out very quickly, which is not what you want.
Because the fishbone cactus is native to the jungle, it appreciates a humid environment. You can help your plant in this respect by placing it next to other humidity-loving plants so that together they can create a microclimate. If you have the means, you can also purchase a humidifier to automatically regulate the humidity around the plant without you needing to worry about it.
The fishbone cactus is an epiphytic cactus, so it will grow best in a potting mix that is airy and well-draining. You can make your own potting mix by combining one part indoor plant potting mix with one part orchid bark and one part perlite. There are also commercially available succulent mixes to which you can add perlite. Either will work just fine.
Regarding the pot, make sure that it has drainage holes at the bottom so that any excess water in the potting mix can simply flow out.
How to properly display your fishbone cactus
There are multiple ways you can display and grow your fishbone cactus. Since it is an epiphytic plant, you can grow it in a hanging basket to simulate how it would grow in the wild. You can even mount the fishbone cactus like you would a staghorn fern – it will make a great conversation piece when you have guests over.
Of course, if you do not want to get too crazy with the display, you can also just grow your fishbone cactus in a normal pot on a shelf or table.
Feeding your fishbone cactus can help boost its growth and will keep the plant healthy and happy. Give the plant liquid indoor plant fertilizer twice a month during the spring and summer, which is when the plant is actively growing. Do not overfeed it, because this can lead to soil toxicity which may end up harming your plant rather than helping it.
It is very easy to prune a fishbone cactus. All you need to do is take a pair of sterile scissors or shears and cut back the plant’s stem, down to the base. This will help you control the plant’s size if you do not want it to grow too large. Fortunately, the stems you remove can be used for propagating the cactus, so they will not go to waste.
Repotting the plant
The fishbone cactus only needs to be repotted every two years, because it is fine with being a little rootbound, unlike most other plants. You can tell that your plant needs repotting when roots are starting to grow out of the holes at the bottom of the pot, or when there seems to be more root than potting mix inside the pot. Do not replace the pot with one that is too big. A big pot means more potting mix, more potting mix means more moisture is retained, and the more moisture is retained, the greater the chances of overwatering and root rot.
Fishbone cactus propagation
Propagation in potting mix
1. Whole stem
You can propagate the fishbone cactus by cutting off an entire stem down to the base and leaving it for a couple of days to dry and form a callus over the cut.
Then, place the cutting in a pot with potting mix. Make sure you keep the potting mix moist but not wet while the roots start to develop. Place the pot in an area where the cutting can get lots of bright, indirect light.
You can help lock the moisture in by placing a clear plastic bag over the cutting’s pot, but remember to remove the plastic bag once a day to let fresh air in.
After a few weeks, you can check the viability of the roots by giving the cutting a gentle tug. If you can feel resistance when you pull, that means the roots are established and you can now care for the cactus the same way you would a fully-grown plant.
2. Stem cuttings
The procedure for stem cuttings is similar to that for a whole stem, described above, except that here, you cut the stem into sections.
Using a sterilized knife, remove an entire stem from your parent plant. Cut the whole stem into sections, each a few inches long, and let the cuttings dry out for a few days.
Plant each section in its own pot, and keep the potting mix moist but not overwatered. Place the pots where the cuttings can get bright, indirect light. Place a plastic bag over the cuttings to lock in moisture, and remove this every few days to let fresh air in.
After a couple of weeks, check for roots by pulling on the cutting. If there is resistance, it means the roots are well-established and you can now care for the plants as you would a fully-grown plant.
Propagation by division is probably the easiest method. This technique is often used at the same time as the plant is being repotted.
Remove the parent plant from its pot and check for sections that have grown from the parent plant and have their own root systems. Separate these small sections from the parent plant slowly and gently, making sure that the entire section remains intact.
Plant each section in its own pot with potting mix, and continue to care for the new plants as you would a normal plant.
Propagation in water
For this method, cut one stem from the parent plant and allow it to dry and form a callus.
Place the cutting in a glass container of tepid water, making sure the water reaches the bottom of the cutting. Place the jar in a spot where it can get bright, indirect light, and replace the water if it starts to look murky.
After a couple of weeks, the roots will start to grow and you can transfer the cutting to a pot with potting mix.
The fishbone cactus is not like most cacti. Instead of growing in the desert, this cactus grows in the jungle. Its signature zig-zag shape is responsible for its amusing name.
This plant likes bright, indirect light and only needs to be watered when the top two inches of soil are dry. It likes room temperature, humid conditions, minimal pruning and minimal feeding.
You can propagate this plant using a whole stem, stem cuttings or separated sections, planted directly in potting soil. You can also let the stem cuttings root in a jar of water before transferring them to a pot with potting soil.
Image: istockphoto.com / Hari Gumilang