The mistletoe cactus, or Rhipsalis baccifera, and the pencil cactus, or Euphorbia tirucalli, look so much alike that they are often mistaken for one another. Both have thin, cylindrical, pencil-like foliage.
Despite looking almost identical, however, these two plants are actually very different. For a start, the mistletoe cactus is a true cactus, while the pencil cactus is not. Although the latter is a succulent, it does not belong to the cactus family at all, contrary to its common name.
In this article, we will look further into differences between the mistletoe cactus and the pencil cactus. Keep reading to learn more!
Mistletoe cactus vs pencil cactus
The mistletoe cactus has thin, pencil-like foliage that grows from other thin, branch-like foliage. As it grows longer, the plant also trails sideways. It produces white and green flowers, and looks great in a hanging container, from which its foliage can spill over the edge and just keep growing.
The mistletoe cactus can have spines when it is a younger plant, but there is a noticeable decrease in spines the older and more mature it becomes. It can reach lengths up to six feet and a spread of two feet when kept indoors, while an outdoor plant can achieve an imposing 30 feet in length with a five-foot spread.
As for the pencil cactus, it is when it is young that most people mistake it for a mistletoe cactus. As it matures, its lower branches, which used to look just like the foliage of the mistletoe cactus, will thicken and turn brown as smaller, green branches sprout from the ends. Oval leaves can also be seen on the brown branches, and flowers may bloom from the ends of the smaller green branches.
The pencil cactus does not produce spines, because it is not a true cactus. It reaches only six feet high and three feet wide when grown indoors, but it can get to 30 feet high and 10 feet wide if allowed to grow in the ground outdoors. These plants can grow very tall and wide in the wild.
The mistletoe cactus is a tropical cactus native to Africa, Central America and South America, and grows best in subtropical and tropical conditions. It is an epiphytic plant, meaning that it grows on the branches and trunks of large forest trees and has evolved to collect its required moisture from the air around it and the tree it attaches to.
The pencil cactus, on the other hand, is native to the somewhat drier subtropical climates of Asia and Africa.
The mistletoe cactus lives under the canopy of trees in the rainforest. While it is indeed a cactus, it is unlike most desert-dwelling cacti in that it is sensitive to direct light and prefers bright but indirect light instead. It is also more tolerant of low light than the pencil cactus, but it might have slow growth in such conditions.
The pencil cactus is the complete opposite, and loves being under full sunlight for up to six hours a day. Ideally, keep this plant in a spot where it gets bright sunlight during the morning and some shade in the afternoon. When indoors, the pencil cactus grows best next to a north- or east-facing window.
The mistletoe cactus likes its potting medium to be moist at all times. It should never be soggy or completely dry. Water this cactus when the top two inches of soil in its pot are dry to the touch. If the soil is still damp, wait one or two days before checking it again. Also make sure to use a pot that has drainage holes at the bottom so that excess water can escape, thus decreasing the chances of overwatering.
The pencil cactus, meanwhile, is a lot less needy when it comes to watering. It is typically watered once every two weeks in the warmer months and once a month during the colder months. Unlike the mistletoe cactus, it can tolerate longer periods without water and does not mind its soil drying out completely between waterings.
The mistletoe cactus likes a slightly acidic, well-draining potting mix, but that still retains some moisture. If you do not have a choice, you can use regular potting soil as a temporary measure, but the plant will grow noticeably better in a potting mix designed specifically for it.
You can make your own mix at home by combining regular potting soil, perlite and orchid bark, at a ratio of 1:1:1. The soil and the orchid bark retain sufficient moisture, while the perlite helps to make the mix well-draining.
The pencil cactus, on the other hand, does not need a nutrient-dense potting medium, and prefers sandy soil that dries out well between waterings. You can use a cactus or succulent potting mix for this plant and it should do just fine.
Temperature and humidity requirements
The mistletoe cactus loves warm, humid conditions, and its ideal temperature is between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a dry climate, you may have to take certain measures to increase the humidity around your mistletoe cactus. You can use a water pebble tray under its pot, keep it in the kitchen or the bathroom, place it near other humidity-loving plants, or simply just buy a humidifier to automatically regulate the humidity in the room where you keep the plant.
The pencil cactus also prefers warmer temperatures, between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure not to expose it to temperatures below 50 degrees, as the cold can be very detrimental for it. Unlike the mistletoe cactus, pencil cacti do not need high humidity levels and will do quite well in less humid conditions.
The mistletoe cactus can be fertilized during its growing season in the spring and summer, but only feed it lightly. Give it a diluted liquid fertilizer once a month during this period. You do not need to fertilize it in the fall and winter, because the nutrients in the soil are quite sufficient when it is not actively growing.
The pencil cactus is even less of a feeder than the mistletoe cactus. It typically grows well without feeding, but if you want to try fertilizing it, just give it a balanced liquid fertilizer once a year during the spring, and that should be all it needs.
The mistletoe cactus and the pencil cactus are often mistaken for one another because of how similar the two look when the pencil cactus is still young. They both have thin, pencil-like, green stems that grow out of other, thin, pencil-like stems and branches.
The biggest difference between the two is that the pencil cactus is not actually a true cactus. It is part of the Euphorbia family, which is another type of succulent separate from cacti.
When choosing between these two plants, be aware that the pencil cactus is definitely the easier plant to grow and care for while, the mistletoe cactus may be too finicky for novice gardeners. Either way, both plants are beautiful and unique-looking houseplants that will look great in any plant lover’s collection!
Image: istockphoto.com / i-Stockr