Pencil Cactus Pruning: Pruning My Large Euphorbia Tirucalli

2 Materials
$50
20 Minutes
Easy

My beautiful 8′ Pencil Cactus was damaged in a recent move. This is all about Pencil Cactus pruning – fixing my large Euphorbia tirucalli broken in the process.

As many of you know, I recently bought a house and moved. My (once) 8′ Pencil Cactus was the only plant that really took a hit in the moving process. I needed to get the Felcos out and spring into action!


Buying, selling, and moving are always a process, but the volume of indoor and outdoor plants I have made it even more of a challenge.


The movers did a great job handling them all but the Pencil Cactus, like some other succulents, breaks at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t able to stand up on its own and is really heavy so I’m happy it came out of the moving process so well.

The Pencil Cactus in my old garden before the move.

I live in Tucson, Arizona where this Pencil Cactus grows outdoors year-round. They make wonderful indoor plants if you have medium to high light and I also have a smaller one growing indoors.


This pruning adventure yielded quite a few cuttings both large and small so once they get potted up, I’ll soon have another plant plus quite a few to give away.

Here’s how the Pencil Cactus looked a couple of weeks later after the move.

The Pencil Cactus pruning in action:

Reasons to Prune a Pencil Cactus



  1. A Pencil Cactus grows fast & tends to get top-heavy over time. This 1 of mine was propped up in a corner of the house. Pruning off a portion of the top has helped it to stand up on its own.
  2. It’s getting leggy. This is usually due to a lack of light.
  3. The plant has grown too tall or is getting too wide. This might cause your Pencil Cactus to lean.
  4. You want to propagate the plant via cuttings.

My PC plant that grows indoors. I planted it from cuttings taken from the large plant late last spring. I brought a couple of cuttings from my large Pencil Cactus in Santa Barbara when I moved to Tucson 4 1/2 years ago & that’s where this large one came from. These plants propagate so easily!


Important things to Know About Pencil Cactus Pruning



  1. Before you start the pruning process, be sure to clean & sharpen your pruners. This will ensure that you make clean cuts.
  2. Warning: A Pencil Cactus, like other Euphorbias, will emit a sap when cut into. This milky substance is considered to be toxic. I’ve gotten it on my skin & it has never irritated me but it may be different for you.
  3. I would advise wearing long sleeves & gloves when pruning this plant. Not only will this protect your skin, but the sap can stain your clothing. And, never get it anywhere on your face.
  4. I cut up rags into smallish pieces to help contain the “sap flow”. This helps to keep it off of you, the plant & the surroundings. It takes about 5 minutes or so for the sap to stop dripping, depending on the size of the branch. 
  5. Make the cuts straight across, just above an existing branch or branches.
Making a cut on a stem bending downwards.

Best Time of Year for Pencil Cactus Pruning

This is a do as I say, not as I do! Spring and summer are the best times to prune a Euphorbia tirucalli. I’m in a climate with a warmer fall and winter so late winter and early fall would also be fine.


I pruned mine in early January because the very top branch (40″ in length) had snapped in the move. The plant was leaning against the house and the patio fence so I wanted to get it shaped up as soon as possible.


Pencil Cacti are hardy to around 25F. Mine grows outdoors year-round. We haven’t had a freeze night or 2 yet this year but some evenings have dipped to around 34 – 36F.


After I pruned, I covered it with a sheet as protection while it’s healing and will leave it on for a week or 2.

That large broken branch at the back of the plant.

How I Pruned my Pencil Cactus



  1. Clean & sharpen pruners.
  2. Cut up the rags.
  3. Remove the large broken branch.
  4. Prune 3 additional larger branches. 1 was tied to the mini-clothesline, the other was completely bending over, & the third was the other top branch. 
  5. Stand back & see how it looks.
  6. Prune a few smaller branches towards the back to get them off the wall.
  7. Success – the plant now stands on its own & looks better!
There’s that stem leaning tied to the clothesline. I’m glad the previous owners put that little makeshift line up!

The Cuttings

I always let my Pencil Cactus cuttings heal off (dry over at the ends, like we do with a wound) for quite a period of time before planting.


