By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) is a tropical succulent native to rainforests in warm regions. The grownup name for this cactus is Rhipsalis mistletoe cactus. This cactus is found in Florida, Mexico, and Brazil. Surprisingly, growing Rhipsalis requires shade to partial shade. While most cacti are found in hot, sunny, arid zones, mistletoe cactus is unique in its requirements for moisture and dim light. Take some tips on how to grow mistletoe cactus and enjoy this unique and entertaining looking plant.
Rhipsalis mistletoe cactus is also called chain cactus and grows epiphytically in its tropical forest home. The cactus has pencil thin succulent stems that may reach 6 feet (2 m.) in length. The thick skin of the stems does not produce thorns, but it does have almost imperceptible bumps on the surface of the plant.
These plants are found clinging to tree crotches, in branch nooks and nestled in rock crevasses. The Rhipsalis mistletoe cactus is easy to grow and has very minimal needs. It is perfect for the home interior in a northern or western window.
Mistletoe cactus is only hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 9 to 10. The plant is most often found indoors and may simply be mounted on a piece of bark like an orchid or potted in a good cactus mix. If you are not prone to overwatering, you can plant the cactus in regular potting soil mixed with sand or other gritty material.
The plant is used to living in the understory of the forest, where temperatures are at least 60 F. (15 C.) and light is filtered through the high limbs. Growing Rhipsalis is practically foolproof as long as you mimic its native conditions.
Mistletoe cacti are easy to grow from cuttings. Seeds take way too long and they require very even environmental conditions. Take cuttings and let the severed end callus for a few days. Plant the callused end in a cactus mix or sand that has been lightly moistened. Cuttings root in two to six weeks.
Seeds can be started indoors in flats filled with sand and peat. Moisten the medium and plant the seeds 1/4-inch (0.5 cm.) deep. Keep the medium barely moist until the plants germinate. Grow young plants in semi-shade and water when the surface of the soil is dry.
Ensure that your mistletoe cactus is planted in well-drained soil. Potted plants benefit from a saucer filled with rocks and water to increase the ambient humidity in the home interior.
The plant rarely needs fertilizing and has few other needs except moderate light and even moisture. Fertilize with a half dilution of cactus food from April to September, once per month.
Water frequently in spring and summer, but suspend water in winter.
If any of the stems are damaged, you can trim them off with a sharp, sterile knife. Use these as cuttings to start new Rhipsalis mistletoe cactus.
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With its long, elegantly drooping stems and low-maintenance care needs, the mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis baccifera) makes an ideal choice for hanging planters. In U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 and 10, the pale green stems of this epiphytic cactus reach lengths of more than 10 feet. Of course, to achieve such results you'll need to practice proper care, but given the plant's hardy demeanor, it doesn't take a pro green thumb to get the most out of mistletoe cactus.
Place your mistletoe cactus in an area that receives partial to full shade. Use a gritty, well-drained, slightly acidic soil mix of two parts peat moss and one part sand, with bark chips mixed in to promote soil drainage.
Keep the soil of the mistletoe cactus moist, but not waterlogged, during its growth season, which occurs from the early spring to late summer. Never allow standing water on the surface of the soil, but don't let the soil dry out completely let the topsoil dry out between waterings, but not the subsoil.
Apply a balanced, general-purpose fertilizer every two to four weeks during the plant's growing season. Follow any instructions or warnings provided by the manufacturer when applying the fertilizer.
Cut back on watering throughout the fall and winter, the dormant seasons of the mistletoe cactus. Water just enough to keep the plant's stems from shriveling. This practice promotes healthy blossoming in spring. Do not fertilize the plant during this time. Resume regular watering and fertilization practices as soon as the first buds appear in spring.
Mist your mistletoe cactus regularly. This plant hails from tropical regions, so it enjoys moisture and humidity.
An important factor in determining the suitability of a plant to your home and envisioning the care it will need, is to know the origin of the plant. Plants that are native to desert regions will require substantial amount of sunlight and loose, fast-draining soil. Plants from the floor of a rainforest will need some protection from strong sunlight and generous humidity.
Rhipsalis is a genus of numerous species, many of which are commonly known as mistletoe cactus or coral cactus. These plants are epiphytic or lithophytic* , jungle cacti, primarily native to the tropical and subtropical forests of Central and South America. Jungle cacti typically grow in a pocket of moss or debris in the crook of a tree branch or a rock. So despite the humid, jungle conditions of their native habitats, these cacti are adapted to grow in a media that is prone to dryness.
