The Odd and Edible Zigzag Cactus

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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!

Edible Houseplants

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Coffee fruit - Coffea arabica

A coffee plant (Coffea arabica) will produce it’s colorful “cherries” indoors.

Question: Are there any houseplants that are both edible and attractive?

Clecio Turgeon

Answer: There are many tropical plants that are both easy to grow indoors and give us something to nibble on or to add to our recipes… but you won’t find many among the most common houseplants we grow. Most “everyday houseplants” are either not considered edible or are even poisonous. The latter group includes such popular plants as philodendrons, dieffenbachias, oleanders and most euphorbias. You don’t want to eat those!

What follows is a description of some the more interesting edible houseplants.

A Growing microgreens on plastic white cup

Micro-greens aren’t really houseplants.

Plants Dropped From the List

I eliminated from the get-go certain plants that I just don’t consider to be houseplants. For example, I didn’t include most of the herbs brought indoors in the fall to grow over the winter, as in my opinion they are not really houseplants and in fact really struggle to survive indoors. You really couldn’t grow them indoors all year.

Nor did I include herbs and vegetables that are sown indoors with a view towards a quick harvest of fresh foliage: sprouts, micro-greens and baby vegetables, for example. Again, in my book, they may be indoor edibles, but they’re not really houseplants. Likewise rooted carrot tops, sprouted sweet potatoes or celery bases sitting in water. They just aren’t houseplants to me.

There are also a few poisonous plants that are edible only after they’re given some kind of special treatment, like cooking, soaking, pounding or being reduced into powder, such as taro (Calocasia esculenta) and variegated manioc (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’). I didn’t think it was a good idea to include potentially dangerous plants in a list of edible houseplants, as some readers might skip the “fine print”.


Everyday Houseplants That Are Edible

Here are the few common houseplants, ones readily found in almost any garden center, that just happen to be edible.

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Calamondin orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa)

Calamondin Orange (X Citrofortunella microcarpa, syn. X C. mitis)
This is the only citrus commonly offered as a houseplant. It is inevitably already in fruit when you buy it and you just need to give it good conditions (especially, strong light) for it to continue it bloom and produce abundantly. The fruits are very bitter, but they can be used in cooking, especially in the preparation of marmalades. For suggestions of other less widely available indoor citruses, see Indoor Fruits below.

Chinese Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
The flowers are edible and often used in herbal tea. Here’s an article about this plant: The Secrets to Growing a Hibiscus Indoors.

Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Young coffee plants, usually scarcely more than seedlings, can easily be found on the market, but may be 2 or 3 years from blooming… and 5 to 6 years before producing enough beans to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally you find more mature plants already producing their highly perfumed white flowers.

You can actually eat the sweet flesh of the coffee “cherries” that follow or simply clean, roast and grind up the “beans” (seeds) to make a delicious drink.

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False shamrock (Oxalis triangularis)

False Shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, syn. O. regnellii)
The leaves of this popular houseplant can be purple or green, with or without a silvery or pink marking… and they are quite edible, with a sweet/sour taste. This comes from the oxalic acid they contain. However, oxalic acid becomes toxic if eaten raw in large quantities, so moderate your use. Or cook the leaves before use. Just to reassure you, remember that spinach, which we routinely eat, also contains oxalic acid and is also toxic if eaten raw in excessive quantities. As they say, the poison is in the dose: eating a few leaves will not harm you.

Ornamental Pepper (Capiscum annuum and others)
All peppers are edible, even the ones sold as ornamental plants. Be forewarned though that ornamental peppers are hot peppers, indeed, very hot peppers, generally stronger then jalapeños.

You may sometimes see them bearing the label “unfit for human consumption”, though. Why is that? It’s not because the fruit itself is poisonous, but because it was treated with an insecticide that is potentially harmful to humans. Organic gardeners will consider the fruits spoiled for life; others can wait a few weeks, then rinse the fruits before eating them. Both can harvest the seeds and grow them to produce fruits totally safe to eat in the second generation.

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Ornamental pineapple (Ananas comosus cv)

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)
There are several varieties of ornamental pineapple, for example with reddish foliage, variegated leaves, colored fruit, etc. And all produce fruits which, although they’re often smaller than commercially grown pineapples, are still edible.

Besides ornamental varieties of pineapple, you can also buy a fresh pineapple and root its crown. And yes, it will eventually produce an edible fruit.

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Lemony rose scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens ‘Lady Plymouth’)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens and others)
There are a multitude of varieties of scented geranium with an incredible array of scents: lemon, rose, coconut, apple. peach, strawberry, cloves, etc. In addition to rubbing the foliage to release their scent, you can use their leaves in cooking to impart a delicious aroma to your meal. Richters (Canada) offers an especially wide choice: more than 70 varieties of these highly perfumed plants!

