How to Care for Pencil Cactus – Step by Step Guide

Having a hard time growing your pencil cactus? We’ve compiled the ultimate guide filled with time-tested tips and easy step-by-step instructions that will have you successfully growing the pencil cactus in no time.

The pencil cactus, also known as Europhobia Tirucalli, is a low maintenance succulent native to parts of South and East Africa. The plant’s branches are thin, pencil-like and grow upward in a candelabra pattern. The succulent belongs to the family of flowering plants and is used as alternative medicine in many cultures. A significant number of people from Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Malaysia have tried to use it to treat a wide range of diseases, including earache, asthma, rheumatism, and even cancer. The plant is also a popular ornamental houseplant.

So, how do you care for a pencil cactus to get the best out of it? These plants generally enjoy bright and direct sunlight complimented with relatively high temperatures. They benefit greatly from slightly gritty succulent soil that has good drainage properties. A glazed container is a good choice because it allows excess water to evaporate. Only water your plant when the potting mix is completely dry. The pencil cactus pretty much takes care of itself and doesn’t require regular fertilization. If you want to boost its growth, make sure you use a balanced liquid fertilizer.

Do you want to learn more about pencil cactus care and how to grow the succulent at home? Read on to discover helpful information that will help you keep your pencil cactus happy and healthy.

Pencil Cactus Plant Information

The pencil cactus isn’t actually a cactus but a shrub succulent native to semi-arid tropical climates of East and South Africa. The shrub can grow quite large in the wild, but it takes many years to mature and reach its maximum height.

A mature pencil cactus has thick brown branches with clusters of relatively smaller green branches at their ends which are primarily cylindrical. The branches have a thickness of a pencil hence the name pencil cactus. They also have oval leaves that can grow up to two inches long.

Pencil cactus in a clay pot.
The pencil cactus is also known as the “milk bush” .

A mature pencil cactus can grow up to 30 feet tall in its natural habitat. However, with proper care, they can reach up to six feet tall when grown in a container.

The pencil cactus is also known as the “milk bush” because it releases a milky, white and highly toxic sap from its stalks. When ingested, the sap can cause irritation, vomiting, and stomachache.

The pencil cactus does well at home when planted with Sedum Firestorm and Sedum Angelina species as they exhibit their vibrant and beautiful colors together. These species also pair well because they have similar environmental requirements.

In some rare cases, these succulents produce relatively small yellow flowers at the ends of their stalks. The flowers are usually minute and can only be seen if you look closely enough.

Some pencil cactus species such as Europhobia Gymnoclada, Euphorbia Crossadenia, and Euphorbia Attastoma are facing the risk of extinction in their natural habitat.

How to Care for Pencil Cactus

Now that you understand some background information about the pencil cactus let us figure out some of the things you can do to ensure your plant remains happy and healthy.

1. Location

Generally, the pencil cactus loves to thrive in bright, direct sunlight. It means that the more you expose it to full sunlight, the more vibrant and colorful it will become. Surprisingly, it also has the ability to survive in low light, but it won’t be so vibrant.

So, you can position it pretty anywhere in your house. However, rooms that receive plenty of indirect sunlight will lead to better results. Choose a windowsill on a southern or eastern-facing window and position your plant there.

A pencil cactus exposed to sunlight.
Direct sun exposure helps the plant get the fiery red edges on the stems and leaves.

Don’t disturb it by shifting it from one position to the other. Direct sun exposure helps the plant get the fiery red edges on the stems and leaves, while low light makes it greener.

2. Soil Requirements

If you are growing the pencil cactus indoors as a houseplant, ensure you have a gritty and well-draining potting mix. The excess moisture needs to drain from the soil fast to prevent waterlogging the plant, leading to root rot issues. Root rot is the most common issue among these succulents.

3. Watering Pencil Cactus

Pencil cactus is generally a drought-tolerant plant. Since they are adapted to growing in semi-arid areas, they store a lot of water in their stems and roots. Therefore, homegrown pencil cactus doesn’t need to be watered frequently.

