How to Grow and Care for Totem Pole Cactus

Several large totem pole cacti (Pachycereus schottii var. monstrosus) growing in the desert.

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Totem pole cactus (Pachycereus schottii var. monstrosus) is a slow-growing cactus that is known for its tall, columnar growth habit and bumpy, spineless skin. It gained its common name from its textured stems, which resemble totem poles with many faces. Previously classified as Lophocereus schottii var. monstrosus, this cactus is the mutant form of the species Pachycereus schottii and is native to areas across Mexico. It has become popular as a garden plant and houseplant around the world thanks to its unique appearance and low-maintenance nature.

Botanical Name  Pachycereus schottii var. monstrosus (previously Lophocereus schottii var. monstrosus
Common Name  Totem pole cactus, monstrous whisker cactus 
Family  Cactaceae 
Plant Type  Cactus, perennial 
Mature Size  6-8 ft. tall (indoors), 3-4 ft. wide (indoors, 15 ft. tall (outdoors), 15 ft. wide (outdoors) 
Sun Exposure  Full 
Soil Type  Sandy, well-draining 
Soil pH  Acidic, neutral 
Flower Color  Pink 
Bloom Time  Spring 
Hardiness Zones  9-11, USA 
Native Area  North America

Totem Pole Cactus Care

Accustomed to arid, desert climates, the totem pole cactus is pretty low-maintenance given the right conditions. Warm temperatures and lots of sunlight are pretty much all that is needed to keep this cactus happy, and it does well growing in containers and garden beds alike. It is important to note that while this cactus does produce nocturnal pink blooms during the early spring months, the flowers are sterile and will not produce seeds. It is also extremely uncommon for the totem pole cactus to flower when grown indoors as a houseplant.

Close up of a small totem pole cactus with deeply wrinkled, bumpy skin.

Gigi_my_girl / Getty Images

Light

Providing these desert cacti with enough light is one of the most important aspects of their care. Totem pole cacti need lots of sunlight to stay happy and should be grown in a location that gets several hours of bright, direct light every day. Directly in front of a west- or south-facing window are both great options. A lack of light will cause these cacti to grow leggy and may increase the chance of accidental overwatering and root rot. 

Soil

Like most cacti, the totem pole cactus should be planted in a gritty, well-draining soil mix. Cactus and succulent soil are both great options, or you can easily mix up your own DIY cactus soil at home. Simply combine equal parts indoor potting soil, sand, and perlite to create a sandy, well-draining mixture that your totem pole cactus will love.

Water

Totem pole cacti are extremely drought tolerant and susceptible to overwatering and root rot. Ensure that the soil dries out thoroughly between waterings and remember that it is better to underwater these cacti than to overwater them. Cut back on watering in the fall and winter months when the cactus goes dormant. This means that during the summer you may need to water your totem pole cactus once every 1 to 2 weeks, whereas in the winter you can likely get away with watering once a month.

Temperature and Humidity

Native to the hot, arid regions of central and south America, the totem pole cactus thrives as a houseplant where conditions are usually warm and dry. These cacti can also be grown outdoors year-round in USDA regions 9 to 11, but are not cold- or frost-tolerant and should be grown indoors or moved indoors during the winter if you live outside of these regions. If you are growing your totem pole cactus indoors, be sure to keep it away from cold, drafty windows or air vents.

Fertilizer

Totem pole cacti are not considered high feeders but can benefit from regular feeding during the active growing season. Apply a cactus fertilizer once a month during the spring and summer for the best results. 

Propagating Totem Pole Cactus

These cacti can be successfully propagated using stem cuttings. While the propagating process is relatively simple, totem pole cacti are slow-growing so don’t expect any quick results. Propagating totem pole cacti is a great way to control the growth and appearance of your plant, and create new plants to share with friends or keep to grow your collection (no judgment here!). Here’s how you can propagate your totem pole cactus in just a few simple steps.

