How To Save A Dying Cactus

How To Save A Dying Cactus

Immediately after the first lockdown, my wife and I each bought a plant to celebrate. These were to be a symbol of our resilience. A mark to show we survived that would grow with us. A beautiful symbol of hope. She got an aloe vera, because of its beauty and medicinal properties, and I got cereus peruvianus monstrose (cactus) because it looked weird.

Given all the hope in the beginning, and the fact that I’m from Melbourne, you can see where this is going.

Upon getting the cactus, I wanted to put it into a prettier pot, and because the plastic one didn’t quite fit into the new one I got, I repotted it. In June. In Melbourne. And then I watered it in, because that’s just what you do with plants.

But, friends, that is not what you do with cacti. They do not like it. And unlike people, when plants don’t like something, they just die.

So, around the start of the second lockdown, my beautiful cereus had two limbs start to turn brown. And then squishy. And then they had a weird smell.

It was at this point I freaked out and turned to the help of Twitter and the plant nursery I bought it from. Both were helpful, and it was a reminder of why you should try to buy your plants from local small businesses run by nice people.

A rotten cactus
This is what it looks like when your cactus is rotting. This is bad.

This is what I learned about cacti from this experience.

Do Not Repot Cacti In The Cooler Months

Just don’t. It’s a bad idea that will only lead to more badness. Cacti are beautiful and expensive, do not kill them this way. Wait until late Spring or early Summer, because they like warm weather.

Do Not Water In Cacti

They don’t like it. Once you’ve repotted your cactus in the warmer months, wait two weeks for the soil to dry out completely before watering enough to wet the whole root mass (but then wait for it to dry out again before watering next time). Watering them in can encourage rot to grow if the roots get damaged in the repotting process. And, because you tried to repot the cactus wearing oven mitts which are woefully inadequate against the spines of a cactus, you didn’t do it gently*. (*I may be projecting.)

Here is what I learned about how to bring an injured cactus back from the brink of death.

More Sun

No matter how sunny you think the spot you have it in is, if a sunnier one exists, move it there. I moved Cereus from one side of the living room to the other, warmer side.

Cut Out The Rot

If a limb, and not the trunk, of the cactus has started rotting, it’s time to perform plant surgery. Get the sharpest knife you have, and cleanly cut off the rotting portions.

Cinnamon Is Your Friend

Apply some cinnamon to the wound, because it’s actually a natural anti-fungal agent. That’ll help prevent the open wound from getting a new infection, and will hopefully take care of the old infection.

The cereus peruvianus monstrose cactus is well now
The cereus peruvianus monstrose cactus is well now

The good news is that this story has a mostly happy ending. Cereus seems to be thriving in its new spot in the living room and looks great. The wound seems to be healing nicely, and I haven’t spotted any more rot.

The aloe vera did end up dying for no apparent reason, though. The entire stem just rotted. We’re now trying to regrow it from cuttings.

But the moral of this story is that it is possible to bring a cactus back from the brink of death. You just need hope, luck, a sharp knife, and a stocked spice cabinet.

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