Learn More About Rat Tail Cactus Care

This somewhat bizarre looking succulent is a popular houseplant that immediately draws the eye with its intriguing texture and strange, sprawling appearance. Rat tail cactus owners also get to enjoy beautiful pink flowers along the stems of their plant during the springtime. This cactus is a versatile plant species, able to grow indoors or outdoors when given the right environmental conditions. The rat tail cactus is easy to cultivate no matter where you live, and it grows relatively quickly when given proper care and attention.

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A Bit of Background on the Rat Tail Cactus

The rat tail cactus, or Disocactus flagelliformis, is native to Southern Mexico and Central America. It requires a warm environment to survive, so if you live in a cool climate, you may not have much success growing a rat tail cactus outdoors. Luckily, this variety of plant thrives in potted soil, and so you can easily grow your cactus indoors if necessary.

Rat Tail Cactus

Photo by Cliff licensed under CC BY 2.0

The rat tail cactus gets its name from its long, vine-like stems that resemble the plant’s namesake. Each stem can grow from three to five feet in length, and many homeowners choose to display their mature cactus in a hanging basket. This setup allows the thick stems of the plant to hang like tendrils and grow freely. In the spring, magenta, funnel-shaped flowers grow along each tendril and blooming for up to five days in a row.

Each stem of a rat tail cactus is covered in fine, sharp spines that can hurt when they come into contact with bare skin. You should always handle your rat tail cactus with care and use gardening gloves or some other form of hand protection. If you hang your cactus, be careful about placement, as it can hurt if you accidentally run into its spiky tendrils. Try to choose somewhere that’s out of the way of pets and family members, but still receives plenty of warmth and sunlight.

How to Care for a Rat Tail Cactus

Like many desert cactus species, the rat tail cactus is perfectly fine with minimal care. As long as you provide proper soil, the right climate, and enough water, your plant can grow to impressive sizes and produce beautiful, vibrant flowers each spring.

Potting and Repotting

It’s recommended that you repot your rat tail cactus every two to three years as it grows, choosing pots that allow for maximum drainage. When planting or repotting your cactus, you can use a commercial potting mixture to get the job done. Many nurseries carry pre-made cactus potting mixes that work well for both developing and mature rat tail cacti. This type of gritty soil mimics the plant’s natural desert habitat and helps to promote healthy root formation, preventing the onset of fungal diseases and root rot.

Watering

During the summer, you should irrigate your plant frequently enough to keep its soil moist, while in the wintertime you should cut back on watering. The rat tail cactus slows its growth during winter months and doesn’t require frequent irrigation. The experts at Desert Plants of Avalon can tell you more about how to properly water your plant to encourage blooming in the early spring.

You should always ensure that your plant’s soil is draining properly and remove any standing water that collects in its pot tray. This is especially important during summer months, when insects and other pests are at their most active.

Lighting

The rat tail cactus needs bright, full light, but it shouldn’t sit in direct sunlight for long periods of time. Whether your cactus is an indoor or an outdoor plant, make sure that you place it in an area that has enough shade during the day to prevent the cactus from suffering sun damage.

Temperature

As a desert plant, the rat tail cactus is accustomed to warmer temperatures. It grows best at around 60℉ during the summertime and between 45 and 50℉ during its wintertime rest period. You should avoid exposing your cactus to temperatures below 40℉ or to frost, as extreme cold can damage this otherwise robust plant.

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Successfully Propagating a Rat Tail Cactus

Propagating your rat tail cactus is a simple way to grow a brand new plant to add to your collection. It’s easier than growing a cactus from seed and cheaper than buying new plants in a nursery. You should propagate your cactus in the early summer after it has completed its flowering cycle. You can even use stem cuttings that you remove during the pruning process that would otherwise go to waste.

To grow a new cactus from a cutting, first let the removed stem dry out for a few days. This allows wounds to heal before planting, which can improve the root building process. Once dry, insert the cutting about an inch deep into a small pot filled with cactus potting mixture. If the stem segment falls over, you can support it using a stake as its roots take hold in the soil. You can learn more about propagating and potting new rat tail cactus plants from our friends at MouseLilly Orchids.

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Common Pests and Other Concerns

While the rat tail cactus is a hardy plant, it is not immune from pests. Overly dry conditions can encourage the development a parasitic infestation. Spider mites are nearly microscopic insects that suck away at the plant’s inner sap and cause damage to tissue, and they can be spotted by the telltale webbed nests that they leave behind. You should quarantine any affected plants to prevent the spread of the mites, and deal with the infestation as quickly as possible. You may be able to wash spider mites off plants using a strong stream of water, or you can use insecticides such as neem oil for more stubborn infestations.

Scale insects can also cause potentially severe damage to rat tail cacti. These insects are larger than spider mites and can be identified by their cottony, dome-shaped shells. They attach themselves to the plant’s surface and must be pried or scraped off by force. One of the best ways to safely remove scale insects from your cactus is by using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.

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