How to Plant, Grow and Care For Fishbone Cactus
Are you thinking of adding a Fishbone Cactus to your indoor or outdoor garden space? These popular cacti can make wonderful indoor and outdoor garden plants. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton takes you through everything you need to know about the Fishbone Cactus and their care.
The colorful world of plant common names has many interesting and unique members. One of my absolute favorites is the fishbone cactus – a name that perfectly describes the jagged look of this fascinating plant.
Botanically known as Epiphyllum anguliger (or Disocactus anguliger), this cactus has stolen the hearts of houseplant lovers around the world. From the jungles of Mexico, it differs from other cactuses, preferring conditions closer to those found in our homes.
This guide covers everything you need to know about caring for your fishbone cactus, from origins to propagation and more.
Fishbone Cactus Overview
Plant Type Houseplant
Species Epiphyllum anguliger
Native Area Mexico
Exposure Bright indirect light
Hardiness Zones 10-11
Height 10+ inches
Watering Requirements Low
Pests & Diseases Scale, mealybug
Soil Type Airy and well-draining epiphyte mix
About Epiphyllum anguliger
Around the world, the fishbone cactus is botanically named Epiphyllum anguliger. However, you may also find it labeled Disocactus anguliger as it is more closely related to members of the Disocactus genus genetically. Luckily, the specific epithet anguliger remains the same, named after the interesting angular patterns of the leaves.
There is also confusion surrounding the common name of this cactus. Most simply use the term fishbone cactus, a descriptive name that refers to the boney shape of the leaves. Others use the more whimsical term zig-zag cactus.
If you see what looks like Epiphyllum anguliger with the common name ric rac cactus or orchid cactus, you may need to take a closer look at the leaves. Although these species are sometimes called by these names, they are also the common names of a very similar cactus species – Cryptocereus anthonyanus (Selenicereus anthonyanus).
At first glance, these two plants look almost identical. However, if you look closer, you’ll find Epiphyllum anguliger has more flesh at the center of the leaves, while Cryptocereus anthonyanus has deeper and thinner lobes.
It may not look like it, but this curious plant is part of the Cactaceae family. It differs in its epiphytic nature but has the same structure and makeup as other cactuses we know and love.
The fishbone cactus is a jungle plant native to Mexico. Growing as an epiphyte, it attaches itself to the sides of trees for height to limit competition and reach for more sunlight. The aerial roots absorb moisture from the air and nutrients from pockets of debris within the trees.
While cactuses typically remind us of desert-like environments, that is not the case for these plants. But that’s what makes them so great for growing indoors.
Fishbone cactuses retain the low-maintenance needs of any cactus species with the preference for lower light and higher humidity that other houseplants share.
Epiphyllum anguliger is most sought-after for its leaves. The long arching leaves have alternating bumps of slightly different shapes and sizes that look just like fish bones. In the right conditions, these leaves can grow quite long. But they won’t grow as quickly indoors.
That’s not all there is to love about this small cactus plant. This plant also produces stunning flowers at night – typically in white – when conditions are perfect. They release a sweet scent that will quickly fill a room in the later hours of the evening.
If you’re lucky, you may even spot fruits developing on your zig zag cactus after flowering. When sliced, the fruits look very similar to kiwis, with greenish flesh and small black seeds. The fruits are completely edible and quite tasty, with a sweetness that matches their scent.
How to Grow
Epiphyllum anguliger is one of the easiest houseplants you can grow, needing little care and handling neglect well. However, it’s the classification of cacti that often trips people up.
These plants are members of the cactus family but need completely different conditions from regular cactuses due to their jungle native habitats. Providing the same conditions as you would a desert cactus will quickly lead to its demise.
Take a look at these subtle differences to give your fishbone cactus the perfect care. In the right position, it should thrive with little help from you.
Most cactuses require a full day of direct sunlight to grow well. They are slow growers and need as much sun as possible to keep them healthy and happy. That is not the case for the fishbone cactus.
These epiphytes attach themselves to trees in their native habitats. This means they hang out below the tree canopy, where they receive patches of sunlight filtered through the masses of leaves above. Unlike most cactuses, Epiphyllum anguliger is more accustomed to shade than to full sun.
Indoors, the best match for this level of sunlight is bright indirect sun. This is typically found right next to bright windows (east, south or west-facing), but just out of the path of the direct sun’s rays. Here, they receive the same amount of light as the dappled shade under trees, providing ideal conditions for growth and flowering.
Fishbone cactuses can also handle a little direct sun in the early hours of the morning, as long as the sun is not too harsh. This makes east-facing windows perfect, as they will usually get some direct sun in the morning, remaining shaded for the rest of the day.
Don’t ever leave your fishbone cactus in a full sun position during the hottest part of the day, especially in summer. They may look like they can handle the heat, but the leaves will quickly burn if the sunlight is too intense.
