Cactus rescued from the gutter

Our town has curbside yard waste pickup, which essentially means that you can put anything compostable out by the curb and the city will pick it up once a week. Walking around town, you can find all kinds of things of interest to a gardener. Some people even advertise plants they’re tossing out on, a “network to promote waste reduction and help save landscape from being taken over by landfills.” 

Yesterday, as she was walking the dog, my wife came across a bunch of cactus segments lying in the street a few blocks from our house. Knowing that I would probably not be able to say no to such a find, she called me to ask if I was interested. I actually knew which house (and cactus) she was referring to, so I said sure. My wife, bless her heart, then proceeded to lug home a 40 inch segment, wrapped in a plastic poop bag she had on her. Luckily, the segment wasn’t very spiny—nothing like a prickly pear or cholla—so she didn’t sustain any physical harm.

I went back later in the day to get three more segments, ranging in length from 20 to 50 inches, because I didn’t want them to end up in the community compost pile. I ended up talking to the homeowner who told me that with all the rain we’ve been having her cactus (now 20 years old and mature) was growing more vigorously than she liked so she had been removing segments to keep it in check. I think she was amused by my rescue endeavors and added that every time she puts cactus pieces by the curb they tend to disappear quickly. It sure sounds like other cactus aficionados in town are keeping an eye on yard waste piles!

Image source: Wikipedia

The cactus these segments came from is a Cereus hildmannianus, technically subspecies hildmannianus (a big thank you to Xenomorf in the Cacti and Succulents forum on Dave’s Garden for the correct ID). Its common name is “Queen of the Night” because its blossoms open at night. Check out this beautiful photo of a specimen in bloom.

This Argentinian and Brazilian native has the potential to grow to 30 feet and can form a large clump. The plant my segments came from is about 15 feet tall and actually looks perfectly proportioned in front of a single-story home with Mexican architecture. I’ve found conflicting information about its cold-hardiness but it definitely does well in our zone 9b so I’d say it’s hardy to at least 25°F.

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The 40-inch segment my wife brought home
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The three other segments I got later in the the day

Cereus cuttings root very easily—in fact, I could have cut each of these segments into 12 inch chunks, and if the literature is correct, they would have rooted. However, before placing them in soil, it is crucial that the cut be completely healed (callused over). Otherwise you run the risk of infection and rot, especially if the soil is damp.

My segments aren’t cuttings per se. Instead, they are “arms” of the mother plant that were simply twisted off. Since the wounds have a very small surface area, they were dry by the time I brought home my finds. However, one segment had a fairly jagged tear so I decided to make a cleaner cut. I don’t think this was really necessary but I prefer to err on the side of caution in these things. I left the other three segments as is, i.e. I didn’t re-cut the wounds.

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Jagged wound that resulted from twisting the segment
off the mother plant
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Before making the cut, I sterilized the knife with 70% isopropyl alcohol
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After making the cut, I poured 70% isopropyl alcohol over it to kill any microorganisms and to dry out the tissue

The next step is to leave these segments in a protected place in the shade for a couple of weeks so a protective callus can form over the wounds. After that I will place them in pots with dry cactus mix, supported by sturdy stakes. Watering won’t be necessary (in fact, would be detrimental) until roots have begun to form. This could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the temperature. I’ll post updates as things happen.

The moral of this story is to keep an eye on what your neighbors toss out. Their yard waste could be your treasure!

Of course the downside of finding a treasure is figuring out what to do with it. Where am I going to plant these substantial cacti? That is the million dollar question!


  1. Awesome! Looks like you'll have to remove some bamboo to make room for it. ;-)

  2. I'm beginning to think the only solution is to move to a place with acreage, somewhere in the country :-).

    I will make room for one cereus, but the others will eventually have to go. But for now I get to experiment on them.

  3. You could always plant it outside the fence where the current hedge is. Should be sunny enough and plenty of room!

  4. There's always space somewhere Gerhard :) There's the odd occasion I have a little rummage on the 'waste' wheelbarrow of gardeners tending at public gardens, almost always they're happy for you to have some of the nice plants they have weeded.

    70% Isopropyl that's something I haven't encountered for a long time. Believe it or not you can't buy that in the UK!

  5. Becky, that would be a good spot but the strip is only 6 ft. deep. I wonder if that would be enough, considering that this cactus forms large clumps? It would certainly keep people away from our backyard fence.

    Mark and Gaz, 70% isopropyl alcohol is very common here. We simply call it "rubbing alcohol". It's used for all kinds things, like disinfecting cuts and sterilizing tools.

  6. Maybe you could train it along the fence! Might help to keep the rats out! Probably would need a clump of bamboo down by the mail boxes to keep the neighbors happy! Would look pretty good!


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