Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia Tirucalli) Shriveling after Repotting

Jeffrey SchneiderJanuary 28, 2008


I recently purchased and repotted a large pencil cactus.

After repotting, I gave it a good watering (probably too good) to get rid of any air pockets in the soil and covered the soil with about 2" of sandy gravel.

Many, many leaves and one branch have shriveled up, desiccated, and died; I'm certain because of over watering and the fact that the gravel on top was keeping that moisture in.

It has been two months. I haven't watered the cactus since and it seems to be stabilizing.

The cactus is in an east-facing window and the apartment never goes below 74 degrees; the cactus is about 8' in a 27.5" high diameter 27.5" pot

Going forward, I was wondering about how sparingly to water the plant.

Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!



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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

I don't mean to be rude, but I don't know where you got the bad advice you've followed on the repot.

Tho' it's commonly called a cactus, it is not, it is a succulent. Succulents should not be watered in when repotted, they don't need it (that's why they have fat, fleshy leaves or stems), which hold their water reserves).

To get rid of any air pockets, just knock the pot onto the potting bench once or twice, this'll settle the mix just fine w/out using water.

Don't know why you used sandy gravel, or any gravel on top at all, not necessary & bad practice (harder to check for moisture & harder to keep clean & see insects).

Pls. do a search on care & culture for these plants; when in active growth, they do not want to be watered sparingly. I hope the plant stabilizes as you said it seems to be doing. I'd take ALL that sandy gravel off the top & when it's dry most of the way down the mix (you can use a pencil to check), water it well, until water comes out the bottom. Then discard the water & give the plant a bright if not sunny location.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 6:00PM
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Classic pencil tree overwatering.The same here where they grow outdoors..California cool winter rains plus cloudy weather equals tip shrivels.Pencil tree can take quite a bit of cold short of 32f. They grow fine in temps in the 70's. You might have overpotted..too much soil with no roots,stays wet.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 9:44PM
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sjv78736(austin texas)

I'm going to go even further, PG, and I also mean no rudeness.

Did you remove the plant from the soil it came in? Did you set a ball of nursery peat into a bigger bowl and then fill in around it? This creates a situation where you are no longer in control of your water. By that I mean that a) peat holds water forever - exactly what you Do Not want for a succulent; b) when peat becomes completely dry, which it will if you allow your plant to dry between waters as you should, it then becomes hydrophobic and must be soaked again to re-wet. Basically, once it is dry, it stays dry and all the water you pour on your plant is simple running around the peat ball, thru the new materials you put in the bowl and the plant never gets a drink. And as PG says, if you have alot of top dressing you may miss what is happening to the soil below it. I wouldn't just "take ALL that sandy gravel off the top", I would completely re-pot, wash off the roots and pot up properly so that you can avoid watering issues in the future. Just my

    Bookmark   January 28, 2008 at 10:39PM
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Jeffrey Schneider

no offense taken! live and learn. thank you so much!

i think my problem is that i was treating this succulent like i would the hardy sansevieria.

to answer your questions... i potted my euphorbia in well draining light potting soil.

i do have to say that i hate the look of soil and will keep the gravel on top, but will dig below weekly to check the soil... letting it dry out completely before carefully rewatering.

thank you so much! any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 9:26AM
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shrubs_n_bulbs(z8/9 UK)

I'm concerned about your "well draining light potting soil.". I'm always concerned about potting soils, simply because I have never seen a brand name soil which I would consider using to grow my succulents. Is yours a particular brand? A special mix you make?

I'm also curious about the leaves that you say your plant lost when it was transplanted. E. tirucalli is one of the least leafy Euphorbias there is. It does have leaves but they are small and they drop off naturally and quickly, leaving just the long thin cylindrical succulent stems. A small pot plant will be a densely branched mass of long green pencils, just checking that you have E. tirucalli. Don't worry about the leaves, they were going to drop off anyway.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 2:25PM
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Jeffrey Schneider

sorry... by leaves, i meant the long cylindrical stems of e. trucalli. the plant was very dense, so the damage is not noticeable.

i used a typical potting soil that i bought with the plant at the nursery.

is there a mix you would recommend for better drainage? mixing in pearlite or other substrates to lighten the soil?

thank you!

