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Pencil Cactus Care, Indoors & In The Garden

Pencil cactus cuttings

I love my Pencil Cactus & have had it for many years. It’s easy as can be to care for in both the home & garden.  2 things are essential to keeping it happy, healthy & alive.

I’ve had my Pencil Cactus, or Euphorbia tirucalli, for a very long time now.  It’s not the original plant (you can hear about it’s story in the video below) but a cutting that I took in San Francisco and traveled with me when I moved to Santa Barbara.  I first laid eyes on it when I was installing the Macy’s Spring Flower back in the late 80’s and it was part of 1 of the window displays.

Now this was back before succulents became all the rage like they have been in the past 10 years or so.  The show was full of rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas and the like so the Pencil Cactus really turned my head.  I ended up buying it when everything was taken down. It lived for years in my home in San Francisco and now in my garden here down south.

I’m in my back yard talking Pencil Cactus care:

So, I’ve grown it both as a houseplant and in the garden.  Here’s what I’ve learned about this succulent also called Milk or Pencil Tree:

Light:  In the garden it takes full or partial sun.  Mine gets full sun in the summer but in late fall & early winter is shaded by 2pm.  Indoors this is a high light plant – it needs sun & all the natural light you can give it.  Make sure it has a south &/or west exposure.  If it’s not getting light from all sides, then be sure to rotate it it every few months.

Water:  As I say in the video, you want the light to be high & the water to be low.  Mine is in a very large terra cotta estate pot (28″ x 28″) & I water it every it every 1-2 months in the summer, giving it 2-3 big watering cans full at a time.  In your home, do the same – water it every month or so in the summer & maybe every 2 months in the winter, depending on a few variables.  This is a general guideline but I outline more specifics in this post on watering houseplants 101.  In terms of the Pencil Cactus, less liquid love is better.

Hardiness:  In the great outdoors, it’s hardy to 25 degrees F.  And it can tolerate our home temperatures & lack of humidity just fine.

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As you can see, the pot my Pencil Cactus is growing in is quite large.  These plants are very heavy & as they grow larger, they need a substantial base. 

Size:  In its native environment in Africa, Pencil Cacti can grow to 30′ & that’s why they’re also can Pencil Tree.   The branches start to flop as they grow tall & wide.  Mine stands about 6′ right now & the tallest one I’ve seen was 15′ in the LA area.

Soil:  Like all succulents, the Pencil Cactus needs a soil with excellent drainage.  If it’s in the ground, that might mean adding some loam to your soil.  I got mine in bulk from a local landscape supply company.  In pots, an organic cactus & succulent mix is the best thing to use.  I always add worm castings & compost to everything I plant.

Fertilizer:  Speaking of worm castings, this is what I amend with every spring by adding an inch layer to the top of all my pots.  Pencil Cactus really don’t need fertilizing, but if you want, use a balanced liquid houseplant food once a year in the spring.

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They have a dense growth habit!

Pruning:  I haven’t pruned mine very much at all except to remove the dead & to take cuttings.  This plant does need thinning.  If your plant is in a pot, you don’t want to prune too much off the base & leave all the growth at the top.  They get top heavy & you plant could take a tumble.

Here’s a BIG head’s up: the plant emits a sap which is toxic & irritating to some so be sure to read this post & watch the video before pruning yours.  My cat always paid no attention to my Pencil Cactus in my San Francisco home but because of the toxic sap, be sure to keep your eye on your pets around this plant.

Pests:  Mine, or any that I’ve seen, haven’t ever had any pest issues.  Like most succulents, mealy bug could be an issue so keep your eye out for a white, cottony substance which usually appears in the nodes.

Transplanting:  They get much harder to transplant as they get larger because of  the weight issue.  Also, watch out for that sap (see pruning) which could flow out if any branches break.  They tend to grow fast so you may have to repot yours every 2 or 3 years.

These wacky yet wonderful plants are so very easy to grow if you give them 2 things: high light and low water.  They are actually great for people who travel or tend to forget (not intentionally I’m sure, we know how that goes) about their houseplants.  In the garden or in your home, the far out and fabulous looking Pencil Cactus doesn’t like to be fussed over!

