Cactus and succulents Gardening

The Odd and Edible Zigzag Cactus

A young zigzag cactus, whose stems are just starting to arch down. Photo: crocus.co.uk

Certainly one of the strangest looking cactus, the zigzag cactus or fishbone cactus, Epiphyllum anguliger, now more correctly Disocactus anguliger, has been around for years, but suddenly seems to be catching on in a big way. 

Young Zigzag cactus with stems still upright.
A pot of young cuttings like this may look mini, but your zigzag cactus will eventually become quite sizeable. Photo: geoponicsinc.com

You may also see it labeled “mini fishbone cactus”. However, it will turn out to be more medium-sized than mini, with the whole plant eventually reaching about 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in diameter. Still, this is small for an “orchid cactus” (the common name used for cactus of the genus Epiphyllum and their relatives); many orchid cactus have individual branches that measure over 6 feet (2 m) long! The smaller size of the zigzag cactus makes is a more convenient houseplant than some of its rangy cousins.

Zigzag cactus with arching stems.
Very odd stems indeed! Some people even mistake this cactus for a fern! Photo: malta.desertcart.com

It’s obvious where it gets its common name! Its stems are very curious: flattened, yet succulent, they are deeply and alternately toothed, giving the stem a zigzag appearance. The lobes are also the origin of the plant’s name: anguliger means “angle bearing”. 

Seedling of epiphyllum with two cotyledons
Only a germination does the zigzag cactus have leaves: its cotyledons. They soon disappear and stems take over. Photo: sandiegoepi.com

The stems are green (although older stems can become woody and brown at the base) and carry out the plant’s photosynthesis, since, like most cactus, it has no leaves. A lot of people mistake the broad, flat stems for leaves, but the only leaves this plant ever produces are the first two leaves (cotyledons) of its seedlings and they’re long gone by the time you pick up a plant at the nursery. 

Origin

Zigzag cactus in a hanging basket
Can’t you just imagine this plant dangling from a tree in Mexico? Photo: succulentsnetwork.com

E. anguliger is from Mexico, where it grows in evergreen oak forests in mountains along the Pacific coast, but not on the ground. It’s an epiphyte: it grows on tree branches, way up near the crown of the tree. The branches arch out from the base of the plant, then a down, making it a good choice for hanging baskets.

Zigzag cactus stem with aerial roots
Aerial roots? Who’da thunk it? Photo: ohiotropics.com

Two other curiosities. First, unlike most other cactus, the zigzag cactus is spineless. Secondly, you may also see aerial roots growing underneath the stem when the humidity is high. In the wild, the plant uses them to root onto other tree branches and thus spread. In your home, their only purpose is to make you ask questions.

Gorgeous Flowers

Zigzag cactus with many flowers
Spectacular, scented and short-lived blooms. Photo: plantsrescue.com

When you’re sold a “zigzag cactus”, it’s generally a pot of rooted cuttings and you buy it for its attractive and unusual form. There is no mention of the spectacular flowers to come. But by the time the plant is 3 years old or so (and that’s young for a Epiphyllum), it will begin to bloom, usually in the late fall, then sometimes a second time months later. The flowers are borne from tiny areoles (cushiony white growths) at the base of the stem’s teeth.

The bloom starts as a tube up to 8 inches (20 cm) long that opens into a cup-shaped pure white flower with pale yellow or orangey outer “petals” (actually sepals). At about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, they are smaller than most other orchid cactus, but proportionate to the size of the plant. 

Zigzag cactus flower
As pretty as the flowers are, the perfume will impress you more! Photo: csuhort.blogspot.com

The blooms are strongly and deliciously scented, but only at night. It takes only one to perfume the entire room and several together are enough that you can smell the bloom throughout the house. It’s my wife’s favorite perfume and if you could put it in a bottle, you’d probably make a fortune! Of course, in nature, the perfume isn’t designed to attract humans, but rather to draw moths, the plant’s main pollinators, from afar.

Although I keep reading that the flowers last only one night, in my house, they last two, staying open the day in between, although odorless during the daylight hours. They fade at the beginning of the next day. Most are produced simultaneously although a few may be a day or two ahead of or behind the others.

