Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MacGyver (Selenicereus chrysocardium)

For those readers who are too young to remember "MacGyver," or those readers who are old enough to remember but don't because they never watched it, "MacGyver" was a TV show from 1985 to 1992 starring Richard Dean Anderson. He played Angus MacGyver, who had some job with a fictional organization called the Phoenix Foundation. I was never that clear about exactly what the Phoenix Foundation did, or why, but whatever it was inevitably involved MacGyver getting trapped someplace, and having to improvise some way of breaking out, or distracting guards so he could sneak out in some other direction, or whatever. So probably the purpose of the Phoenix Foundation was to research ways in which people could escape from places, if captured.

Richard Dean Anderson, ca. 1990. Found via Entertainment Weekly, though this picture is all over the internet.

Also MacGyver got shot at a lot, but because of some childhood trauma or something he was firmly opposed to using guns, so he never shot back. The 80s were a simpler time, and it was still okay then to solve all of one's problems without shooting stuff. At least in this one show. Most of the time. If you were the star. And otherwise of unquestionable masculinity.

As I recall, they also used explosions as a gun substitute quite a bit. But I digress.

Richard Dean Anderson again; photo from Carpe Factum.1

So I was a fan. A gun-hating, self-effacing science nerd who was also somehow all hunky? Be still my twelve-year-old heart.2 But what everybody else remembers the show for is the trademark MacGyver improvisation: stopping a sulfuric acid leak with a chocolate bar, making an arc welder out of jumper cables, a generator and two half-dollars, using pyrite and clay as an antibiotic, etc. (There's a partial -- partial! -- list of stuff from the series here.)

Last one, I promise. Via Dromomania Int'l. The MacMullet got considerably bigger than this at various points during the series, but this is as large as I'm willing to let it get on my blog.

Selenicereus chrysocardium is an improviser too, in at least a couple different ways. It makes its own soil, for example: it lives epiphytically in tree branches,3 and collects fallen leaves, animal droppings, or whatever else happens to fall from above to make a loose but water-retentive medium for its roots.4 It's also re-invented the leaf, because it had to: Selenicereus chrysocardium evolved from cacti that had lost their leaves, but then moved into rainforest environments where moisture loss was no longer a big deal: the problem it encountered instead was reduced light.5 So, over an extremely long span of time, the plants with the widest stems, which made the best light-catchers, prospered, eventually culminating in the broad, leaf-like structures (called cladodes) we see today. This same sort of development can be found in a lot of epiphytic cacti, like Pseudorhipsalis ramulosa, Schlumbergera spp., and Epiphyllum spp., though in those cases the resemblance to leaves is less impressive, and they look more like the flattened stems that they are.6

Hey! Only four pictures in, and we've got pictures of the plant the profile is supposed to be about! Hooray!

The native habitat of this plant can be pinned down with unusual precision. It is from the Mexican province of Chiapas, the southernmost province in Mexico. Chiapas is kind of a rough place even by Mexican standards: Wikipedia says that about 40% of the population suffers from malnutrition, a good chunk of the population doesn't even speak Spanish,7 infant mortality stands at 25%, less than 50% of the population has running water, and a lot of the province, particularly the eastern (inland) part, lacks roads or cities. So it's not the best neighborhood.

Perhaps because of this rough-and-tumble background, Selenicereus, like MacGyver, is non-violent: I've never seen any spines on one as far as I remember, and there are none on my plants at home (a couple aerial roots, but no spines).

Location of Chiapas. Adapted from the public domain map I found at the Wikipedia entry for Chiapas.

As for the plant itself, well, the main attraction is the flowers, which are like the nighttime blooms of Epiphyllum oxypetallum or Cereus peruvianus, that they are basically wedding cakes (huge, elaborate, mostly white). One of the more appealing things about Selenicereus chrysocardium specifically is that the flowers have a center full of golden yellow stamens.8 I have not been able to determine whether the flowers are night-bloomers, or fragrant: if anybody knows, I'd welcome a comment or e-mail or something.

Unfortunately, the plants are reluctant flowerers, even when you have relatively good conditions for them. We had a huge plant where I used to work, which was roughly six feet across, and in the year and a half I was there, I never saw it flower or even bud.9 So I don't have any flower pictures of my own, and unfortunately, I couldn't find any publicly-available pictures on-line, either. The best non-public one I could find is here.

At least keeping the plant alive is relatively easy, even if you never get flowers.

