This spooky, scary cactus really does look like brains! If you put it in a faux human skull planter, you may be able to fool a few people into thinking your Brain Cactus is a real human brain! Maybe an idea for halloween 2019?
OK, we’re just kidding about the real brains thing! The Brain Cactus is bright green, so you probably won’t be fooling anybody with it anytime soon. But it does have curvy stems that wrap and twist around each other into a round shape, so the whole plant does look a lot like a brain.
This unique cactus has an interesting history and some specific care requirements, so if you want to learn more about it, keep reading!
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Anyways, onwards to the brains…
Origins of the Brain Cactus
The Brain Cactus, also known as the Mammillaria Elongata ‘Cristata’ cactus, is native to central Mexico. It’s a rare form of the Mammillaria Elongata cactus and has a unique, crested shape. Its growth pattern kind of looks like worms or brains, which is how it got the nickname Brain Cactus.
Mammillaria Elongata cacti are called Ladyfingers and grow nice and straight, but this crested form has stems with lots of kinks in them that grow in one big round clump. How did that happen?
It didn’t happen through cultivation—it actually happened through mutation or damage.
All succulents, including cacti, have a center of growth. This center of growth is called the apical meristem. If the apical meristem gets munched on by an insect or damaged somehow, your cactus may start to grow in a wormlike crested shape. Pretty cool, huh?
That’s not the only way that crested cacti can form, though. Sometimes a mutation happens in the cells of a cactus and causes it to become crested. Mutations happen much more rarely, though.
How to Care for the Brain Cactus Properly
Taking care of a Brain Cactus is easy, but there are a few things you should know, especially when it comes to propagation. Keep reading if you want to learn how to take care of the amazing Mammillaria Elongata ‘Cristata’ plant!
The best soil to use for your Brain Cactus
The best cactus soil is going to be something that drains well, like succulent soil or a homemade soil blend made with potting mix, perlite or pumice, and sand. We like to mix 3 parts potting soil, 2 parts sand, and 1 part perlite or pumice.
Repotting the Brain Cactus safely
When you get your Brain Cactus home from the nursery or in the mail, you’ll probably want to plant it in a new pot.
When you repot this cactus, you have to be careful! It has spines that can hurt you, so put on a thick pair of gardening gloves before you try to pick it up. Once you have your gloves on, grab your new pot and cactus soil and fill it up, leaving some room for the plant and its roots.
Now you’re ready to take your cactus out of its old pot!. Run a trowel around the edges of the pot to loosen up the soil. Gently pick up the cactus and shake as much of the old soil out of the roots as you can. Plant it in the new pot and add more soil around it so that the soil reaches the top of the pot. Hold off on watering it for a few days to give it a chance to acclimate to its new pot.
You should repot your cactus once every two to four years in the spring. If you see its roots peaking out of the drainage hole, that’s a definite sign that it’s outgrowing its pot and needs to be replanted!
Brain Cactus water requirements for ideal growth
Most cacti don’t require a lot of water, and the Brain Cactus is no exception. Excess water can get in the folds of this crested cactus and rot it quite quickly, so you have to be careful when watering it! Make sure that you don’t get water on the body of your Brain Cactus. We like to use a small watering can and point the spout at the soil, not the plant.
We use the “soak and dry” method to water our cacti, so we keep pouring water onto the soil until water runs out of the drainage hole of the pot. Then we wait until the soil is completely dry to the touch before watering again.
I know what you’re thinking. Soaking my cactus with water? Won’t that cause it to rot?
Cacti have a reputation for needing very little water, so I totally understand why you think that! But this watering method actually mimics the weather patterns in their native environment, the desert, so it keeps them nice and healthy.
Deserts get periods of heavy rain followed by long periods of intense drought. Cacti soak up all the water they can during those heavy rains and then dry out during the drought, drawing on their water reserves to keep themselves hydrated.
So soaking them mimics those heavy desert rains and drying them out mimics the drought. They love this watering method, so try it out!
As for frequency, we soak out cacti once every one or two weeks during the summer, and then cut back to once every four to six weeks during the winter.
How much sunlight does a Brain Cactus really need?
Like most cacti, this one likes bright, direct sunlight. With that being said, you shouldn’t leave it in the hot summer sunshine for more than four hours. If you do, your cactus could get scorched!
When growing this cactus indoors, you should put it near the brightest window in your home to ensure it gets enough sunlight. Having some sort of window sill planter will make it look pretty too!
The ideal temperature for Brain Cactus growth
Unfortunately, the Brain Cactus isn’t cold hardy, so you’ll have to bring it inside for the winter. It can’t handle even a light frost, so bring it indoors at the start of fall.
If you don’t quite understand the difference between hardy or soft plants, be sure to take a detour here.
Does a Brain Cactus need any fertilization?
Sure thing! You should try fertilizing your Brain Cactus about once a month during its growing season in the spring and summer. A water soluble cactus fertilizer like this one is a great choice.
If you want more options be sure to ask some of our green thumbs in the Succulent City Plant Lounge.
Propagating the Brain Cactus the Right Way
Propagating Mammillaria Elongata ‘Cristata’ is a lot different from propagating other cacti and succulents, in case you’ve read our most popular propagation guide. But because it’s crested, you’ll have to get a little creative with your propagating techniques to preserve its unique shape.
This plant does produce offsets that can be divided and replanted, but we’ve heard that these offsets usually have a normal growth pattern that’s more like the Mammillaria Elongata. You may get lucky, though—normal looking offsets can become crested as they grow, so don’t pluck them off your plant and throw them out. Try and replant them and see if they become crested as they mature!
You can also propagate the Brain Cactus from cuttings, but those cuttings should be grafted onto another cactus for best results. Grafting is kind of like creating a Frankenstein cactus. You cut off the head of one cactus, take a cutting from another, and mush them together to create one brand new cactus!
It sounds weird, but it works! If you put a cutting from your Brain Cactus on top, the new cactus will have the same characteristics and crested shape, which can’t be said for other methods of propagation.
Grafting works best if the two plants you use are closely related genetically. So, if you can get your hands on a Mammillaria Elongata, you should graft your Brain Cactus onto that. If you can’t find a cactus that’s the same species as your Brain Cactus, then just try to use a cactus that’s in the same genus.
To begin, cut the body of your Mammillaria Elongata with a grafting knife. Make sure that the part of the cactus that’s still in the soil is at least a few inches long. Discard or set aside the top part of the cactus that’s no longer attached—you won’t need it.
Then, take a stem cutting from your Brain Cactus that’s at least one inch long and put it on top of the Mammillaria Elongata.
On the cut side of both of your cacti, you’ll see a ring—at least part of those two rings need to overlap in order for this to work. So when you layer your Brain Cactus cutting on top of the Mammillaria Elongata plant, make sure that they line up.
Grab some rubber bands and use them to hold the two pieces in place. You can wrap the rubber bands around the pot as well to better secure them. In about two months, the pieces will be joined and you’ll be able to remove the rubber bands!
In the meantime, continue to care for the plant just like you would any other cactus. There’s a small risk of infection and a chance that your graft will fail, but it’s a pretty reliable way to create a new cactus if you use species that are closely genetically related.
Well, that’s everything we know about the Brain Cactus! We hope that this post has given you the confidence you need to grow this awesome little succulent. It’s not hard, we promise!
Is this plant going on your wishlist? Let us know in the comments below!
Happy planting! 🌵