The Fishbone cactus, also known as the Ric Rac cactus or Zig Zag cactus (or by its scientific name Epiphyllum anguliger) is a unique tropical plant! It is a cactus however it hails from the lush rainforests of southern Mexico, not a dry, arid desert.
The stems of a Fishbone cactus are long, reaching up to two feet in length. The green stems are flat with zig-zig or saw blade tooth patterned leaves. This tropical cactus is a happy household plant that requires minimal maintenance. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about Fishbone cactus care.
Table of contents
- Common Name: Fishbone cactus, Ric Rac cactus, Zig Zag cactus, Orchid cactus
- Scientific Name: Epiphyllum anguliger
- Mature Size: stems up to 12 feet long
- Sunlight: bright, indirect light
- Water: when top two inches of soil are dry
- Soil: well cactus or succulent soil
- Temperature: 60°F-80°F
- Hardiness Zone: 10a-12b
- Propagation: stem cuttings
Like I said, the Ric Rac cactus is not your average cactus. Unlike most other cacti, this plant prefers the moist, warm temperatures of rainforests in southern Mexico. It is native to the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz.
The Fishbone cactus is an epiphyte, meaning that it grows on other organisms, usually trees. It is not, however, a parasite, as epiphytes do not take nutrients from the organism. Instead these types of plants draw nutrients and water from the surrounding air.
In nature, the Fishbone cactus flowers frequently. They have a sweet, alluring aroma. The Fishbone cactus flower only blooms at night and lasts no more than two nights before withering. Indoor, household Fishbone cacti bloom much less frequently and reliably than those in nature. To have a chance of flowering, your Fishbone cactus must be mature (usually 3+ years old) and be exposed to cooler night temperatures consistently in the late winter and early spring. An indoor Fishbone cactus is also more likely to flower if it is root bound.
Growth Patterns and Habits
For a cactus, the Ric Rac cactus is considered fast growing, however don’t expect it to grow as quickly or be as prolific as other house plants such as a pothos or a Chinese Money Plant. Fishbone cacti grow in clumps. Their zig-zagged stems grow vertically but as it grows longer and becomes heavier, the stems will begin to flop over.
Because the Ric Rac cactus stems get heavy with age and ultimately flop over, this is a great plant to have in a hanging pot. The Fishbone cactus’ new growth sticks up like a funky hair-do. The older stems cascade over the pot in eye-catching directions.
The zig-zag pattern that defines the Ric Rac cactus often gets confused as the plant’s leaves. They are in fact all stem! New stems emerge skinny without much squiggle. With the proper care, you will see more a much more marked zig-zag pattern as the Ric Rac cactus matures
While the Ric Rac cactus is a “fast” growing cactus, I suggest only repotting it every three to four years. This cactus actually prefers to be root bound! Because you won’t be repotting frequently, do make sure to replace the top three inches of soil with fresh, nutrient rich succulent soil mixed with organic matter once a year so the plant still receives adequate resources.
Because this plant grows underneath the forest canopy in the southern Mexico rainforests, the Fishbone cactus has specific light requirements. The Fishbone cactus does best in bright, indirect light. This can be achieved in a number of ways:
- Directly in an east facing window in a bright room. It can receive a couple hours of direct, morning sunlight. The room should stay bright the rest of the day.
- Directly in a south facing window ONLY if there is a sheer curtain diffusing the sunlight. If your south facing window provides dappled sunlight through trees right outside, this would be ok.
- A couple feet away from a south facing window just out of direct sunlight. In this case, a sheer curtain is not needed if the plant doesn’t receive any direct sunlight, especially light during midday.
It can tolerate lower light conditions but will grow slower and may become leggy. Because the Fishbone cactus is an epiphyte, it is natural to grow aerial roots. Aerial roots are roots that grow above ground and are often utilized as grabbers, so the plant can hold onto its surroundings. Sometimes though, an excess of aerial roots can indicate that it needs increased bright sun exposure.
The Fishbone cactus enjoys slightly moist soil, which is in direct contrast to almost all other species of cacti. The best way to water your Fishbone cactus is to thoroughly soak the soil and then allow all the excess water to drain out of the bottom drainage hole.
To avoid making a mess, I find it easiest to water my Fishbone cactus in the kitchen sink. Run tepid water from the tap into the soil at the base of the plant. Turn off the tap when you see water running freely out the bottom drainage hole. Keep your pot in the sink until the excess water drains and replace your Fishbone cactus back in its home.
It is important to only water your Fishbone cactus when the top two inches of soil are dry. This can be checked easily by sticking a finger into the Fishbone cactus’ soil. If it’s bone dry, it’s time to water!
Expert Tip – During the winter, you will likely need to decrease the frequency of waterings because the plant’s growth will slow during these months.
Unlike other cacti, the Ric Rac cactus is not drought tolerant, so it cannot be ignored for weeks on end. If your plant has not been receiving enough water, you may notice that the stems and leaves look wrinkly and deflated.
Be careful not to swing too much in the other direction, however, because overwatering can lead to root rot. The first telltale signs of overwatering are browning, deflated, limp stems. This can be corrected by letting your Ric Rac cactus dry out for a week or two. Then resume a less frequent watering schedule.
It is easy to find the perfect Fishbone cactus soil at any garden store. This is another great thing about Ric Rac cactus care. It is not very fussy about the type of soil it’s planted in. I use regular store bought cactus and succulent soil. I combine one part store bought cactus mix with one part peat moss in a large container before distributing the final mix into separate pots.