However, you need to keep in mind that the succulent can receive too little water, and it will show. Some of the common signs of underwatering are brown tips and wrinkly flesh.

The signs of an underwatered and overwatered Euphorbia Tirucalli are quite similar, so it could be quite hard to figure out the real issue. But if your plant looks soft and mushy with some parts turning from grey then brown, it could be a sign of overwatering.

A underwatered cactus.
Some of the common signs of underwatering are brown tips and wrinkly flesh.

Ensure you always check the potting soil in between watering sessions. Only water your plant when you realize that the soil has dried out completely.

Typically, you should water your plant every two or three weeks during spring and summer but cut down the watering to once per month in fall and winter. The most important thing you need to do is figure out your plant’s water needs and develop a friendly watering schedule.

4. Temperature and Humidity Requirements

The pencil cactus generally thrives in relatively warm temperatures ranging from 65oF to 75oF. You need to ensure the temperature around your plant doesn’t drop to below 50oF. If you have grown your plant in our outdoor garden, be sure to cover it during the cold winter months.

Red firestick plant exposed to sunlight.
The succulent also loves relatively low humidity.

Ensure you protect indoor plants from cool drafts, including those from your air conditioner. The succulent also loves relatively low humidity. However, you shouldn’t be bothered so much about a slightly higher humidity level as long as the potting mix remains moist.

5. Fertilization

These succulents can take care of themselves, but they also love fertilizers, especially during the active growing season. To ensure optimal growth of your pencil cactus, consider feeding it with highly controlled-release fertilizer that is relatively low in nitrogen at the start of spring.

Feel free to use a balanced liquid fertilizer at least once a week during the warm seasons. If your plant is mature enough, consider using a 20-20-20 fertilizer at ¼ strength.

6. Potting and Repotting

Since these succulents grow relatively slowly, they don’t require frequent repotting. Generally, it is recommended to report your pencil cactus every two or three years. In some cases, you may even repot once every three or four years.

Repotting should be done in spring or summer when the succulent is at its best shape. Be extra careful when choosing a new container so that it isn’t too big for your plants. A container that is too big will most likely drown your pencil cactus.

A good rule of thumb is to replace the current container with a new container that is three or four inches larger to ensure continuity of healthy growth.

If you feel like the current container is still big enough for your plant and you don’t want to replace it, simply change the potting mix, and you are good to go.

7. Pruning

Since these succulents grow slowly, regular pruning isn’t necessary. However, if you start to notice dead stems, you can always give your plant a healthier look by pruning off the affected parts.

Be careful when pruning your plant to avoid direct contact with the sap, which is highly toxic to both humans and animals. In fact, indoor pencil cactus must be kept away from pets and children play areas.

A over cactus that needs pruning.
Be careful when pruning your plant to avoid direct contact with the sap.

For general care, consider cleaning the stalks of your plant regularly using a cotton cloth. This helps it to absorb more sunlight and photosynthesize better.

8. Pests and Diseases

The pencil cactus has a relatively low risk of getting affected by diseases or pests unless you grow it outdoors.

In outdoor conditions, the succulent may be at risk of receiving mild fungal infections, which can be preventable if you choose to grow your plant in an area with good sunlight and appropriate moisture levels.

Some bugs like mealybugs, spider mites and aphids may also attack your pencil cactus. To prevent such infestations, it is recommended to use nontoxic pesticides, which you can easily buy at any local garden store.

If you are growing your pencil cactus in a pot, make sure you use a quality potting mix that drains water well. Be extra careful not to overwater the succulent because this would cause root rot which is deadly for these plants.


The pencil cactus is a relatively low maintenance succulent that doesn’t require frequent pruning or repotting. It thrives best in warm conditions and can be grown indoors or outdoor, although it needs protection from extremely cold temperatures during the winter season.

Its slow growth makes it a perfect gift for people looking to learn more about caring for succulents.

Despite its relatively easy-care requirements, this plant isn’t a good candidate for beginner gardeners who lack experience with growing succulents.

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