Sean Mazelli of San Diego's South Park neighborhood emailed: "Hi Debra, hopefully you can help. I have a huge cactus that fell over. I just loved it, in fact it was a big reason why I bought the house."
My first thought was that the base of the trunk had rotted, but that proved not to be the case. Like most succulents, this one was shallow-rooted and consequently not well anchored. Several weeks of rainy weather had softened the soil and engorged the limbs, making the plant top-heavy and unstable.
Btw, it’s not a cactus but Euphorbia ammak from South Africa (cacti are indigenous to the Americas). Regardless, when such plants crash, they proceed to do what succulents are known for: grow from pieces.
Hi-ho, a-propagating we will go
Unlike woody trees and shrubs, succulent leaves and stems contain all they need to form new plants. How fallen specimens do this is intriguing and remarkable. Some examples:
Clones feed off dying parent
Below, the bleached body of a Cereus peruvianus rests beside the hole in which it once grew. Do you think it's wonderful or awful? Would you want it in your garden? (I would---great conversation piece.)
Below: When a barrel cactus growing on a slope uproots and rolls, the poor thing ends up like an overturned turtle.
Cacti and euphorbias aren't the only ones
Below: Offsets of leaning Agave attenuata specimens grow from stems exposed to sunlight.
Small succulents tumble too
If you, like me, don't always bother to cut back and replant ever-lengthening succulents, they may take matters into their own hands and trapeze out of their pots.
Did you happen to see my post and video on planting succulents in windowsill pots? They're now four years old, and I've yet to redo them. If I hadn't weighed the pots with stones, stems tipped with plump rosettes would have overturned the containers.
So, what should Sean do?
"I have a contractor who says he could probably prop it back up," Sean told me. "Do you think that’s a good idea?"
I showed his photos to Brandon Bullard, owner of Desert Theater nursery, where similarly sized euphorbias grow in the ground. Of Sean's he said, “No way is is that going to go upright again.”
Brandon added that the fallen tree is a wonderful source of cuttings. He suggested Sean plant a 4 or 5-foot-long “candelabra piece” where the original plant was.
"That sounds like a win-win," Sean agreed, adding, "I do have some friends that would want cuttings. It would be nice to know that I helped create more plants instead of just getting rid of them."
Keep in Mind
- If you have a top-heavy succulent, thin it out, ideally before winter storms. Plant or share the cuttings.
- If a tree succulent has a V-shape with a narrow base, strap it to a nearby structure or to metal posts in the ground.
- In a pinch, prop it with 2x4s or plant stakes.
- When pruning euphorbias, watch out for milky sap. See my euphorbia-pruning video.
- Caution: Greater hydraulic pressure after storms increases sap flow and volume.
- Once soil dries and limbs return to their pre-storm girth, shallow-rooted succulents will be less prone to toppling.
Related Info on This Site
How can you tell a spiny euphorbia from a cactus? Observe key characteristics: the type of spines, flowers and leaves (or lack thereof). As I compiled my site’s new Euphorbia page, I happily acquired the ability to tell at a glance which is which. Sure, you can scratch a plant, and if it drips milky sap, it’s