Over the years my Pencil Cactus ‘Euphorbia tirucalli’ has grown rather tall, so tall that it barely fits in a single image. Instead of growing as a thick pencily bush, my plant has grown upwards in spurts creating a lanky tree over four feet tall. As the soaringly high limbs began to droop over, I knew it would only be a matter of time before this plant could no longer hold it’s own head up. The decision was made – it was time to chop it down and propagate some new Pencil Cactus plants.
Most of my plants are grown from cuttings, it’s often a slow growing process, but in my opinion it’s rather satisfying to witness the life in progress no matter the speed. My Pencil Plant is a cutting from my Dad’s plant that was started in 2011. It took awhile to establish and take root, but once it got going, it shot up and up, eventually becoming a little too awkwardly tall. Let’s take a quick look at where we started back in 2011…
Fast forward to 2016, and we have the leaning tower of my Pencil Cactus in all its glory – it’s pretty impressive that it can still stand on it’s own without tipping over. It’s definitely the right time to prune this plant. I decided to chop it in two places leaving a long stem at the base of each, this would leave me with two already healthy looking starters.
The Pencil Cactus, also known as the Milkbush, leaks a poisonous white sap from its wounds. Exercise extreme caution when handling and propagating these plants as the milky white sap may irritate skin or even worse can cause blindness. The sap is latex like and can cause severe burns especially in the eyes. In my experience, it did not cause burns to my hands, but I was carful not to get too much on my skin, just be certain that you do not touch anywhere near your eyes when handling this plant. Consider wearing gloves and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
Propagating the Pencil Cactus is easy. Simply make a clean cut, the white sap will ooze out for a short time, blot it off and allow the cut edge to dry out. I only waited about one day for these edges to dry, you could wait a couple more if you wanted. When propagating succulents, you generally want to allow the fresh edge to dry out a bit before planting, this seals up the wound and prevents the newly cut plant from sucking up too much water which will cause root rot and likely death.
Once your Pencil Cactus pieces have dried out a bit, it’s time for the final step- planting your cuttings. Select a pot that has good drainage and choose a succulent appropriate soil. If you don’t have a pre-made succulent mix, you can make your own by adding a bit of sand and perlite to your potting mix. I planted mine in a squat pot along with some other succulents. Since they are tall and branchy with no roots, standing up is somewhat of a challenge for them, I tied them together for stability and they’re holding up nicely. If you have issues with this, you can use stakes (I use chopsticks or bamboo) to help stabilize them. These plants don’t need a ton of moisture, but be extra careful to avoid overwatering especially when they’re new. In general, allow the soil to dry completely between waterings in the spring and summer, water less in the winter when they are dormant. Here are the planted cuttings on day one…
And that’s really all it takes to make more pencil plants from your existing plant. Pretty simple. It may take some time for the root system to take off, but as long as it looks alive… it’s probably doing alright. Set it near a sunny window and water it… sometimes.
Pat Mowery says
What happened to,the original,plant? I have one that was cold damaged and am wondering what happens when main stem is damaged. It is still about 18 inches tall. I planted two big plants from the side branches, but want to salvage the “mother” plant.
My Original plant is still growing strong. There was no problem with the mother plant other than it was growing way too tall and spindly. The main stalk wooded over on the spot it was chopped and eventually sprouted new branches near that area. I’ll post an update soon. Since the mother plant is already established, it generally wont have an issue with sprouting new growth. If it has been damaged by the cold, there’s still hope.
Succulents are pretty resilient, while they generally don’t like cold conditions, they tend to bounce back after harsh times. Of course it depends on the circumstance, but it’s possible that your plant can be saved. I think patience is key in determining whether it will pull through, give it time to heal on it’s own and be careful not to over water it. If you suspect any sort of root rot, consider investigating, remove any rotting areas and re-potting the plant. If the stem is clearly rotting, I would cut that area down in hopes that it would not continue to travel down. Any cut area should heal over and new growth should follow. If after a couple months, the plant is still not sprouting any new growth or showing any improvement, it may be a goner. Good luck!
Will it live I plant it to
My pencil cactus Got root is going make it in the sun
Bonnie Kahn Ognisanti says
Hey B! I was searching for help with my Cactus Plant. (Her name is Maura, and she is a monster in need of serious pruning). Anyway, your post was the one I coincidentally landed on. After searching around, I realized the artist behind ‘Turning Moss’ was you! Shout out to B! Hope to see you and Joe soon. — Bonnie
Hi Bonnie! That’s so cool you found me here 😉 Hopefully you found some inspiration to prune and propagate! It can feel daunting to trim an established plant, but the rewards are usually worth it. Hope Maura continues to thrive! Would love to see you guys soon! xo B
Jordan MacKenzie says
Thanks for the informative post with beautiful pictures!
My pencil cactus has been growing well indoors (I moved to DC from Florida, where we can grow so many things outside and people have gigantic pencil cacti there!) but it is very sparse. I have seen other pics online that seem to be a ton of separate plants planted in the pot, which seems to let the whole plant grow dense and not have the issue you mention. I don’t know if it’s worth pruning the sides of mine that are hanging, letting them dry, and planting them in the pot to make the whole plant more robust?
Hi Jordan! Thanks so much for your kind words and for taking the time to read my post. That’s so awesome that you are now in a climate where you can grow these types of plants outside! In my experience, a lot of the indoor Pencils seem to eventually become sparse & spindly (likely an issue with sunlight). I tend to keep my Pencil Plants indoors, however, my father always puts his outside for the summer (in the midwest) and his pencil plants are far more robust than mine. You might consider trying to put it outside from time to time (just be sure to slowly acclimate it). Regardless, I think you’re right on in thinking about pruning off some sides and trying to propagate them in the same pot. That will definitely help fill your plant out. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate new growth, the Pencil Cactus can sometimes take a long time to take off, but it will get there!
Also, succulents generally seem to prefer tight living quarters, if the pot is too big, the succulent may have a harder time building a dense root system, once the plant is able to fill the pot with a solid foundation, it can spend more energy shooting life up into the plant above, making it more robust. So, having a few more stems in the same pot may help create a stronger root environment. Since they’re so slow growing, it’s pretty difficult to overcrowd. I say go for it! Personally, I Love to propagate, if it doesn’t work out as expected, you can always prune again or relocate the new growth. No harm done and you learned something new. Good luck with your Pencil Cactus, I hope it fills out beautifully for you!
Once I hit off a few clippings, and let the wound dry, can I put the clippings in water and perform water therapy to get some roots growing? Or does water therapy not work on pencil cacti?
You know, I have never used this method for propagating Pencil Cacti. In general I tend to root succulents right in the dirt. However, I know that many people have had success rooting succulents with water. I think it’s worth a try – I will have to give it a go so I can offer more personal experience on this. Let me know if it works out for you!