Peat moss is a great additive because it provides the nutrients found in regular potting soil but unlike potting soil, it facilitates drainage of excess water. Peat moss is made up of decomposed organic matter that is full of nutrients plants need. Its structure is such that it can retain large amounts of water while preventing soil compaction.
Temperature and Humidity
The Fishbone cactus thrives in normal household temperatures and humidity (as long as you keep your house normally between 60F-80F). No special steps need to be taken to add humidity however if you have other nearby plants that need increased moisture, that added humidity won’t cause harm.
Expert Tip – It’s a good idea to keep your Fishbone cactus away from drafty doors and windows and away from vents.
The Ric Rac cactus doesn’t need much attention when it comes to extra nutrients. This is because it is an epiphyte. This cactus, however, certainly won’t complain with an extra boost twice a year. I have found that liquid fertilizer specifically formulated for cacti does best.
A fertilizer that is specifically formulated for cacti will have equal parts phosphorus and potassium. There should be less nitrogen than of the other two nutrients. While nitrogen is necessary for optimal Ric Rac cactus growth, too much can cause the plant tissue to weaken and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.
When caring for a Ric Rac cactus, it is important to only fertilize once at the beginning of spring and once at the beginning of summer.
Fishbone cactus propagation is done using stem cuttings. This is such an easy way to fill out any sparse areas in the pot or a great way to share with friends. What is also great about Fishbone cactus propagation is that it takes just a few minutes and has reliable results.
- Using a sterile knife or scissors, cut approximately four inches off each chosen stem. When propagating a Fishbone cactus, make sure the stems you are cutting from are healthy; the stems should have good color and be firm to the touch.
- Let these cuttings sit on a paper towel or newspaper in a cool, dry area of your house for a couple of days until the end hardens over. This process allows a callus to cover the cut end and prevent rotting of the new cutting.
- Plant the new cuttings into a new pot with a couple inches of soil. Keep the soil moist by gently misting daily. Keep the newly planted cuttings in a bright area out of direct sunlight.
- Roots should form within a couple of weeks. To test if your new cutting has established roots, gently pull the top of the cactus to see if you meet resistance. If you do, roots have successfully grown!
- At this point you can resume mature Fishbone cactus care. You can keep these newly established cuttings in a separate pot (or pots!) or you can transplant back into the original container to create a fuller display!
Succulents and cacti are really easy to propagate and propagating a Fishbone cactus is no exception. Check out our detailed post on succulent and cacti propagation!
Unlike its dry loving relatives, the Fishbone cactus is more susceptible to pests and diseases because of its humid-loving nature. It is not uncommon to have fungus gnats which are attracted to and lay their eggs in overly moist soil. While adult fungus gnats are no more than a nuisance, their larvae can cause damage to the roots by way of feeding or even boring into the roots.
To prevent fungus gnats from colonizing your beautiful plants, do not oversaturate your soil. Wet soil is the perfect home and breeding ground for a gnat so by keeping your plant properly watered, you can avoid the issues all together.
If you have a fungus gnat problem, add sticky traps (you can buy these at almost any garden store) and place them in the soil. These attract the fungus gnats and have a powerful glue that traps the gnats to the surface. These may be unsightly but are a great chemical-free way to rid your Fishbone cactus of gnats. It doesn’t however kill the larvae but by catching adult gnats, overtime you should decrease the total gnat population.
Another way to solve a gnat problem is by using hydrogen peroxide and alternating it with the use of neem oil. Mix one part hydrogen peroxide with four parts water and spray the Fishbone cactus’ leaves and the top of the soil with this mixture. Alternate using a neem oil spray for the best results.
Mealybugs are another pest that can harm your Fishbone cactus and are more likely to infest this plant because of its higher water requirements. Mealybugs are 4mm long insects that have white or light gray bodies. They clump together underneath leaves and in the crooks of stems, often resembling puffs of cotton. Use a q-tip or paper towel soaked with rubbing alcohol and gently wipe away any mealybugs you can see. Use a neem oil spray to treat systemically.
Because the Ric Rac cactus enjoys significantly more water than other cacti, it is easy to get a little heavy handed and actually provide it with too much water. Excess water, over time, can lead to root rot. Root rot is a condition that is caused by a lack of oxygen available to the roots because of too much water.
Expert Tip – Signs of root rot are yellowed stems that are mushy, stunted growth and ultimately plant death.
The roots will be mushy, slimy and darkly discolored. When you notice these symptoms, be sure to act quickly. Not only does root rot directly damage your plant, it also makes it more susceptible to fungal infections.
To treat root rot, gently remove your Ric Rac cactus from its pot. Remove excess soil and identify the discolored, mushy roots. Cut these roots away, leaving only healthy, firm roots. Let your Ric Rac cactus sit out of soil on a newspaper in a dry area of your house for two days before replanting in new soil. Going forward be sure to only water your Ric Rac cactus when the top two inches of soil are dry.
The Fishbone cactus is non-toxic to humans and pets, however this cactus does still have some prickers. They are not as firm or pokey as other cacti but can still be irritating. Even though this cactus is not toxic, I still suggest keeping it out of reach of curious hands and mouths.
This uniquely shaped cactus will always be a great addition to any collection. It provides texture and movement and is a great conversation piece. What makes it even better is how easy it is to care for a Fishbone cactus. These plants are low maintenance and unfussy. Ric rac cactus propagation is uncomplicated and yields great results.
If you are lucky, patient and provide optimal conditions, you may be able to sneak a look at the elusive Fishbone cactus flower.