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Fern Leaf Cactus Care

The fern leaf orchid cactus, aka selenicereus chrysocardium, is a gorgeous trailing jungle cactus that will look amazing hanging in your home. And fern leaf cactus care is simple—learn all about it!

Fern leaf cactus care and propagation

I will never forget the first day I saw a picture of a big fern leaf cactus. It was a random photo I saw on my Instagram feed. I immediately knew I had to have it and asked her what kind of plant it was.

It wasn’t until the following year that I got my hands on one! And boy do I love it. I saw a big one for the first time at a local nursery in my state. And although it was gorgeous and HUGE, it was also $80. I couldn’t justify the purchase.

So I posted in my state’s plant group on Facebook looking for one and found a seller to sell me a really good sized one for $40. I swear this thing has a wingspan of like 3 feet in the pot! She sold me a bunch of rooted pieces that I combined into one pot.

large fern leaf orchid cactus

What is a fern leaf cactus?

The fern leaf cactus, otherwise known as a fern leaf orchid cactus or a Selenicereus chrysocardium, is an epiphytic jungle cactus from Mexico. The “leaves” (which are really stems) grow up and out, draping down over the side of a pot and creating a stunning visual.

It is a fast growing (much like my ric racs), and it can grow to be an impressive size. Several feed wide, even. In fact, I had a hard time getting a good vertical photo of mine since its width is so impressive. And it’s not even a mature plant yet.

The fern leaf cactus is closely related to some of the other plants I’ve written about: the night-blooming cereus, the ric rac/fishbone cactus, and the curly orchid cactus. Can you tell I like this type of plant? 🙂 

fern leaf cactus
fern leaf orchid cactus

Fern leaf cactus light needs

So let’s talk fern leaf cactus care, lighting first. Bright indirect light is best, though the fern leaf cactus can tolerate dappled direct sunlight and shade outdoors. Indoors, I’ll plan to have mine in our bedroom under the grow lights alongside one of my ric rac cactuses.

See my post about how to use grow lights with houseplants!

Outdoors, I have it on my covered patio. But it’s on the edge of the patio that does get some direct sunlight, so I keep it under a table. The tips of the leaves have a bit of a yellow hue to them, though.

I can’t tell yet if that’s because it’s new lighter growth that hasn’t darkened yet or because it is getting too much sun. The plant seems happy for the most part, so I’ll probably keep it there and let it do its thing until September. 

Giving this plant too much direct sun is a no-no, though. Remember that this is a jungle cactus, so in nature it is likely growing under a dense canopy that blocks a lot of the sun. 

fern leaf orchid cactus on a patio with other plants
fern leaf cactus

Water & soil

Despite being a  jungle cactus, it is still a cactus. That means you should let the soil dry out completely before watering the plant again. I pretty much let nature do its thing outside. In the winter inside, I’ll water it when I water my ric racs—about once a month.

One way to help avoid overwatering is to give your fern leaf cactus the proper soil. I have mine in a succulent soil mix. If you just have a regular indoor potting mix, throw in an extra handful of perlite to help with drainage. 

Make sure it is potted in a plant with a drainage hole to avoid overwatering. I do have a post about how to plant succulents and cacti in pots without drainage holes, but it’s not the preferred course of action. Drainage or bust for this tropical guy.

fern leaf orchid cactus on a patio with other plants
fern leaf orchid cactus
woman holding a gorgeous fern leaf orchid cactus

Fertilizer needs for the fern leaf cactus

I have written in the past about using diluted houseplant fertilizer for my plants, but this year I have decided to switch away from that method and use worm castings instead. Besides, I repot most of my plants in the spring each year with fresh soil, and that soil usually has slow-release fertilizer in it.

Worm castings are an amazing addition to soil because they are PACKED with nutrients and beneficial bacteria. They also help to improve the condition of your soil and keep it healthy. I simply add a handful to my soil mixture when repotting. We’ll see how it goes this season!

selenicereus chrysocardium on a patio with other plants

Temperature & humidity needs

If you are in USDA zones 10 or 11, you can probably grow your fern leaf cactus outdoors year round. I’m far from those zones though—so I need to bring my houseplants indoors in the fall. It is not cold hardy and will die.

I generally bring my houseplants outdoors when the temperature is consistently 55 degrees or higher at night. And then back indoors when the temperatures start dipping again in the fall. 

As a jungle cactus, this plant LOVES humidity, so summering outside is great in a lot of climates. If you keep the plant indoors, consider adding a humidifier or misting it. However, it is very tolerant of normal household humidity levels if you’re feeling lazy. 

fern leaf cactus leaves

How to propagate fern leaf cactus cuttings

Selenicereus chrysocardium is a pretty easy plant to propagate. You can propagate it using stem cuttings, and it’s a lot like propagating other succulents or cacti. I typically like rooting in sphagnum moss and perlite or water to monitor root development as opposed to directly in soil where you can’t see anything.

However, for the fern leaf cactus and plants like it (like ric rac cactus, curtly orchid cactus, and night-blooming cereus), you can skip the fuss and plant your cutting directly in soil. I’d wait a day before planting it for the cut end to callus over first.

If you don’t wait for the cut end to callus over, you might risk too much moisture getting into the cutting, which can lead to rot. This is similar to propagating succulents, prickly pear cactus pads, and rooting snake plant cuttings. However, I’ll confess I’m usually impatient and just take the risk, planting right away. 🙂

fern leaf cactus stems

So here are the steps to propagate selenicereus chrysocardium cuttings:

  1. Take a cutting that’s at least 6 inches long. You can also just find a natural spot on the plant to cut. The exact length isn’t super important.
  2. Let the cutting callus over for about a day to help prevent rot.
  3. Plant in a well-draining succulent soil and keep the soil moist and humid to encourage root development. After a few weeks, give the cutting a tug to see if roots have formed.

You can also choose to dip the cut end of your cutting in rooting hormone first to help jump start the process. Also make sure to propagate this plant in spring or summer when it’s nice and warm.

propagating a fern leaf cactus
propagating a fern leaf cactus cutting
fern leaf cactus cuttings that grew roots in LECA
fern leaf cactus cuttings that grew roots in LECA
gorgeous trailing fern leaf cactus
My propagated fern leaf cactus one year later

Is fern leaf cactus safe for pets?

I couldn’t find anything about selenicereus chrysocardium and pets specifically. Maybe because it isn’t a super common plant. However, I do know that ric rac cactus and night-blooming cereus are not known to be toxic to cats, dogs, and other pets.

Despite this, I always try to keep even non-toxic plants away from my cats because I don’t want them eating plants. Even if they aren’t toxic, they usually make them throw up, which is never good!

Thankfully, one of my cats isn’t interested in plants, and the other one really goes after the leafy stuff. He doesn’t bother thick, succulent plants like the fern leaf cactus. You can read more about pet-safe houseplants in my post about 16 non-toxic plants for pets.

selenicereus chrysocardium on a patio with other plants
fern leaf orchid cactus

Where can I get a fern leaf cactus?

I would recommend checking your local nurseries for a fern leaf cactus, but like I said, prices can be hit or miss. I have heard that some nurseries sell them for reasonable prices (big ones for $50), but the $80 price tag I saw at my local nursery was just too much for me right now.

Therefore, for plants like this, I love going to my state’s Facebook plant group! I found a wonderful plant about an hour away from me for a good price, and I was able to take it off of someone else’s hands. Just combined it with a fun trip to the city she lived in and called it a success!

You can always order online, too. I do like ordering plants on Etsy (affiliate link) since I can read reviews and see photos of recent purchases from customers. See my tips about buying plants on Etsy for more.

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