Delicious Fruit

Zigzag cactus fruit on the plant
The fruits are small and none too impressive… until you taste one! Photo: plantsrescue.com

I’ve never taken the time to hand pollinate the flowers, but inevitably a few fruits form after each flowering. They take months to ripen; 6 months or more. They are green, ovoid and about 1 ½ inches (3–4 cm) thick. It’s hard to tell when they are ripe, but I harvest them when they turn a bit yellow and are soft to the touch and that seems to work well enough.

The fruit is small, but delicious. Photo: Matte Gray, Wikimedia Commons

The flesh inside the fruit is translucid and gelatinous with numerous tiny black seeds. Scoop out the flesh: it’s absolutely delicious and tastes much like a pitaya or dragon fruit (Hylocereus undata or a similar species): not surprisingly, since it is a close relative.

A Zigzag Cactus Doppelganger

Selenicereus anthonyanus with flowers
Selenicereus anthonyanus is a much bigger plant with longer, more widely spaced, longer and more pointed teeth. It blooms outdoors in the tropics, but only rarely indoors. Photo: worldofsucculents.com

Not so long ago, the main zigzag cactus on the market was a different species, also called fishbone cactus or rick rack cactus: Selenicereus anthonyanus, formerly Cryptocereus anthonyanus. It has similar flat stems with the same pattern of alternating extended teeth, but it’s a much bigger and less elegant plant, and also reluctant to bloom. The flowers, if it ever does bloom, are twice as big and purple on the outside, pink, yellow or white inside. Like those of its cousin, they’re highly scented after dark. And they do last only one night.

S. anthonyanus is not in style currently, but is sometimes found in specialist cactus nurseries. If you have the space for a monstrously big spreading plant, it can certainly be impressive!

Care

The zigzag cactus is a tough plant, very easy to grow. 

zigzag cactus indoors
Your zigzag cactus will need bright light in order to grow healthily and bloom. Photo: antonio peschedasch

Indoors, it prefers moderate light with a few hours of direct sun daily in the summer. It would be fine in front of an east window, for example, or somewhat back from a hotter south or west one. Full sun all day is fine in the fall and winter in temperate climates. 

Give it normal indoor temperatures, although it will tolerate cooler winter conditions, down to 40 ºF (4 ºC), as long as it’s kept very dry. It’s tolerant of both high and low atmospheric humidity.

Water as needed when the soil dries out, thus more often in summer than in the winter. 

Fertilize lightly from spring through early fall with whatever fertilizer you have on hand. 

zigzag cactus outdoors for the summer
The zigzag cactus likes nothing better than a summer outdoors, preferably hanging from a tree branch, like it would do in the wild. Photo: gardentags.com

A summer outside in partial shade is helpful. It helps recreate the moving air of the zigzag cactus’ natural environment. Just acclimatize your plant first by setting it in full shade for a few days, then in slightly brighter shade. It will especially like the dappled shade of an overhanging tree.

A zigzag cactus can live for years in the same pot, with only an occasional top dressing: scraping off the soil at the top and replacing it with fresh mix. It doesn’t mind being in a small pot—after all, in the wild, its roots are limited to a bit of leaf litter on the bark of tree—but you may eventually need a heavier pot to hold it up. When you do repot, any well-draining soil will suffice: regular potting soil, cactus mix, orchid mix, etc. I use regular potting mix to which I add about ¼ orchid mix or perlite for extra drainage.

Don’t hesitate to prune off damaged and old stems: even if you cut your plant back nearly to the soil, it will sprout and regrow.

Propagating Zigzags

Well, you could harvest the tiny seeds from the fruit and sprout them, but they’ll be a long way from a mature, presentable plant and some 7 to 8 yers from blooming. Or you could divide a mature plant. 

Cutting of zigzag cactus in a tray
Cuttings are easily rooted in regular potting soil. Photo: modandmint.com

Generally, though, it’s simpler to just insert 3 or 4 stem cuttings about 6 inches (15 cm) long into a 10 cm pot and keep the potting mix slightly moist. This is best done in spring or summer. Rooting hormone can be used, but isn’t absolutely necessary. 

Problems

Rot is the main enemy and usually results from soggy soil, so make sure you let the soil dry out before watering again. The zigzag cactus is not a desert plant, but neither does it necessarily need weekly watering. Touch the soil and let your finger be the judge. If it’s dry, water; if not, wait! In case of rot, which will see the plant start to collapse while the soil will smell like a rotting potato, start a new plant from cuttings from a still healthy stem or two.