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 2:50PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Cactus & succulent soil (w/ as litte peat as possible, if the labels lists contents). Then add abt 30-40% perlite or pumice.

BTW, what's the deal w/ the gravel? Take it off there, it's only going to cause you problems, I can assure you.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 5:15PM
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sjv78736(austin texas)

NY -
Do you have an actual gardening center in your area (as opposed to one inside a big box store)? Try to find one that has a selection of aggregates. Since you prefer top dressing, I would suggest that you investigate haydite and some of the crushed materials (there is one stone that is particularly attractive but I cannot pull its name to mind right now). Using 30-40% haydite instead of perlite will give you the drainage you need as well as the "rocky" look you are after. You might find that you don't need a top dressing, but a shallow layer of this shouldn't restrict air flow or accessibility. I pay $5.99/40lb here. A bit more expensive than perlite, it is infinitely more attractive and great for drainage.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2008 at 11:25PM
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shrubs_n_bulbs(z8/9 UK)

Is that wet Haydite? Looks very authentic. I find this type of top dressing tends to suck up the water more than straight grit. This may make it easier to see when there is still moisture in the soil, which can be handy with winter growers. It will also make the soil dry out faster since there will be continual evaporation from the surface instead of it drying out and trapping moisture. Some smooth types of grit also seem to wick up the water.

So ... having said all that, I use a rough grit top dressing on most of my plants! My soil mix is fairly light and it washes about without a top dressing, but mostly it just looks better. I don't rely on evaporation for drying out my pots (OK, often I do because I water too often, but I try not to!), that's a dangerous practice in a climate like mine and something that should be avoided in any climate. I judge water content by weight and by the appearance of the plant. I don't water just because the pot is dry or because I haven't watered for a while, water when the plant needs it. Worry if the plant seems to need water but the soil stays wet.

If your soil mix is already borderline soggy because it has too much peat or clay, then adding a top dressing may be fatal, but using a top dressing on a good free-draining soil is not a problem. The type of pot you use will also affect how fast the soil dries out. Some plants like to be continually very slightly moist, others like to be wet for a few days, then dry for a period. It is the combination of all these things that will determine success or failure. I know "expert growers" who use top dressing, and some who don't.

Last point: avoid adding sand (except the coarsest grades which I would call fine grit). Add only coarse material such as grit, pumice, fired clay granules (haydite, cat litter, aquatic plant soil, perlite, crushed brick, or turface). Fine particles clog up the soil, coarse particles improve drainage.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 7:22AM
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Jeffrey Schneider

i LOVE the haydite idea.

to answer the question posed by some... i like a top dressing because my apartment is modern/mid-century modern with a neutral, monochromatic color scheme. the plant is in a large white serralunga pot. the sandy colored top dressing is more attractive than soil and maintains my color scheme.

i have looked at quite a few sites. has anyone seen the haydite in a light tan color?

can anyone recommend an online source for haydite? the flower district here in NYC is rather limited when it comes to substrates.

thank you!!!!

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 9:52AM
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Try the aquarium stores Jeff.They have many types of clean washed gravels in attractive natural colors.Or the painted gravels if you like those too. But natural quartz,silica, or limestone or lava gravels and sands have a wide range.Some naturally polished.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 7:41PM
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sjv78736(austin texas)

Ian -
Indeed that is wet haydite. I should snap a pic of it dry for comparison. I find it quite attractive in my mix and have used it for top-dressing on a couple of "dressed up" plants that I know have sharp draining soil below. I used to use Turface, which is also an excellent grit, just not as attractive.