LIGHT: You're going to want some sun, though it doesn't have to be intense or all day long. In fact, it's probably better if your plant only gets sun for part of the day, or dappled/filtered sun all day long. Rumor has it that leaving your plant outside in dappled shade during the spring and/or summer is useful in getting it to set buds, though I haven't tried this.

WATER: All the advice I found about Selenicereus chrysocardium converged on the idea that one should use a loose soil mix, ideally some mix of orchid bark, perlite, regular potting soil and sand, and then water often. My personal experience has been that these are a lot more flexible about watering than that makes it sound, though, and you can pot them in regular potting soil so long as it's a reasonably good, quick-draining, non-Miracle-Gro sort of potting mix, which is the type of potting mix you should be using anyway. My experience has been that you run a bigger risk by underwatering than overwatering.

TEMPERATURE: There's fairly broad consensus that you don't want these to get colder than about 50F/10C. Some sources say 55F/13C. Most of the advice I've seen suggests that giving the plant lots of heat and humidity is the best way to induce blooming. Heat seems to be okay as long as the plant is not both hot and in direct sun at the same time.

HUMIDITY: I suspect that there is probably some margin for error, but as the plant's natural environment is humid, the more humidity you can provide, the more comfortable the plant is likely to be. This could have the side benefit of encouraging blooming.

PESTS: I have yet to see any pests on a Selenicereus chrysocardium. Pests weren't mentioned much (if at all) at any of the other sites that mentioned the plant. Scale and mealybugs are almost always the most likely and damaging pest problem with any plant, so keep an eye out.

PROPAGATION: Fern-leaf cactus is incredibly easy to propagate. As far as I can tell, any piece of stem, stuck upright into a loose, water-absorbent potting medium, should root. It may help to let the cutting callus a bit before planting, but even if you don't, most of the time you should be okay: I don't think WCW waited to plant the cuttings that make up my hanging basket, and they all did fine.

This was a piece that accidentally broke off of my plant one day as I moved past it, which I didn't find until it had been laying on the floor for a while. I stuck it in some soil and waited:

and within a couple months, it rewarded me by rooting and sending out new growth.

GROOMING: I can't think of anything about this plant that might constitute "grooming."

FEEDING: I didn't see any specific recommendations for fertilizer as far as I can remember, so I think ordinary houseplant fertilizer at half-strength with every watering should be okay. You're probably also all right if you want to stop feeding during the winter, though I think they do grow year-round.

The ease of propagation makes it kind of a puzzle to me that this plant isn't more widely available. I'll grant that it's a little odd, and it doesn't look stereotypically planty, but it's not any weirder or less stereotypical than Zamioculcas zamiifolia, and customers don't seem to have any problem buying them. The closest any of my internet sources came to describing a catch or hidden flaw or something was, a lot of them noted that it's hard to bring into flower. But again, that's just as true of Zamioculcas, and at least if you can get a flower out of Selenicereus it will be awesome, which is not true of Zamioculcas.

Whatever the reasons why it isn't, I think this plant probably ought to be more commonly available, because it's interesting, and kinda pretty. Someday, I may have some to sell or trade or whatever, but for right now I can only point you to a couple places I found that sell them. Both (who calls his Marniera chrysocardium but they're the same thing) and Glasshouse Works (who call it Epiphyllum chrysocardium) are offering some on their respective websites.10 You might also be able to find them in a local garden center, if you keep your eyes open, or organize a trade via Garden Web or somewhere.

Or if you get really desperate, you can always just make your own out of duct tape. Mac would want you to.
DISCLAIMER: I have been offered no goods, money, or services in return for promotion of the businesses above, nor am I affiliated with them in any manner.11 If this should change, as for example by extravagant retroactive bribery, HINT HINT, I'll edit the post to say so.

Special thanks to Allan Self at, for this post, which inspired the "person" to go with this plant.