Jungle cacti are succulents, with areoles, but differ considerably in appearance from desert cacti. Like Christmas or Easter cacti, mistletoe and coral cacti are leafless and composed of branching stems. Many are admired for their attractive, pendant architecture more than their flower display, though the flowers can be numerous and, in some species, are scented.
Imagine the understory, filtered light of a jungle cacti’s natural habitat. These plants prefer a medium source of light year-round and will die if exposed to prolonged, direct, summer sun. Morning sun only is ideal. Rotating the plant is beneficial but not essential.
Water frequently in spring and summer, keeping the soil consistently moist but not standing in water run-off. Watering frequency should vary as your house heats up and cools down with the seasons. During the pre-flowering period, reduce watering, letting the top ½ inch of soil dry out between waterings. After flowering, water only enough to keep soil barely moist for a period of three to six weeks. Rhipsalis do not like hard water and should, ideally, be watered with rainwater.
Mist your mistletoe or coral cactus daily to compensate for the inhospitable dryness of a Northeastern home.
Jungle cacti like warm household temperatures most of the year, but with a rest period after flowering and again while setting buds to re-bloom. To form flowers, mistletoe and coral cacti need to be moved to a spot with lower temperatures (below about 65° F.) for a month or two after flowering and again before setting buds. (See Encouraging your Rhipsalis to flower below) . Do not expose them to temperatures below 50°F.
Mistletoe and coral cacti prefer a rich soil with excellent drainage. Many commercial cacti and potting soil mixes rely too heavily on peat, which holds moisture in the soil longer than is desirable for these plants. In general, mixing one part perlite (for drainage) with one part potting soil, one part peat and one part coarse orchid bark (for structure and nutrition) creates an excellent soil for most jungle cacti. You will notice that while this mix is fast draining, it will hold more moisture than a desert cactus mix. Plants that are potted in the wrong mixture will initially do well but may later suffer from root rot associated with excess water retention in the soil.
Re-potting your plant annually after flowering is essential for your mistletoe or coral cactus, even though its small roots are unlikely to outgrow the container. Generally, a clean pot of the same size with fresh soil is fine as slightly tight conditions benefit flowering. Handle the plant carefully as you move it so as not to break off the delicate segments.
When flower buds begin to form, use a tomato-type fertilizer every two weeks through the flowering period and then monthly for the rest of the year, except for the rest period following flowering. Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer on these plants or any other succulent.
Mistletoe and coral cacti do best if they have a period of rest after they finish blooming of a month or two and they need to experience lower temperatures and longer nights to set new buds. If your mistletoe or coral cactus will not re-bloom, it is most likely that one of these elements has been missed in its yearly routine. In particular, your cactus will not set buds if kept at normal household temperatures above 68° F. in the bud formation period. Bud formation and bloom may also inhibited by the presence of artificial light at night, so household lamplight and even streetlights can be a problem. Once the buds are set, do not move your cactus.
During the flowering period, keep temperatures above 60°F and water normally, as directed above.
Your cactus then needs a rest period for about two months following flowering. During this time the cactus should be watered less frequently, not fed, and kept relatively cool (around 55°F).
After the rest period, you can increase water, temperature and re-start your feeding program. About two months before bloom-time, keep your plant dry-ish and cool again until buds form, at which point you can resume regular watering.
Mistletoe and coral cacti benefit from the air circulation when placed outdoors during the summer months but keep them in medium shade. The stems will harden with this outdoor exposure and your chance of a strong flower display will improve.
Do not overwater if your plant begins to turn yellow at the tips you are giving it too much water and causing the cellular structure to rupture.
*epiphytic = growing on but not feeding from another plant lithophytic = growing on rocks.
With loads of quirky personality and an easy-care disposition, mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis spp.) should be next up on your must-have plant list. All rhipsalis are easy to grow and thrive in containers. Despite being commonly called cactus, their care requirements are a little different, as they need a bit more water and prefer humidity.
Trailing types, including R. baccifera and R. burchellii, are perfect for your hanging macramé planters — adding enough character to really nail that 1970s boho-chic look. Mounding varieties, like R. heteroclada, look like knobby underwater coral and make perfect desk toppers.
Rhipsalis baccifera ssp. horrida, photo by Emma Northey
Botanical name: Rhipsalis spp.