Some succulents cuttings will show roots and some won’t – no worries, just plant them and the roots will form. The latter is true of a Pencil Cactus.


It’s now been over a week since I’ve done the pruning. The cuttings I took off this plant have healed off and are laying on the floor of my guest room. They get moderate light but no direct sunlight.


I could plant them now but I’m going to wait until the beginning of March to do it. By the way, I’ve found that the larger stems do as well as the smaller stems when planted.


With those 4 larger stems, I’ll have 4 Euphorbia tircallis well on their way!


I’ll do a post and video on propagating and planting these Pencil Cactus cuttings so stay tuned for that.

Here’s what the end of the stem looks like healed over.

What Happens Next?

Whether the Pencil Cactus remains in this spot or not remains to be seen. It gives a nice hit of greenery right off the patio, so it most likely will stay right there. 


I’ll assess how it’s growing and see how it looks in early May.


I may need to do a tip pruning (in case you don’t know, this is the removal of the soft new growth by 1-6″) just to do a little further shaping.

Cuttings anyone?!

Conclusion: Pencil Cactus grow fast and are forgiving when it comes to pruning. You can prune them lightly or heavier as I did. Just mind the sticky sap and give your pruners a good cleaning before and after pruning. They’re easy to grow and are a fun plant to have in your collection!


Happy gardening,

Nell

Suggested materials:
  • Hand Pruner   (Amazon)
  • Rags   (Amazon)
Joy Us garden
Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!
Go
Frequently asked questions
Have a question about this project?
Comments
Join the conversation
 4 comments
  • Heidifdez Heidifdez on Jan 22, 2021

    I feel it's necessary to comment on this article, please do not take offense, but I must point out a few things...

    The sap from the plant is VERY poisonous! True, it doesn't bother everyone, but it could literally kill someone else who is affected by the sap (mainly allergic reaction with hives and mouth/throat swelling).

    We have a landscape business and a nursery in southern California and I wouldn't recommend (I wouldn't even plant or sell) this plant to anyone with small children or pets who like to chew. However, I do absolutely love Pencil Cactus (aka Fire Stick Cactus) for several reasons. I should first tell you I am one of those who is extremely affected by the sap myself and experience a severe allergic reaction, but I'm very experienced and knowledgeable about these plants so I dress & handle them accordingly (long sleeve shirt and pants, gloves, Dawn dish soap as the sap is very difficult to clean off your skin, and Benadryl... Just in case).

    When planted outdoors, they grow vigorously, sometimes to the point of no return. The older they get, the harder it is to cut the branches. They are not soft and have water-y stems/branches like most cactus or succulents. It's more like tree branches the older the plant gets. As you mentioned, the pruning is essential for to the legginess or top heaviness. The middle of the plant will have a very thick "trunk" like stem that should be cut out. It will take off an enormous amount of weight by removing it. Grown indoors in a pot you are able to keep much better control of the size of the plant as it will contained, but you will not experience the color change in comparison to one grown outdoors.

    When winter comes, the outdoor plant turns into the most magnificent red/orange color! It is so vivid, anyone who sees it will comment! Planted inside this plant didn't not have the same results as far as the color goes, staying pretty much green.

    Again, no offense but your comments, but readers should be made aware of the potential danger this plant may pose. It's definitely not for everything!

    • Joy Us garden Joy Us garden on Jan 27, 2021

      Thank you for the comment. I did a blog post dedicated to this subject a few years ago when I lived in Santa Barbara. Most people don't have a plant this big but I just wanted to show how I prune it. My pets don't go near it & neither does any of the wildlife which frequents my garden. That's a good point about children - it's a good plant to avoid. This one pictured here in the post is not the Euphorbia tirucallli "Fire Sticks" which turns orange in winter - I have that one too. This is the E. tirucalli that always stays green.

      Happy gardening! Nell

  • Mona Senter Mona Senter on Feb 04, 2021

    Are you giving these babies away? Or selling them? If so, I would love one! I used to live in Tucson and miss it so much! I am now in Indiana. Would love to have one from there!☺️

    • Joy Us garden Joy Us garden on Feb 05, 2021

      Hi Mona -

      If you lived in Tucson, you could come & pick some up! Nell

Next