1 Begging the indulgence of anyone in the audience whose sexual preference does not include Richard Dean Anderson, but this is the best opportunity I'm ever likely to have to post pictures of him on this blog, so I'm going to take it. I mean, what would you have me do, not post pictures of Richard Dean Anderson? Be serious. (Also: there is a lot of heartfelt but very, very bad MacGyver fan art out there, and I ran into some of it while looking for pictures. You should be glad I didn't use that for the post.)
2 The one change I would make, if I could jump to the alternate universe in which I was a network TV executive at the age of 12, would be that there really needed to be more fanservice. Somehow, for all his improvising, Mac's plans rarely required any shirt-type fabric. Or if they did, he was always wearing a second shirt underneath.
3 This is one piece of information that actually doesn't fit very well with the character of MacGyver: I don't remember him saying it (it was a long time ago!), but the internet tells me that Mac was afraid of heights. If there are epiphytes which are acrophobic, they're hiding it pretty well.
4 Some other epiphytes do this as well: Asplenium nidus, the bird's-nest fern, also collects its own soil this way, as do some Anthurium species, staghorn ferns (Platycerium spp.), and some orchids (often called "trash-basket" orchids).
5 "Moved" is, of course, in a very odd and figurative sense: the individual plants stayed put, but the previous habitat was no longer available, so the range of the species moved, and either the best open location was as an epiphyte, or being an epiphyte was what the plant "thought of" first. Evolution doesn't necessarily choose the optimal solution: all it has to do is find a solution which is good enough for reproduction, and there may sometimes be a number of different options which are good enough.
6 You may wonder why they wouldn't just re-evolve leaves, if their ancestors had had them. Well, there are two different ways to lose leaves: you can let the leaf-building genes fall into disrepair, to the point where they are no longer any good for building anything anymore, or you can keep them intact but regulate them such that they never turn on.
If you go the first route, by the time you decide you want leaves again, there may not be any functional genes and gene fragments left to rebuild from. The only way to get everything back up and running again would be to unbreak everything, in exactly the right ways, which is fairly unlikely: there are always more ways to break a thing than there are of putting it back together. So evolution is not likely to reverse this type of leaf loss.
If you go with the second way of losing leaves, and build regulators to stop leaf development, then all you have to do to get leaves back is break or lose the regulators. This, by contrast, is awfully easy to do.
Some cactus species actually have taken the second route, and built genes to suppress the development of leaves: we know this because they occasionally turn off the suppressors and let leaves form for brief periods, usually during flowering. (See link.) My guess -- and I emphasize to the reader that this is a guess -- is that with Selenicereus, the leaf-producing genes were probably actually broken, rather than suppressed, which made reinventing the leaf from a stem more practical than fixing the leaf-building genes.
7 So what do they speak? Well, Wikipedia doesn't exactly say. A large chunk of the population of Chiapas, about 40%, is of Mayan descent, and the majority (55%) of Chiapas residents are of mixed Mayan and European ancestry, so it seems like a safe bet that they speak an indigenous language with Mayan roots, but I don't know. Whatever the name for it is, Mexico has the eminently sensible policy that any language spoken by indigenous peoples living in its borders has the status of an official state language, equivalent to Spanish, and citizens living in the provinces where these languages are spoken may request public services and documents in said language.(See Wikipedia.) Still, not speaking the dominant language of the nation and region is going to have consequences for non-governmental business, so it's still kind of a bad thing to not speak Spanish in Mexico.
The Mexican official-language policy is different, of course, from that in the United States, where certain parts of the population will fly into a spittle-flecked rage if they're asked to press one for English in a phone tree, never mind printing 1040s in Vietnamese or driver registration forms in Swahili or whatever. I gave up trying to understand these people a long time ago, and now limit myself to hoping that they won't hurt themselves, or anybody else, while being outraged.
8 The botanical name refers, in part, to the flowers: selene = moon; cereus technically means wax, or torch, but has come to be the generic Latin word for cactus; chryso- = golden; cardium = heart. Put it all together and you get something like "moon cactus with a golden heart," which I think even the most diehard fan of common names will agree is way more poetic and evocative than the usual common name for this plant ("fern-leaf cactus").
9 It lives on, in three pieces: it had developed some dead stems in summer 2008, and WCW divided it while cleaning it up, so now there are two of them at work. A number of fragments also broke off or were salvaged from otherwise dead stems in the process of dividing and cleaning, which WCW put into a hanging basket, where they rooted: this hanging basket is now my plant.
10 wants $3, but is unclear about whether they are unrooted cuttings or rooted plants, and also has a $20 minimum order. Glasshouse Works charges $12 for unrooted cuttings and has a minimum order of $15. I have never ordered from either place and accept no responsibility for any damages, disappointments, inconveniences, etc. which may ensue from your placing an order with either of them.
11 (Sucker!)


our friend Ben said...

Ha!!! Another classic post, Mr. S., one that should be enshrined in your Best Posts Hall of Fame! I never saw MacGyver, though I did once encounter a wonderful book about mullets (which I never saw either). And sadly, my Selenicereus has never bloomed, either. But it did try to kill me once when I was watering it and its hanging basket broke and crashed down on my head (or at least in extremely close proximity). Ingrate! It spent the rest of the season on the in-ground bed in the greenhouse, where I was hoping maybe the stems would root into the soil (no dice). It's now suspended once more, doubtless plotting a second attempt on my life. The Moriarty of plants!