Reddish stems in summer are not a problem: they’re like a sort of natural sunscreen and are the plant’s reaction to excess light. It reddens in its natural habitat as well. A bit of reddening actually leads to more bloom later on.

The main insect concerns are mealybugs and scale insects; less frequently aphids. You could try spraying with insecticidal soap or a half-and-half solution of isopropyl alcohol and water, but the best control is to keep your cactus far from any infested plants.

Slug or snail damage is possible if the plant is put on the ground outdoors. Hand pick the culprits … then hang your plant from a tree, out of the reach of molluscs.


The zigzag cactus: exotic and unusual; you’re going to love it!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

20 comments on “The Odd and Edible Zigzag Cactus

  1. OMG, want! Flowers remind me of the blooms of Schlumbergera or Christmas Cacti, and Rhipsalidopsis (aka Hatiora) or Easter cactus, of which I have around dozen of the former and 2 of the latter. Just what I need, more plants. 🙂

  2. Donna Birch

    Magnificent, I love it! Thank you for the wonderful introduction!

  3. Rachel Carnes

    Ok I want one!! I have just the east facing window- now to find someone who supplies them here in NJ!!

  4. Dragon fruit is more productive, but the fruit is rather bland. I am growing it now just because it is not very demanding. In Southern California, it also gets into palm trees, and is difficult to get rid of.

    • Hi!

      Have you had any problems with browning sections on stems (not close to soil). It looks like portions are rotting but not near the base. I cant seem to find any info anywhere about what might be wrong. My plant has recently produced 3 flowers despite this.

      Any ideas greatly appreciated. I have a pretty large specimen and dont want to lose it.

      Alicia

      • Are these older stems? And how brown is brown? Because it can get woody over time (I’d say, gray brown, not dark brown), especially near the joints, and that would be normal. Most epiphytic cacti do that, some more than others.

        If it’s a touch of rot, just on the outside of the stem, the exterior part would still be supplied in moisture and minerals those vessels inside still doing their job and could live on. Again, you see lots of cactus with spots of rot, possibly caused by extra humid but temporary conditions, that stop growing and go no further.

        It wouldn’t be particularly harmful (if it’s not spreading). You’d have to decide whether the decreased appearance bothers you or not. If you see it spreading, cut it off.

      • Yes! It is a total bummer. (Besides that, at least one rotted at the base because the ground stayed too wet there.) I noticed that some of the epiphyllums are more susceptible to that sort of damage than others; and, of course, those that are exposed to rain and frost are much more susceptible. For most cultivars, it is not a serious problem. However, for some, the spectacular flowers bloom against a backdrop of unsightly foliage. I should probably shelter them more. The difficult with the dragon fruit is that they need to be exposed. Although their visual appeal is not so important, I want them to be healthy . . . and I do not want them to ever get unsightly. I think that eventually, they will do well; and that pruning out old growth stimulates generation of vigorous new growth that will be more resilient.

  5. Interesting, my aunt has a plant that looks just like this but I’m not sure what type it is. It has medium sized “teeth” that are spaced quite a bit but are very rounded and the plant is small. The plant is only in its early stages of life so it’s difficult to tell what it is. It also has one long but thin spine on each of its nodes.

    Would the fruit still be edible if the plant were a Selenicereus anthonyanus?

  6. One last thing, are they self-pollinating?

    • Theoretically, most epiphyllums are self-sterile, so you would need to transfer pollen from one plant to another. However, this is apparently not true for this species, as mine produces fruit all on its own.

  7. Not sure it’s edible tbh. The fruits are of course but that’s the same for any cactus.

  8. Hi there, can you plant cutting with aerial roots in the soil to grow more?

  9. Melissa Spackman

    I have 2 stems of this plant and it looks like babies are growing from it. I thought they were new leaves, but you said they don’t grow leaves, so do I cut these off at the base and root them or plant them in soil?

    • You can just let them grow, of course, but if you want to multiply the plant, yes, you could cut them off and root them in soil.

  10. Hello! Thank you for all the usefull information! I have some vertical stems that appeared on almost all of the different stems of my zig zag cactus. They have grown for a couple of weeks but are staying cylindrical (without the zig zag shape). The longest is about 10 cm long. Is this new growth? Is this normal? Thank you in advance!

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