Happy (indoor or outdoor) gardening,

Nell's signature

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My what tiny leaves you have Mr. Pencil Cactus!

 


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26 comments:

  1. Pingback: 6 Tips To Keep Your Poinsettias Looking Good This Holiday Season - |

  2. Pingback: How To Care For Pencil Cactus Indoors And Outdoors - Gardenoholic

  3. Nell, Thank you for this wonderful instruction and talk on this plant. I loved it. In your photo that is below the video there is a plant on the left in the ground that is a gorgeous soft green. It looks like the blooms on a Butterfly Bush only of course they are that gorgeous green. What is this plant? I think it is just beautiful. It probably won’t grow here in Michigan but I still needed to know what it is. Thank you so much for all the information you spend your time putting out for us gardeners that never stop and can’t get enough of these plants. Barb.

  4. Hi Barb – Thank you for your kind words! And, my pleasure, glad you found the info helpful. I just did a blog post on the plant of which you speak – it’s called a Foxtail Fern & it’s 1 of my favs because it’s so interesting & almost maintenance free. And yes you’re right about it not growing in Michigan, outdoors in the colder months anyway. Here’s the link so you can read more about it: https://www.joyusgarden.com/an-easy-care-fun-fern-myers-or-foxtail-fern/ Spring is one the way! All the best, Nell

  5. Hi Nell. Thank you for providing your informative and fun site. I have a cactus plant for a year now and love the exoticism of it. I live in SC so it does get hot in the summers. But just from reading your site I will now water it every 1-2 months. I didn’t know that they stay outside up to 25 degrees. love how it’s starting to turn yellow.. I love it so much I think I’ll propagate it and have another cactus plant! I have a snake, Japanese Fern and croton plant as well. I enjoy your articles and videos. I think I’ll post a video on youtube about my plants….Ray

  6. Ray – Thank you! I’m about to post a video/blog tomorrow about propagating my Pencil Cactus so stay tuned for that. I brought a larger size cutting from my California garden to my new garden in Arizona. Youtube is fun by the way … Nell

  7. Can the pencil cactus be pruned to be around 3-4′ in height?

  8. Yes Nancy, a Pencil Cactus can be pruned to that height. I’m not sure what size or shape yours is but it might take a bit of artistic skill. You could always take cuttings & replant those. Nell

  9. Well, now you have me wondering if what I have is a pencil cactus! The plant it 25+ years old and was given to me by my grandmother – who always referred to it as a Pencil Cactus. Mine does not grow up, but droops and spreads. It has small yellow flowers on it about once a year (I don’t remember what time of year that is). It “sheds” periodically, mostly when we bring it in for the winter. I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed sap when a piece breaks off, but maybe I just didn’t pay attention, and I certainly didn’t know it was toxic!! Do you think it is a pencil cactus?

  10. Hi Rachael – It sounds like you have one of the Rhipsalis’ (Hatioras). They are quite a few of them. Google: R. salicornoides & see if that’s your plant. It does have small yellow flowers. Hope that helps! Nell

  11. Hi Nell! Loved the blog post, very helpful information! I’ve had what I believe to be a pencil cactus that I keep indoors (I live in the northeast) for about a year now, and I really love it, though it seems to be a bit different from yours. I’m a bit of an amateur, so I’d love some advice! Its much smaller, maybe about a foot tall and wider, with many of the branches drooping. I’m wondering if the drooping is happening because I water it too much or not enough, or maybe its not getting enough sun? Or maybe its in the wrong pot (wide and shallow) or not a pencil cactus at all?! Thanks so much! I know this is a bit vague, but any advice would be amazing.