  1. Using a sharp, non-serrated knife, take a stem cutting from a healthy totem pole cactus. Ensure the cutting is at least a couple of inches long for best results. 
  2. Set the stem cutting(s) aside for 24 hours and allow the cut end to callous over completely. 
  3. Prepare a small pot with cactus soil and then plant the cutting(s) in the soil, pressing the base of the cutting down slightly into the soil. Place the freshly potted cuttings in a location that receives plenty of bright, direct sunlight. 
  4. Do not water the cuttings for at least 2 to 3 weeks. This is important—the cuttings do not have roots and cannot absorb any moisture from the soil. Watering the cuttings prematurely will cause them to rot and die. If you want to be extra sure, you can gently tug on the cuttings to see if they have started to establish any roots before watering, but this can sometimes cause accidental root damage. If you don’t want to try manually checking, it is usually best to wait at least a few weeks before you begin watering. 

Potting and Repotting Totem Pole Cactus

Since these cacti are so slow-growing they do not require frequent repotting. Once every 2 to 3 years is usually sufficient. Repotting should also be done during the spring or summer months when the plant is actively growing. When it is time to repot your cactus, choose a new pot that is only a few inches larger than the last pot. Increasing the pot size too quickly does not benefit the plant in any way and can cause accidental overwatering. 

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Totem pole cacti are susceptible to a few common pests and plant diseases. Keep an eye out for signs of mealybugs, scale, and aphids and treat accordingly at the first sign of an infestation. These desert cacti are also susceptible to root rot if they are exposed to overwatered conditions. Ensure that the soil dries out thoroughly between waterings and that your cactus is potted in a well-draining soil mix to help prevent this devastating plant disease. Brown, mushy stems are the most common indication that a totem pole cactus is suffering from root rot.

Common Problems With Totem Pole Cactus

For the most part, the totem pole cactus is low-maintenance and easy to grow. That being said, there are a few issues that you may encounter when growing this desert cactus. Keep an eye out for the following common problems.

Splitting Stems

Split stems are caused by overwatering. Cacti are extremely efficient at storing and absorbing water, and if they absorb too much water too quickly it can cause the cacti’s skin to swell and eventually split. Usually, this happens when the plant was subjected to a long period of drought and then watered excessively. While a split in your totem pole cactus may be unsightly, it will not cause long-term damage to the plant, as long as the underlying watering issue is fixed. 

Mushy Stems

If you notice the stem of your totem pole cactus is getting brown and mushy it is likely that your plant is suffering from root rot. Unfortunately, once mushy stems have set in it is usually too late to save the plant’s roots. However, the cactus itself can be saved by cutting the stems off above the rot and propagating them in fresh soil.

Black Spots

Black spots on a cacti’s skin can be the result of a few different issues, but usually the culprit is a fungal infection or chemical damage. Fungal infections are usually introduced to the plant through open cuts or wounds on its skin, and can be treated by pruning away the affected area or applying a fungicide for larger infections. Chemical damage can occur when the cactus is over-fertilized or exposed to fertilizer or soil additives that contain metals such as zinc or iron. For the most part, chemical damage is usually cosmetic, and as long as the offending product is not applied further, should not affect the long-term health of the plant.

FAQ
  • How big does a totem pole cactus grow?

    In their natural environment, totem pole cacti can grow up to 15 feet tall and wide. However, when they are grown indoors they usually max out at around 6 to 8 feet tall.

  • Why is my totem pole cactus turning yellow?

    Cacti turn yellow when they are suffering from underwatering or shock. A drastic change in growing conditions (amount of light, temperature, watering schedule, etc.) can cause shock in an otherwise healthy plant, and can also result in accidental underwatering. Watering your cactus more frequently should help resolve the issue over time.

  • Can you grow totem pole cactus from seed?

    Totem pole cactus is a mutant of the cactus Pachycereus schottii, and as such, it cannot be grown from seed and can only be propagated vegetatively. While it does grow flowers, the flowers are sterile and will not produce seeds at the end of their life cycle.