On the other hand, they can’t handle low-light areas either. Growth will be incredibly slow in low light spots, and the roots are far more likely to rot due to lower evaporation and moisture absorption. Make sure they have bright indirect light for most of the day, and an hour or two of gentle, direct sun if you want them to flower and produce fruits.
Watering is the one care task most get wrong when growing a fishbone cactus. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most important tasks as incorrect watering can quickly kill your cactus if not rectified. Striking a balance between moisture and aeration is vital to keeping your Epiphyllum anguliger happy.
Unlike other cactuses that can go months without additional watering, the fishbone cactus is much closer in needs to other houseplants. The leaves do store some water, so they don’t need watering very often, but they also can’t be left to dry out completely.
As epiphytes, fishbone cactuses are incredibly sensitive to overwatering. The roots are more accustomed to the open air than water and will quickly rot if there is too much moisture or a lack of drainage. It’s better to hold off on watering for a few days rather than watering too quickly, as excess moisture can potentially kill the plant.
You may be tempted to water your fishbone cactus on a schedule – perhaps once a week or once every two weeks. However, this usually leads to problems with over or underwatering. Environmental conditions around your plants change every day and can influence how much moisture remains in the soil. Watering on a schedule ignores these factors and often leads to watering at the incorrect time.
As a general rule, you should test the soil every few days and water when the top half of the soil in the container has dried out completely. This provides a balance between available moisture and adequate aeration.
Fishbone cactuses have very specific soil requirements to provide enough aeration to their epiphytic roots. Much like orchids, they need a loose and airy soil mix that provides stability for the roots but doesn’t hold onto too much moisture.
If you’ve purchased your fishbone cactus already in a pot with soil, there is no need to change the soil straight away. It has likely been grown in these conditions for long periods, and immediate change along with a change in environment will only lead to stress.
But, you will eventually need to change the soil at some point. The plant may outgrow its pot, requiring repotting, or the soil may degrade over time, needing a top-up to fulfill its essential functions. These are the times to consider your soil mix.
Standard potting soil is not suitable for these indoor plants. Like other cactuses and epiphytes, the soil mix needs to be light and chunky to drain excess moisture away from the roots and promote airflow. Normal potting soil is usually denser and holds onto too much moisture, especially when growing these plants indoors.
Instead, look for a premixed orchid mix that matches their preferred conditions. You can also use a well-draining succulent and cactus mix amended with coconut coir, bark chips, and perlite to better match what may be found in their native habitats.
If you aren’t sure about texture, the best place to look is the soil the cactus was planted in originally. Keeping the texture consistent is the easiest way to keep the plant happy and limit stress. Use an orchid or cactus mix as a base, adjusting with the other elements until both soils match up in feel and moisture retention.
Temperature and Humidity
Considering their Mexican native habitats, it’s no surprise that Epiphyllum anguliger loves high temperatures. That’s what makes them great houseplants – they enjoy the same temperatures we do indoors.
Aim to keep temperatures consistently above 65F year-round if possible. This will ensure the strongest growth from the plants without any slowdown, thanks to cold weather. They may need some additional watering when temperatures are above 90F in summer but are typically happy with the moderate temperatures found indoors.
Fishbone cactuses are able to handle slightly lower temperatures, although growth will slow or stop until warmth returns. But, they should not be left in temperatures below 50F. They are not at all used to cold weather and can face permanent damage if left in the cold for long periods.
Where these plants do differ from regular cactuses is in their humidity requirements. Unlike desert cactuses that prefer dry air, these epiphytes need high humidity levels to survive. About 60% humidity is recommended, but they should grow well in humidity 40% and higher.
For those with dry indoor air, there are a few ways you can improve the humidity indoors. Misting is one option, although it may increase the risk of fungal disease in the leaves and requires consistent effort. You can also place the plant in a naturally more humid room or make use of a humidifier to provide the perfect environment for these plants.
All plants need different nutrients in certain amounts to grow successfully. These range from macro to micronutrients, and deficiency in just one of these can cause a number of growth issues, from yellowing leaves to weak stems and more.
Epiphyllum anguliger is not classified as a heavy feeder. However, if yours has been in the same container for a while without additional nutrients and begins to show signs of struggle, a nutrient boost is essential. High nutrient levels are also important in encouraging flowering and fruiting.
If your fishbone cactus is performing well, you only need to fertilize once per year in early spring. Choose a liquid fertilizer designed for cactuses to provide the perfect balance of nutrients these types of plants prefer. You can fertilizer with a half-strength dose in summer if your plant is struggling, but it shouldn’t need more than the annual dose.
It’s vital to avoid overfertilizing when growing fishbone cactus. These plants survive well off low levels of nutrients in their native habitats and don’t respond well to excess fertilizer in the soil. Rather stick to less fertilizing than more, or simply repot into a fresh and nutrient-dense soil mix to keep the roots happy.
