Rat Tail Cactus Plant Profile

potted rat tail cactus

The Spruce / Kara Riley

The rat tail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis) 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 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.

In the wild A. flagelliformis is either lithophytic or epiphytic, meaning it grows on the ground or on larger structures like 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. There are numerous varieties of the rat tail cactus, some of which have deeply ridged stems, while the parent plant has stems with shallow ridges. This plant is very easy to propagate by cuttings because its stems grow so vigorously. The stems can be beautiful, but beware: They grow spines that can ruin your day.

Botanical Name Aporocactus flagelliformis
Common Name Rat Tail Cactus
Plant Type Succulent
Mature Size Stems can grow 3 to 6 feet long
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, organic potting soil
Soil pH N/A
Bloom Time Spring to early summer
Flower Color Violet-red, pink, orange
Hardiness Zones N/A
Native Area Mexico, Central America
closeup of rat tail cactus
The Spruce / Kara Riley 
top view of rat tail cactus
The Spruce / Kara Riley

How to Grow Rat Tail Cactus

The 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 a potting mixture. This plant is drought-tolerant and can survive long periods with little care. If you repot it annually and give it lots of nutrients, it should produce pleasant pink blooms in spring.

Light

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

Soil

Rich potting soil is best: Any good organic potting mix should be just fine.

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

Regular room temperatures are just fine, particularly for the spring, summer, and fall. In winter, it helps to keep the plant in a relatively cool place to encourage a rest period; about 50 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, but it doesn't have to be that cold. Overall, this is a fairly hardy cactus that can tolerate temperatures as low as 40 degrees and as high as 90 degrees, but it is not frost-hardy, so make sure it never freezes.

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.

Potting and Repotting

Rat’s 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.

Propagating Rat Tail Cactus

Though it can also propagate by seed, the A. flagelliformis propagates best by stem cuttings. Sever any part of a stem, allow it to dry for a few days so that the cut end forms a callus, then repot the cutting in rich, organic soil. It should root within a few weeks. Make sure it gets lots of sun and is kept humid. This is a fairly prolific plant due to its large number of stems, and new specimens can be propagated every season.

Varieties of Rat Tail Cactus

Also known as the Disocactus flagelliformis, the rat’s tail cactus is one of the most popularly cultivated cacti. It is closely related to several other species of ornamental cactus, such as the German Empress (Disocactus phyllantioides), which has showy pink flowers. There has been a great deal of confusion in the botanical world about this plant's name, due in part to its longstanding popularity. It has been cultivated domestically since the 17th century and its synonymy is quite extensive. You could see rat’s tail referred to as Disocactus, Aporocactus, or, rarely, Cereus. All of these are the same plant.

Aporocactus
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