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Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa)

Swiss Cheese Plant or Monstera (Monstera deliciosa)
Often mistaken for a philodendron (which is a close relative), the monstera, with its huge, deeply-cut leaves, certainly makes an impressive houseplant. When it reaches maturity, which can take many years, it will flower indoors, producing a white inflorescence recalling a calla lily. And the flower is followed by a sweet-tasting fruit, which is the reason for the botanical epithet deliciosa. The fruit can take 11 to 12 months to mature, and doesn’t change color too visibly at maturity. So how do you know it’s ripe? When the green scales that cover it begin to drop off, it’s ready to eat.

Note that the entire plant, from its roots to its leaves to its immature fruits, is toxic. Only the mature fruit is edible.

Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis)
Yes, tea plants. although not yet as common as the other everyday houseplants presented here, are found more and more often in garden centers. Here is an article about how to grow one: Homegrown Tea in Your Teapot.


Indoor Fruits

There are hundreds of different tropical fruit trees, all of which could theoretically be grown indoors, but most won’t produce for decades, will become too large to make good houseplants or require really extreme growing conditions. Since they are unlikely to ever produce fruit in your home, I excluded them from my list.

In this group of “forbidden fruits”, you’ll find most of the tropical fruits that can be grown from seeds or pits harvested from the fruits you buy, such as avocados (Persea americana), mangos (Mangifera indica), and papayas (Papaya carica). Of course, if you look hard enough, you may be able to find dwarf varieties of these plants that will produce fruits indoors, but otherwise its best to consider most tropical fruits you grow from seed simply as foliage plants!

What follows are a few fruiting plants that are more suitable for growing in our homes and that really do make good edible houseplants.

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Barbados cherry (Malphigia glabra)

Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra)
Pretty pink flowers, bright red cherrylike fruits on a small shrub that fits neatly into most home decors. What’s not to like?

Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao)

A challenge to grow and not readily found on the market, a cacao tree can still produce cacao beans at home… if you turn your home into a hot and humid jungle year round.

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Key lime (Citrusaurantiifolia) makes an easy-to-grow indoor citrus.

Citrus (Citrus spp., Microcitrus australasica and Fortunella spp.)
As mentioned in the article A Lemon or Orange Tree From Seed?, real lemon trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees, etc. are simply too large and too slow to produce to make good indoor fruit trees, unless you can find grafted dwarf varieties.

Other lesser-known citrus fruits, faster in growth and of a naturally smaller size, make much better indoor plants. This is particularly the case for the Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri) which, despite its name, is not a real lemon, the Key lime (C. x aurantiifolia) and the Australian finger lime (Microcitrus australasica). You can sow any one of these and have fruit 2 years later!

Kumquats (Fortunella spp.) too make excellent indoor fruit trees.

Common Fig (Ficus carica)
It prefers to pass its summer outdoors… and has the bad habit of losing most of its leaves during the winter, leading to a rather stark appearance, but the fig tree still quite readily produces figs indoors. Moreover, its foliage is edible too.

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Dwarf banana

Dwarf Banana (Musa spp.)
Even a dwarf banana tree takes up a lot of space indoors (among the smallest cultivars are ‘Super Dwarf Cavendish’ and ‘Truly Tiny’) and also require a lot of heat, humidity and sun to produce fruit. Plus they may take years to produce bananas, but still, most will eventually do so if your conditions are right.

The pink banana (Musa velutina), with pink flowers and fruits, is another small-size edible banana you might like to try, but you’ll have to eat around its large seeds.

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Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)

Dwarf Pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)
This is a miniature version of the rather large pomegranate tree whose fruits are found in the supermarket. It forms a small to medium-sized shrub with orange flowers that will readily produce small but nevertheless edible fruits indoors. Even if you grow it from seed (it comes true to type), it will bear blooms and fruits in only a few years.

Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa)

This small thorny shrub with shiny leaves makes a good houseplant and readily produces white flowers and edible red fruits. It is sometimes used as bonsai. Both the stem and leaves, and even the sap, are poisonous. Only the ripe fruit is edible.

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Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)

Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis)
This vigorous climber will need a good trellis, but can produce its white flowers with a purple halo and its purple or yellow fruits (the color depends on the cultivar chosen) in a sunny spot indoors. There are plenty of other species of passionfruit that do well indoors, but only a few produce edible fruit.

Pitahaya or Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undatus, H. polyrhizus, H. megalanthus and others)
These climbing cacti take up a lot of space, but bloom fairly easily when they reach maturity (after 5 or 6 years), producing enormous white fragrant nocturnal flowers followed by large red or yellow fruits with white flesh that is dotted with tiny black seeds. This is a good example of a plant you can grow to fruiting size from seeds harvested from fruit purchased in the supermarket. You just have to be patient!