NY -
Trying to ship 40lb sacks might get expensive. I suggest that you let your fingers do the walking! Start with your local parks and recreation dept. Get a number for the dept. that maintains the ballfields. Where you find baseball, you will find turface or haydite. Also, haydite has a website that will assist you in finding the closest retail dealer. Here's a couple of addys to read up on it.

SnB gave you the reason why these type products are so desirable in soil mixes:
"this type of top dressing tends to suck up the water more than straight grit. This may make it easier to see when there is still moisture in the soil, which can be handy with winter growers. It will also make the soil dry out faster since there will be continual evaporation from the surface instead of it drying out and trapping moisture."

And what it does as top dressing it does throughout the soil when used in your mix. It's smooth and uniform, allowing for quick drainage but holds a tad of moisture for the plant to draw on. It dries quickly and is very is to "read", though as Ian pointed out, it is not 'the soil' that needs water but 'the plant'.

HTH - Jo

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 8:23PM
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sjv78736(austin texas)

SnB -

I just had to add that when you say "Worry if the plant seems to need water but the soil stays wet" you really said a mouthful there (and of course, *my* mind screeches peat-ball!).

Succulent or not, most casual growers have no idea what is in their soil; they assume that if the nursery used it, it must be good. Light, water, can grow 'em etiolated but you can not grow them if the roots dry off or turn to mush. IMHO, soil is preeminent. Get the soil "sensible" as you once said, and half your problems are solved, gardening can become fun and successful.


    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 8:48PM
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Jeffrey Schneider

hi all!

when i initially replanted, i knocked all of the soil off the potted plant (it was rather heavy) and replanted it in potting soil.


since haydite isn't readily available in NYC, i'm going to lighten the soil with pearlite.

then, i am going to put back my thin layer of light tan coral gravel as it looks so beautiful and desert-like with the white pot.

thank you, thank you, thank you all for your advice and suggestions!!!!!


    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 9:47AM
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sjv78736(austin texas)

If you have no perlite in your soil now, adding 30-40% to your current soil can be nothing but an improvement. Best of luck!

    Bookmark   January 31, 2008 at 10:21AM
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After reading all the posts, I still don't know much about how to care for my pencil plant. Does it need lots of sun?
What type of potting mixture does one use?

    Bookmark   July 5, 2008 at 3:39PM
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debbysunshine(san diego)

I wish you were'nt fussing so over your plant because it is so self contained and least demanding. I had a large plant in a large container in hot sun and it grew and grew into a four foot tree and needed some support so I cut it into three sections leaving the original in its pot. Using Supersoil cactus soil because it does act as a cactus and is up with my cactus in the hottest San Diego sun, and just a small handfull of Perlite in one large pot and the two other pieces in Rootone and into the very rocky hill not knowing if they would take off. I water the cactus up there maybe every two weeks when I think of it and everything is flourishing so please don't overwater !! Just remember to wear gloves because the latex in the plant is poisonous or will cause irritations. My plants lost a couple of bracts but not to be concerned. Too much water is lethal and I never fertilize that plant because it grows fast enough on it's own..

    Bookmark   July 8, 2008 at 2:20AM
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I brought a start of a penci cactus back from Fla in Nov. I put it in a vineagar serving bottle in water, placed it on my west facing kitchen window. In about 2 weeks it sprouted roots. I then added the magic squishy material that holds water. it has grown about 2 inchses. I added a little all purpose fertiler last month. It is doing great. I was rather worried about the leaves falling off but decided it was normal and was glad to discover in here that it is. Thank You, Nita

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    Bookmark   February 11, 2009 at 9:58AM
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My pencil tree is growing outside here in southern California in pure clay soil and doing fine. It is now eleven feet high and six feet wide and so healthy looking. With the rain we finally got this month it should shoot up another foot this month. I never water it, just maybe once every few months hose it off to get the spider webs and dust off it. In the summer the clay soil gets so hard I actually have to use an electric jackhammer I bought to dig holes in it.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2009 at 1:36AM
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