  12. Hi Leah – Thank you, glad you enjoyed the post! If you were giving your Pencil Cactus too much water, it probably would have rotted out by now. it sounds like you might have a Rhipsalis. There are many different rhipsalis’ so do any internet image search & see if that’s what you have. Nell

  13. Hi – thanks for the info on your Pencil Cactus. I was given a small propagated one, and as we live in the Bahamas, I put it straight into the ground. After I first put it in the ground, it bloomed – pink blossoms I think. Now, 4 years later, it is nearly a tree but I have never, ever seen it bloom again. Any thoughts on how to talk it into blooming again? I thought it was quite pretty when it did.

  14. Hi Amelia – You’re very welcome. My Pencil Cactus rarely flowers (maybe every 3-5 years) & the flowers are insignificant mostly hidden by the leaves. The flowering seems to occur in the spring. Sounds like yours is healthy & growing beautifully in suitable conditions. Even if all conditions are good, I think they flower when you want to! Nell

  15. Pencil cactus is turning pale a d has barky brown spots…What did I do to it?! How do I correct?! Please help!!!

  16. Hi Amanda – It sounds like overwatering. Make sure it dries out almost completely before watering again. Nell

  17. I live in SA, Tx and have had 2 beautiful plants outside my town home for nearly 3 years. Unfortunately, we had some unusually cold weather so now my wonderful plants have obviously frozen. The smaller branches have now wilted and fallen off. I cut the trunks down and am hoping spring will bring them back to life.

    Has anyone ever experienced this? Or have I lost these poor babies?

  18. Hi Kathy – I’ve never experienced that so I can’t say for sure. If the roots didn’t freeze, they should should be ok come spring. Nell

  19. Hey Nell–

    I inherited a 6-foot pencil cactus that has been in a 3- gallon nursery pot for some time. It’s got branched going every which way, to a circumference of 5-feet in places. It appears hearty, but also appears to have been pruned incorrectly, so there is an exposed bare 12 inches at the bottom before branching begins. Sort of tree-like in shape.

    Do you think I can simply repot it in a proper large terra cotta pot by submerging the beast deeper in the pot than you normally would – to help compensate for the top-heaviness you very correctly described? Don’t really want to plant it in the ground.

    Thanks

  20. Hi – Pencil Cacti tend to “trunk” as they age. It’s not good to plant “the beast” too deep – only 1-2″ deeper than the root ball is now. I had to stake mine because it was so top heavy. If the trunk bothers you, you can always take cuttings & fill in around the base. Nell

  21. I was given a pencil cactus and some of the branches have started wilting and drying up any suggestions why this is doing this??????????

  22. Hi Sandy – Sounds like overwatering. Pencil Cactui store a lot of water in their stems besides their roots. Nell

  23. Nell, thanks for the write-up — I have a question about a pencil tree that I have in my backyard: It was transplanted about a year ago from a family that had it for about 15 years. It was basically bursting out the pot it was packed in and so when we received it, we decided to put it in the ground and OH MY! It grew about 3 feet (about 10 feet tall) and was probably the greenest thing in our yard. Sadly, while out of town, we had a good freeze that has seeminfly killed the trunk of the pencil tree. After a few months, I noticed no change. Today, I pulled it out of the ground, in hopes of transplanting it to a pot where I could more carefully take care of it.

    NOW MY QUESTION: The roots are strong and moist and still showing signs of life, is it possible to save the tree with a healthy root system if the trunk itself seems to have died? Low to the base of the trunk I am still getting some of the white “goo” that pencil trees normally put off if their branches are cut.

  24. Hi Brenda – I’ve never had that happen to a Pencil Cactus nor do I know anyone who has. I imagine that it would re sprout from the base of the stem or trunk if any is left. Nell

  25. Thanks, Nell. Will give that a shot!

  26. Hi Nell

    Thanks so much for this informative video! My pencil cactus has some small brown patches on it with fuzz/ teeny hairs. Should I cut them off? The plant seems fine otherwise
    Thank you!

  27. Hi Ritika – You’re welcome! It’s sounds like some sort of fungus because of the fuzzy hairs. If it were just the brown spots, I’d say sun scald or some type of environmental damage. I’m not 100% sure it’s fungus so you can do a little research & check it out. Hope that helps, Nell

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