Perhaps you have a cactus that has grown too massive to support itself. It is bending and seems to topple down, but you’re unsure how to fix it. I have several cacti that become top-heavy, and here’s how I help my plant get back in shape.
Cactus becomes top-heavy due to offset formation, rapid stem growth, and recovery from lack of light. The four ways to restore an overweight cactus are 1) prune the stem, 2) stake the stem, 3) remove the offsets, and 4) replant to a heavy pot.
When a cactus becomes top-heavy, it grows big from the top and it can be challenging to manage. But what makes a cactus get top-heavy? I will provide you with answers based on my personal experience with massive cactus.
Cacti can get really big over time, especially if their growing environment provides adequate resources. Below are the three main reasons why they get top-heavy.
One reason why a cactus gets top-heavy is because of the offsets or pups it produced. These offsets emerge at the base, mid-stem, or top of the plant that can get heavy as they grow. Some cacti develop segments of their stem called pads or cladodes.
The weight of the growing pups will become too big for the mother plant, especially if they are at the top of the stem. Cacti that grow segmented stems should develop a sturdy base to support the heavy branching offsets.
Tall mother cacti need a thick bottom structure and robust root system to hold the clumping offsets without tilting. Becoming top-heavy due to a bunch of offsets is common among columnar and erect cacti.
Another reason why cacti get top-heavy is the accelerated plant development triggered by increased feeding and watering. This causes increased stem growth and so an increase in weight. As a result, the cactus becomes massive with heavy stems.
Cacti have this adaptation to absorb water and nutrients every time it is available. They retain the water in their stem and use it whenever moisture is inaccessible or when the soil is dry. Frequent watering and feeding allow the plant to suck too much of these substances forcing new growth.
Cacti can become top-heavy because of low light exposures. In general, cacti that lack light develops a stretchy, deformed, and pointy thin stem until it is given adequate light again. Although the stretched part will remain thin, the new growth tip will grow thick, making the cactus top-heavy.
The plant may recover, but the deformed shape is irreversible. Given sufficient light, the cactus will continue to grow and thrive, only with a thin base and bulky top.
Growing a bulky stem can affect cactus development. Although the plant will survive, it will not reach its optimum growth and be prone to damage. To be specific, the consequences of top-heavy stems are:1 ) prone to falling over, 2) stem damage, 3) unhealthy growth, 4) shrunk base, and 5) being unmanageable.
Prone to falling over. A weighty cactus will likely bend and fall in case of strong wind. The uneven stem growth affects the stability of the plant. So, unless there is a firm root anchorage, the cactus cannot support its large stem.
Stem damage. Being top-heavy due to increased stem development will lead to stem breakage. The top portion growing vigorously becomes so heavy that the bottom stem can no longer support it. This is more common in cacti that recover from lack of light where the base stem is spindly.
Unhealthy growth. The stress and pressure of carrying the weight of the offsets can suppress the cactus growth. In addition, the mother plant needs to gather heaps of nutrients and water, working double time not just for itself but also for the dependent pups.
The nutrients that are supposedly for the main plant alone are distributed to its offspring. There is a chance for the mother cactus to be malnourished.
Shrunk base. The main stem carries the overall weight of the cactus. A heavy cactus with a thick base may not easily break, but it can lead to a wrinkled shrunk stem. Due to gravity, the weight on the top pushes the base stem pressing the tissues and shrinking the bottom.
Unmanageable. A potted cactus that has become massive can be challenging to manage in the garden. You cannot move it around if you wish to transfer to a location.
Once a cactus gets top-heavy, it is best to fix or give it a remedy as soon as possible to prevent damage. The effective ways of fixing a top-heavy cactus are: 1) pruning the stem, 2) staking the stem, 3) removing the offsets, and 4) replanting to a heavy pot.
The best way to save a top-heavy cactus from toppling over or breaking is to chop off its chunky part. Removing the overgrown part helps the cactus regain its balance and ensures healthy plant growth.
Keeping the cactus to an appropriate height saves it from damage and improves the aesthetic of the plant. Another good part of pruning a massive cactus is that it can reproduce several new plants from the cuttings. The trimmed part will take root if planted, while the beheaded part will sprout new branches.
Here are some handy tools in trimming cactus.
Put up sturdy support for the heavy cactus to avoid stems from leaning and breaking. Staking allows the cactus to grow upright and prevent untoward accidents due to falling prickly cactus.