Dave@The Home Garden said...

I never would have thought to relate MacGyver to a plant! Although a plant that improvises in such a way makes sense. I think I can attribute the Swiss Army Knife in my pocket to my viewing of MacGyver as a kid. I still need to get a jeep though...

Mae said...

Loved MacGyver! Awesome post.

I wonder if the plant that you acquired pieces from just isn't physiologically mature yet? That's why it isn't flowering, not because of anything you haven't done, it's just not ready to yet.

For example, if you take cuttings off ivy that is less than 25-40 years old (the age at which it becomes physiologically mature and starts to become more upright in habit and finally flowers) they root really easily.

Once the plant has become physiologically mature (phew, that's a long phrase!) and switches over to sexual reproduction it's harder to get cuttings to take.

A good example of this is growing your own avocados from seed. They take longer to finally fruit than commercially grafted avos do because it takes years before they switch over to sexual reproduction.

Did any of that make sense? Can you tell I just finished a physiology course??? My prof would be so proud of me!

Ivynettle said...

Oh, why do you have to keep introducing me to awesome plants that I can't get my greedy hands on?

Also, you're to blame for making me think that having 40+ plants on 10m² is entirely normal and acceptable.

lynn'sgarden said...

Be still MY 40+ year old heart! I got so caught up in these hunky photos that I forgot the reason for the! I'll always remember MacGyver as 'Dr. Jeff Webber' of General about a crush! Hey, they even did episodes on Mythbusters taking apart his improvisions...such as creating a lazer using a flashlight, magnifying glass and tin foil...or whatever the hell it was. But I digress ;)

Okay, interesting background on this fern-leaf cactus. I did have the staghorn fern you mentioned but it always looked wilted and didn't grow much. The only grooming I could think of was the dust wiping..from time to time.

Fingers crossed this will bloom for you...someday!

Tom said...

Mr. S-

MacGyver: all I new about him was his endless resourcefullness, his effect on teen boy hairstyles, and his effect on Marge Simpson's sisters; I never saw the show (my no TV years?)

I had a Selenicereus chrysocharidum) for years. Got big, died back, grew back, cut back, renewed it from cuttings. Never bloomed (big sigh). I lost the tag (probably wrong anyway - Epiphyllum something?) and the most frustrating part was finding the correct name. It is a nice plant - wouldn't mine having one again, even if it never bloomed, but I've never seen one since. Please, post a picture when it does bloom.

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, probably mine is not mature enough to bloom, true. But even when they are mature enough, they apparently don't do it very often: it was one of the more consistent things people say about them.

I don't have to have flowers to be happy with the plant, of course. Though it would be really interesting.


In what way is 40+ plants in 10m^2 unreasonable? Too sparse?


I have a staghorn fern that was one of the last few things I bought before I left work, so it hasn't been around very long. It hasn't done a lot, so far, but that's probably just as well: they can get huge.


I worried about whether or not I needed to add a footnote about Patty and Selma's love of MacGyver. More specifically, I wondered whether I needed to say explicitly that my fondness for Richard Dean Anderson was a couple levels of intensity below theirs.


Perhaps I should try to work on propagation this winter? There seem to be a few people, at least, interested in having one of these.

One big branch of my plant sticks way out, making the pot hang crooked, and I had already been thinking about cutting it off, so maybe I will. I wonder how big a piece has to be before it will root, if you need some of the midrib or if one of the cladodes would work just as well.

Susan Tomlinson said...

One word: Swiss Army knife.

Okay, that's three, but you get my drift. I still think of MacGyver whenever I have an opportunity to carry one.

I make references to the show in class sometimes, but alas, this generation knows nothing of his resourceful ways...I'm starting to see the occasional mullet again, however. Frightening.

Kenneth Moore said...

ZOMGSBBQ, Ivy, how did you superscript that 2 in the comment??!

Also, yes, I now have to get this plant.

So, Mr. S, you don't smoke cigarettes after every episode?

I must have been one of the youngest to have watched this--it was on during my first seven years of life, but I remember watching it on a semiregular basis. And then Walker, Texas Ranger. And then Xena. Then I stopped--nothing is better than Xena. She invented CPR, kites, and Stonehenge, you know!

Ivynettle said...

@Mr Subjunctive:
In what way is 40+ plants in 10m^2 unreasonable? Too sparse?
See, you understand me.
Totally too sparse. I need lights, though.

@Kenneth Moore:
ZOMGSBBQ, Ivy, how did you superscript that 2 in the comment??!
It's on my keyboard.
*cuddles her German keyboard*

food-ie mike said...