Common name: Mistletoe cactus is commonly used for all of Rhipsalis spp. it can also specifically refer to R. baccifera or R. burchellii
Temperature requirement: Grows anywhere as a houseplant outside, it grows best in mild climates, preferring a temperature range between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15.6 and 23.9 degrees Celsius, although some sources list them as tolerant down to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4.4 degrees Celsius plants grow best in humid environments
Water requirement: Low to moderate in spring and summer lower needs in fall and winter
Light requirement: Varies by species, from full shade to partial shade or bright, indirect light
Mature size: Varies by species, ranging from those that stay 6 inches tall and wide to others that trail to 6 feet long
Seasonal interest: Evergreen grown as a houseplant some form small flowers in late winter, followed by tiny fruit
R. cereuscula on the floor and R. baccifera ssp. horrida on the stool photo by Emma Northey
Rhipsalis is a diverse genus of tropical epiphytic cactus that are native to the rainforests in Central, South and parts of North America (Florida), as well as some tropical areas of Africa, Madagascar and Sri Lanka.
In nature the plants would grow tucked into nooks in tree trunks and branches, or more rarely, in rocky crevices or terrestrially. The form varies species to species, from those with round versus flattened stems and those that grow in semi-upright mounds versus trailing cascades.
This plant can experience a few pests. Mealybugs and scale insects are easy enough to get rid of and prevent.
They appear as white blobs or raised brown scales on the plant. You should remove them with tweezers and swab the area with alcohol to prevent future infestation.
Other pests such as spider mites or red spider mites are difficult to identify as they will become evident after making their first attack.
Get rid of them, spray your plant with Neem insecticide or a mix of systemic pesticide.
The plant is most often found indoors and may simply be mounted on a piece of bark like an orchid or potted in a good cactus mix.
If you are not prone to overwatering, you can plant the cactus in regular potting soil mixed with sand or other gritty material.
The plant is used to living in the understory of the forest, where temperatures are at least 60 F. (15 C.) and light is filtered through the high limbs.
Growing Rhipsalis is practically foolproof as long as you mimic its native conditions.
Rhipsalis ewaldiana “Mistletoe Cacti” is easy to grow from cuttings.
Seeds take way too long and they require very even environmental conditions.
Take cuttings and let the severed end callus for a few days.
Plant the callused end in a cactus mix or sand that has been lightly moistened. Cuttings root in two to six weeks.
Seeds can be started indoors in flats filled with sand and peat.
Moisten the medium and plant the seeds 1/4-inch deep. Keep the medium barely moist until the plants germinate.
Grow young plants in semi-shade and water when the surface of the soil is dry.
Ensure that your mistletoe cactus is planted in well-drained soil.
Potted plants benefit from a saucer filled with rocks and water to increase the ambient humidity in the home interior.
The plant rarely needs fertilizing and has few other needs except moderate light and even moisture.
Fertilize with a half dilution of cactus food from April to September, once per month. Water frequently in spring and summer, but suspend water in winter.
If any of the stems are damaged, you can trim them off with a sharp, sterile knife. Use these as cuttings to start new Rhipsalis mistletoe cactus.
Rhipsalis ewaldiana “Mistletoe Cactus” is the perfect addition to your hanging baskets, especially in areas of your home or garden that doesn’t receive a lot of light.
It does best when planted in a terra cotta or clay pot.
In its native jungle growing habitats of South America, Rhipsalis ewaldiana received filtered light through tree branches.
Keep this in mind when choosing where to plant your “Mistletoe Cactus.”
The most common species are: Rhipsalis cassutha, Rhipsalis oblonga, Rhipsalis pilocarpa, Rhipsalis puniceodiscus, Rhipsalis burchellii, Rhipsalis rosea. They come from Brazil, from the rain forests. It is commonly known as Ripsalis.
They form small epiphytic shrubs with flattened stems that eventually become round.
The flowers appear at the ends of the stems and are pink or red. It blooms in spring and the flowers last about two months.
The minimum temperature they support is 10 ° C. It must be located in semi-shade throughout the year.
As soon as the first yolks begin to emerge, the temperature must be increased.
The earth must always be wet.
The earth must be rich in humus and with 1/3 pieces of bark. It does not support lime.
Transplants, if necessary, should be done after flowering.
During the period of growth, you should be given the irrigation with a special fertilizer for cacti mixed with the water every 15 days.
It can be placed on the terrace, or in a hanging pot in the living room. It can also be planted in hydroponics for indoor plants.
During the summer, if the air is too dry, it can be attacked by the red spider or the cottony mealybugs. Maintain high humidity.
The Rhipsalis ewaldiana take root easily if they are cut in May or June and planted in peat at about 22 ° C
Rhipsalis Cereuscula is a rare plant with short stems, it looks like a shrubby plant. The new growth of this plant is green and becomes vibrant green as it matures. A great plant for hanging baskets, it can be easily grown in 3.5 ”containers.
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