Once you’ve fallen in love with your fishbone cactus, you’ll likely want a few more of them. But, before you head out to your local nursery to add to your collection, consider propagating. Similar to plants in succulent families, fishbone cactus is remarkably easy to propagate with just a few cuttings.
You can propagate at any time of year, but early spring is recommended. This ensures the quickest possible rooting and protects vulnerable cuttings from cold snaps in fall and winter. If you have any cuttings left over from pruning unruly stems, you can also try rooting those at any time of year to avoid wasting them.
Start by removing an entire leaf at the base, or the tip of one about 4 or 5 inches long. Cut longer cuttings into 4 or 5-inch sections for rooting. Always use a sharp pair of pruning shears that have been recently cleaned to prevent the spread of disease.
Next is a step that’s essential for succulent cuttings – waiting. Leave your cuttings on a piece of newspaper for a few days to allow the ends to dry out. This vital step prevents rotting after planting, greatly increasing your chances of root growth.
After a few days, when the ends have changed color, you’re ready for planting. Prepare a mixture of equal parts coconut coir and perlite or river sand for improved drainage. Fill a small container or tray with this mixture and pre-moisten to test the drainage levels.
Finally, bury just the bottom end of the cutting in the soil, leaving the rest away from the moisture. Water scarcely over the next few days to prevent chances of rotting and your cutting should develop roots within a few weeks.
Depending on conditions and speed of growth, your fishbone cactus will likely need repotting every 2 to 3 years – potentially sooner for younger plants. This provides more space for the roots and refreshes the soil to provide the perfect growing conditions.
As they don’t mind being pot-bound, it can be tricky to tell when to repot. Look out for roots growing through the drainage holes or discoloration in the leaves. Also, consider repotting if the soil is draining much faster than usual and not retaining any moisture.
The process of repotting is similar to other houseplants. Start by removing the plant from its current container and teasing the roots. Watch out for the cascading stems and take care not to damage them in the process. Repotting can be stressful for plants, and damage will only add to their recovery time.
Next, grab a new container around one or two sizes up. Don’t go too large as the additional moisture can lead to rot in the sensitive roots. Moisture-wicking materials like terra cotta are preferred, but your fishbone cactus will be happy in any type of container.
Fill the container with new soil mix as discussed above and lower the plant inside, spreading the roots outwards to grow into the new space. Fill in any gaps with more soil mix until the soil line is in the same position it was previously. Make sure the leaves are lying over the sides of the pot if they are long enough and not on top of the soil.
This is usually the stage where you will water. However, it may benefit your plant to wait a few days before watering. This can help limit shock and prevents rotting while the plant recovers from root disturbance.
When you understand their needs, fishbone cactuses are incredibly easy to care for. They don’t require much attention, especially when compared to other houseplants. That’s why misunderstanding their needs and caring too much, or perhaps too little, leads to the most common growth problems.
Light is a big one. As cactuses, most assume these plants need a full day of direct sun. However, that will quickly lead to patches of brown on the leaves and a thin, diminished look.
Fishbone cactuses need to be kept in indirect sunlight for most of the day, with an hour or two of gentle direct sun at most. Any more and the plants will struggle.
Watering is another concern. Most houseplant owners struggle the most with overwatering, but in this case, the more likely issue is underwatering.
Although they are part of the cactus family, Epiphyllum anguliger needs more water than regular desert cacti. Underwatering will quickly lead to thin leaves and a lack of new growth.
Other small issues may pop up if your plant is in the wrong environment or needs a new pot. The ends of the leaves may turn brown with lack of humidity or the lower leaves yellow in cases of overwatering. There is also the risk of pests and diseases, particularly scale and mealybug, but these are not majorly common on fishbone cacti.
The best way to avoid these issues is to check your plant regularly for signs of stress and to provide the ideal environment and care. The closer conditions are to their native habitats, the better these plants will look.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are fishbone cactus safe for cats?
Fishbone cactus is one of a few houseplants safe for cats. Despite the cactus name, they don’t have spikes either and won’t hurt your furry friend if they become curious and decide to get up close.
Why is my fishbone cactus wrinkled?
Wrinkled leaves are typically a sign of underwatering. While they do store some water in their leaves, the roots of this plant cannot be left to dry out completely or the leaves will wrinkle and change color. Water immediately as soon as you notice a problem and the leaves should return to normal. If you have watered recently and the leaves are still wrinkled, there may be another cause, such as overwatering or pest problems.
What is the difference between a fishbone cactus and an orchid cactus?
These two plants look incredibly similar, but are actually two different species (and two different genera). Epiphyllum anguliger has more flesh at the center of the leaves, while Cryptocereus anthonyanus has deeper and thinner lobes.
If you weren’t already convinced to add these beautiful cactuses to your collection, I hope the many benefits and ease of care have made a convincing argument. These lovely flowering cacti make a great houseplant for almost any indoor plant collection. Don’t forget to propagate so you can grow even more of them to share with friends and family.