This is a great post. I had previously, for over a decade, been under the impression my plant was a night blooming cereus. Ive had lots of experiences with this that I could share with anyone interested.
Mine has flowered and I am glad I photographed it when that happened, since it was about 9 years ago.

food-ie mike said...

Ive now found mine to be afflicted with a pest. It's a scaling type of leaf attack that has it dying off on ends of all the branches and whole limbs lost now. Let me know if you'd like to hear more. Im hoping someone has advice.

mr_subjunctive said...

food-ie mike:

Do you have any photos of the pest in question?

Worst comes to worst, you could cut a piece off a healthy part of the plant and start it over.

food-ie mike said...

Ive been glad to see my plant recover, or is well on the road to recovery after a severe cutting back of afflicted growth. I can post photos if you want (?). I also find that to neglect this plant and ignore it some, it will reward you. Pamper it and it tries less.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I live in Mexico and know of Selenicereus chrysocardium in collections in various climates and can vouch for it's being able to survive well in temps. down almost to 0 degrees celsius but as you say, is happiest in climates similar to it's natural habitat which is humid and very warm yearlong. My own plants have never flowered where temps. dip down to 10 degrees celsius in winter but has flowered beautifully for a friend to whom I gave a plant and whose climate is warm all year, rarely going below 65 degrees fahrenheit.

Anonymous said...

Love this plant, I bought mine in a hanging basket about a year ago from a nursery, and in the last 3 weeks, it has produced 15 buds, which have been flowering one by one. The flowers usually only last about one to two days (what a shame!)
It has been warm weather here and we are in Queensland, Australia where there is a bit of humidity. It is autumn. Have photos, of the bloom, but you can find them on the internet!

Unknown said...

I have 50 in. A 6 ft by 3 ft porch. And am trying to squeeze more and still have room to walk and sit. Argghh apartment living

food-ie mike said...

My original "parent" plant is once again on the way out. :( I just clipped a newer, healthier sprout and hope planting it separately will spare it whatever the old plant seems unable to get past. I hate to give up on the original, as a good friend who passed away gave it to me, but Im afraid it's been too ugly to keep much longer. It looks like it belongs in the Munster's house!

I love that I bookmarked this post on this site, as it's most helpful.
and wish me luck.

food-ie mike said...

Just checking in again,. after moving to a house with less light , I have to say, my plant has recovered from whatever illness it had, but regrowth is slow. Im still interested if anyone has any info to share about this plant. It means something to me and I'd like to keep it alive since a friend that passed away gifted me this clipping in 1998 and I dont want to let it go.

Over the years it went from really thriving and flowering to more growth and then the last 6 years, more challenged with black spots and dying leaves. I tried to keep a clipping alive and let the original plant die, because it got so infested with black spots and death. I shelved the pot with a few dead branches still on it, in a dry area and forgot about it. About 9 months later, after no water or attention, It had sprouted a new bit and made me realize this thing won't die. The clipping didnt make it so I was glad the original tree-like gnarly branch could still make a go at it. Now it's looking better, but far from it's golden days. (sigh). Anyway, do people still read this blog? it's great.

Unknown said...

I once grew a notoriously non-blooming species orchid (Phalaenopsis violacea, I think).
It was a weak- abd sparsely-leaved wimp which formed new little plantlets on the flower spikes (INSTEAD of Flowers, mind you) which presents such an irresistible temptation to propagate, that most people remove the plantlets and rarely see a flower.

Turns out, it needed to keep all its little plantlets tethered together, rather like a Spider Plant, before it could muster the stamina to put out flowers.

I outsmarted it by coiling its leggy, stringy spikes around itself, rather like a wreath, letting the plantlets root alongside mother in the same pot, and sure enough, once the Hen had amasses about five chicks, it started blooming ever year. The tips of the spaghetti-like stalks stayed green, and would go into "Florapause" until the next year.

I wonder if my new Selenicereus chrysocardium holds a similar grudge against pruning, and will produce flowers if I resist the temptation to take cuttings, and let it go wild.

I might also decide to let it winter over in a sheltered, shady spot beneath the fire escapes next year, and see if the slight chill helps to make it feel "sexy" when the blooming period comes around.

Selenicereus undulatus is a near kin, which also delays flowering until the plant is quite oversized, then blooms (and sets edible fruit!) like gangbusters...but who other than a commercial grower has the space for a 10-15' tropical plant? Hope my Chryso will bloom for me if I can let it hit 8' without pruning it.