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Fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger)

I grow a smaller and closely related cactus, the fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger), with hanging flattened zigzag stems whose very fragrant nocturnal white flowers often give small edible green fruits… but it’s difficult to judge when they are ripe. It too takes years to begin to bloom, but once it starts, it will faithfully continue to do so.

Pixie Grape (Vitis x Pixie® Pinot Meunier)

A dwarf mutation of the Pinot Meunier grape vine which produces fruit all year on a small plant… and its leaves are edible too. It can be grown as a houseplant, but is also hardy outdoors.

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Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Roselle (Hibiscus sabadariffa)
This shrub with small yellow hibiscus flowers grows quickly from seed. In fact, you can treat is an annual if you wish. It produces red fruits often used in drinks and jellies.


Indoor Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices flavor our meals and often have medicinal uses as well. I limited the choice here to varieties that really make decent houseplants.

Bayleaf (Laurus nobilis)
In my opinion, this is the only “classic” herb that grows well enough indoors to make a good houseplant. It will grow indoors for years, eventually forming a tall shrub if you don’t prune it. The leaves can simply be plucked and used fresh as needed.

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
This climbing plant produces smooth shiny leaves and long spikes of green berries that turn red at maturity and is not difficult to grow indoors if you can offer good humidity. The berries give black, white or red pepper, depending on the treatment you give them.

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Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
You can readily grow ginger from rhizomes purchased locally. Beware though that the rhizomes offered in many supermarkets were treated chemically or irradiated in order prevent them from sprouting. There is no use planting those! You need live rhizomes, with buds indicating they are ready to sprout. An Asian supermarket should have some.

Just push a section of rhizome into a pot of growing mix and water: a green rather bamboolike plant will soon start to sprout. Over time, the rhizome will spread and you can then harvest and eat any surplus. Don’t expect this plant to flower indoors, though: it almost never does.

Other spices in the ginger family also produce edible rhizomes and likewise make excellent houseplants: galanga (Alpinia galanga), turmeric (Cucurma longa) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) are only a few examples.

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Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)

Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)
This is a bulbous plant with grasslike leaves and small pink trumpet flowers. The whole plant smells like garlic. If you use the edible leaves and flowers in your cooking, they’ll give the meal a garlicky scent, but without the bad breath that follows eating real garlic. The name society garlic come from the idea that you could safely eat it before attending polite society functions.

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The variegated forme of Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus ‘Variegatus’) is probably more popular than the species.

Spanish Thyme or Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus)
This plant is neither a thyme (Thymus spp.) nor an oregano (Origanum spp.), but rather a tropical plant closely related to the coleus (Coleus scutellaroides, syn. Plectranthus scutellarioides). It’s a very popular herb in tropical countries where its thick leaves lend taste of oregano to cooked dishes. It’s very easy to grow.

Stevia or Sweetleaf (Stevia rebaudiana)
Increasingly popular for its sweet leaves that give dishes a sugary flavor without adding calories… and it makes a decent houseplant.


Indoor Vegetables

There aren’t many plants you could call vegetables that also make good houseplants. I could only think of the following two:

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Malabar spinach (Basel alba ‘Rubra’)

Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
An ornamental climber with mucilaginous leaves used to replace spinach, Malabar spinach is often grown in hot climates where real spinach doesn’t grow well. The species itself produces green stems and white flowers, but B. alba ‘Rubra’, perhaps even more commonly grown, has reddish stems and pink flowers. Both are very easy to grow.

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Spineless nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica ‘Burbank Spineless’)

Nopal or Barbary Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica and others)
Many different opuntias are used as nopals, but Barbary fig is the most common one. This cactus with flattened pads does produce edible fruits called Barbary figs when grown outdoors in a hot, dry climate, but indoors it rarely blooms, let alone produces fruit. It made it onto my “edible houseplant list” by virtue of its edible pads.

Nopal is the name commonly used in Mexico for the pads treated as a vegetable. You’ll probably need several plants if you want to start harvest nopals, as the plant is very slow growing. You have to singe off the spines before you eat the pads… or use spineless (or nearly spineless) cultivars like ‘Burbank Spineless’.

This plant will need full sun to do well indoors. And yes, you can root a pad from the grocery store to start a new plant.

Where to Find Edible Houseplants?

Many of the plants above are not found in just any garden center, so here are few places where you might want to look for them on the Web.

For herbs and species, try Richters, a Canadian company that ships to the US and probably offers more choices of herbs than any other.

For unusual fruits and vegetables, try Flora Exotica, also a Canadian company that ships to the US, while Top Tropicals is an American company that ships to Canada and many other countries worldwide. Logee’s, in the US, is a good source for American readers, but no longer ships to Canada.

For European readers, try AlsaPlants. If you know of any other good mail-order sources of indoor edibles in Europe, let me know and I’ll add them to this text.

Bon appétit!