If you are hesitant to trim down the overgrown cactus, you may opt to stake it instead and help it grow vertically. You can use a solid wooden pole or a steel rod buried deep in the ground for strong support. If the cactus is near a wall, you can use robust strings wrapped around the cactus and braced on the wall.
Staking can help the cactus in some ways, but there are several limitations to this method such as:
- Using poles and rods as support can damage the roots as they are buried deep in the soil.
- It is challenging to stake a cactus with several branches or pads as it needs a lot of support around the plant.
- This technique is not for long-term support as the cactus will continue to grow larger and taller beyond the length of the stake.
Offset removal is another excellent technique to fix a top-heavy cactus. Once the pups begin growing to a decent size, cut them off from the mother plant before they get too massive. This will save the main cactus from deformities and malnutrition.
When you notice that the cactus pups are getting crowded, remove them so as not to put too much pressure on the cactus. You are not only fixing the plant but also making its species multiply by propagating the offsets. Reducing the massive pads will keep the cactus in good shape and improve its appearance.
Another method to save a bulky cactus is by repotting it using a heavy planter so it will not lean over. Using a potting medium with a small portion of dense materials such as river sand can add extra weight to hold the plant.
A tall cactus with branches sprouting from the base will need a heavier container of an appropriate size to hold its stem and roots. Repotting a massive cactus to a heavy container balance and stabilize the plant in place. It can help the plant to stand upright while it develops a robust root system.
I do not recommend using this technique with giant cactus as it can be very difficult to manage. Giant cactus should be planted directly to the ground instead.
Although some cacti get naturally top-heavy, you can prevent them from getting too massive by 1) beheading the heavy stem regularly, 2) plucking out large offsets, and avoiding frequent watering.
Behead the heavy stem regularly. When the top part of the cactus gets large and weighty, prune it right away. It will help prevent the cactus from developing deformed stems. You can also achieve the desired height and weight for your plant.
Pluck out large offsets. When the pups and pads get too heavy for the main plant, remove them before damage occurs. Reducing crowded branches allow the mother plant to breathe and reinvigorate.
Avoid frequent watering. Allow the plant to have dry periods and use its internal water storage. In this way, the roots will stop absorbing and supplying water for the stem for a short while. Hence, the cactus will not get over hydrated and heavy.
Cacti species such as Christmas cactus, Organ pipe cactus, and Opuntia cactus are likely to get top-heavy. Although all cacti can become top-heavy upon maturity, these species are more susceptible to this condition.
Opuntia microdasys, commonly known as Bunny ears, belong to the padded stem species Opuntia. They form a series of segmented stems called ‘cladodes’ or pads in botany. Two or more cladodes can branch out from a single pad creating fragments of stems.
The structure of their growth makes them prone to get top-heavy. Bunny ears reproduce new stems easily and can get too dense over time. However, their stems are not sturdy enough to keep the massive cladodes upright. Hence, they are likely to get top-heavy stems.
Another cactus species that get naturally extensive are the Christmas cactus or Schlumbergera buckleyi. They belong to the epiphytic species with stems that look like leaves.
Like Opuntia, the Christmas cactus and other epiphytic cactus are vulnerable to becoming top-heavy. Their thin segmented leaf-like stems are too delicate to support the growing branch.
Stenocereus thurberi or Organ Pipe cactus is a columnar growing plant with slender vertical stems. Upon maturity, this cactus species forms a cluster of new individual branches on its base.
As the Organ Pipe cactus ages, it gets taller and more prominent. Its basal branches will multiply and get crowded in time. Their slender stems make the plant susceptible to getting top-heavy.
- Cactus becomes top-heavy due to offset formation and rapid stem growth. When a cactus recovers from lack of sunlight, its new growth is thick, but the base is spindly.
- To fix a top-heavy cactus, you can choose either to prune the stem or just stake it. Removing the offsets can help the cactus gain its health while replanting it to a heavy large pot allows it to stabilize the roots.
- Some cacti species are more vulnerable to becoming top-heavy, including Bunny ear cactus, Christmas cactus, and Organ pipe cactus.
- “The Almighty Saguaro Cactus,” by Brad Stai, North Dakota State University
- “Pruning Cacti and other Desert Succulents,” University of Nevada, Reno
- “Opuntia Microdasys,” North Carolina State University
- “Q & A for Christmas Cactus,” Texas A & M University
- “Organ Pipe Cactus,” Virginia Tech
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