How to Grown and Care for Rat Tail Cactus

potted rat tail cactus

The Spruce / Kara Riley

The rat tail cactus is a showy cactus native to southwestern Mexico and parts of Central America. It is distinctive for its long, trailing stems, which grow to about 4 feet at maturity and give the plant its nickname. Rat’s tail cactus flowers in the spring and early summer, and its blooms are usually violet-red; however, the plant will sometimes grow flowers in idiosyncratic colors like pink and orange. Its flowers are tubular and fairly large, about 2 inches wide. Though it produces quite a few flowers during its bloom in the late spring, each flower only lives for a couple of days at most. Plant rat tail cactus in the spring so it has the entire growing season to get established.

In the wild A. flagelliformis is either lithophytic or epiphytic, meaning it grows on the ground or on larger structures such as trees. In cultivation, it is usually grown in hanging pots or baskets because of its trailing stems, which can grow up to 1 foot in length per year.

Common Name Rat tail cactus
Botanical Name Aporocactus flagelliformis
Family Cactaceae
Plant Type Cactus
Mature Size 3-6 ft. long
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Red, pink, orange
Hardiness Zones 10-11 (USDA)
Native Area Central America
closeup of rat tail cactus
The Spruce / Kara Riley 
top view of rat tail cactus
The Spruce / Kara Riley

Rat Tail Cactus Care

Except in USDA zones 10 and 11, rat tail cactus is a houseplant during most of the year that you can bring to your patio or deck during the warm summer months. Make sure you have a suitable location in your home where you don't accidentally brush against its vicious spines.

This plant is fairly drought-tolerant and can survive long periods with little care.

Light

This is a cactus that thrives in desert conditions: bright, direct sunlight year-round. Place it in a south- or west-facing window to receive direct sun.

Soil

Excellent drainage is key so choose a lightweight potting mixture. Like all cacti, rat tail cactus does best in a slightly acidic pH between 5.0 and 6.0 which most cactus potting mixes offer.

Water

Water regularly during the growing season to keep the soil slightly moist. Reduce watering in the fall, tapering it off as you move toward winter. During its winter dormancy period, it generally does not need water, but you can water it lightly if the soil is completely dry.

Temperature and Humidity

Overall, this is a fairly hardy cactus that can tolerate temperatures as low as 45 degrees and as high as 90 degrees. Regular room temperatures are just fine, and ideally the nighttime temperatures are between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The cactus is not frost-hardy, so make sure it does not ever get exposed to freezing temperatures.
Comfortable humidity levels in most homes are just right for rat tail cactus. High humidity can cause the plant's stems to rot, while extreme dryness can lead to problems with spider mites.

Fertilizer

Feed your rat tail cactus liquid fertilizer diluted to about half strength about once every two weeks during the growing season in spring and summer.

Other Cactus Types

The rat tail cactus, one of the most popularly cultivated cacti, is similar to these other species of ornamental cactus:

  • Golden rat tail cactus (Cleistocactus winteri), a branching cactus whose stems are covered with short golden spines
  • German empress (Disocactus phyllantioides) with long, green or reddish stems
  • Strophocactus testudo)Dog tail cactus ( with long, skinny, tail-like, trailing stems

Pruning

Other than removing dead or diseased plant parts, the only pruning of this cactus consists of gently pulling dead flowers off the plant. However, be very careful when handling the plant and make sure to wear protective cloves with long cuffs.

Propagating

With its large number of stems and vigorous growth, the cactus is very easy to propagate from cuttings and new specimens can be propagated every season. Just like with pruning, protect your hands and forearms when propagating it.

  1. Cut a 6-inch part of any healthy stem with a sharp knife. Allow it to air-dry for three days so that the cut end forms a callus.
  2. Fill a pot with cactus potting mix and poke a hole in the center with a pencil or a stick. Insert the cut end in the soil so it is just entirely buried. To prevent it from dislodging, you can secure with with a wooden skewer.
  3. Place the pot in a location with plenty of light but don’t let the soil dry out and keep it evenly humid. After a few weeks, the cactus should root.

Growing from Seed

Seeds are not widely available for rat tail cactus and propagation from a cutting is so easy that growing it from seed is not recommended.

Potting and Repotting

Rat tail cactus displays best when grown in a hanging basket. Line the container with sphagnum moss or other organic material before filling it with cactus potting mix.

Rat tail cactus grows fairly quickly and should be repotted every year once the growing season is over and the plant has finished flowering. It may need a larger pot or basket, depending on whether the plant has fully matured, but it definitely needs new potting soil. This cactus quickly uses nutrients, and repotting it will help it replenish.

Overwintering

Regardless of whether you grow rat tail cactus outdoors year-round or bring it inside for the winter, the cactus needs a rest period during which it should be kept between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. However. the light requirements are the same during dormancy; the cactus needs bright light year-round. Find a cool location in your home, away from busy areas so that the humans and pets won't accidentally brush against its spines.

Common Pests

The most commonly observed pests of rat tail cactus are spider mites and scale insects which suck the plant juices. As a result the cactus might look dull and/or have little white dots from the punctures. These pests can be controlled with insecticidal soap or neem oil.

How to Get Rat Tail Cactus to Bloom

Provided that you are repotting your cactus with fresh potting mix (cactus potting mix) as needed and fertilize it regularly, not enough sunlight is the most common reason why rat tail cactus is not blooming. Full, bright direct sunlight is essential for the cactus to produce flowers.

FAQ
  • Is rat tail cactus the same as monkey tail cactus?

    The cacti belong to different genera so they are botanically not closely related. They have some similarities in their growth habit but the stems are different. The stems of the monkey tail cactus (Cleistocactus colademononis) are covered with long, cascading spines that look like strands of hair.

  • Do the flowers of the rat tail cactus smell?

    The flowers of the rat tail cactus do not have any noticeable fragrance.

  • Why does my rat tail cactus have aerial roots?

    Aerial roots can be a sign that the plant is not getting enough water and is therefore trying to absorb moisture from the air. Try to adjust the watering without overwatering the plant.

 

Aporocactus
Claire Nila / Getty Images
Article Sources
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  1. Aporocactus flagelliformis. University of Vermont.