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.
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.
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.)
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
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).
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 Cloudjungle.com (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 spiralpalindrome.com, 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 Cloudjungle.com 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.