On my living room floor once sat a clerodendron plant, a gift that became an indoor oasis of lush greenery and clusters of red-tipped white flowers. Problem was, I had to tiptoe among its sprawling stems every time I wanted to approach the window.
What's sometimes needed in a houseplant is a bold plant, but with a small footprint.
Such a plant has replaced my clerodendron. It's variously called candelabra cactus, hat-rack cactus, or dragon bones, all of which describe it adequately.
CACTUS-LIKE, BUT NOT A CACTUS
The plant is not a cactus but a euphorbia, evidenced by the milky sap that oozes out of cut stems. It does look like a cactus, a saguaro cactus, not prickly but with similarly thick, upright stems that branch to make arms.
The stems look like what dragon bones might look like: thick, three-sided, with paired spines running down the ridges and a milky green line dripping down each of the three flat faces. A few small, spoon-shaped leaves now cap the very ends of some branches.
Flowers? No, dragon-bones has never been known to flower. Too bad, because its flowers might be spectacular if they were anything like those of its cousins, poinsettia and crown-of-thorns.
HARD TO FIND, EASY TO PROPAGATE
For some reason, you do not often see candelabra cactus for sale, or even mentioned in gardening books. The plant is easy enough to propagate, though.
My first plant started out as an impenetrable hedge that I happened upon during a visit to the tropical island of St. Croix. As soon as I saw this hedge, I borrowed a knife and took cuttings: two pieces of stem, each a half-foot or so in length.
Like those of other succulents, candelabra cactus cuttings root best if initially allowed to dry out and callus over. Letting them sit out on a tabletop was the best I could do for them anyway for the few days until I returned home. Once home, I stuck the base of each of the stems into a mix of peat moss and perlite, watered them, and then watered again only when the mix was bone dry. Rooting and growth soon followed.
EASY TO GROW
Candelabra cactus can be pruned at any time, which is how I keep my plant at 2 or 3 feet high, rather than letting it become the 15-foot wall of greenery that it was in St. Croix.
My plant summers in dappled shade on the deck, drinking mostly natural rainfall, although I give it occasional water and fertilizer when I think of it. As with other succulents, too much water is more harmful than too little.
To lessen the chance of drowning the plant, grow it in an unglazed clay pot and add extra sand to the potting mix for drainage. A tall, fleshy plant growing in often dry soil is apt to tip over, so the sand also adds needed weight around the plant's "ankles." With water and occasional fertilizer, dragon-bones grows fairly fast in summer, in addition to sporting a lush head of spoon-size leaves near the top of each stem.
Come fall, candelabra cactus gets more brutal treatment, but never balks beyond dropping a few leaves. I move the plant to a well-lit spot in the living room and then totally neglect it, watering it maybe once a month, maybe less. Well, not total neglect, because I do admire its svelte greenness each time I walk by.
Lee Reich, The Associated Press