Taking Care of the Titty Tower
These cacti have been available in cultivation for a while, but only really reached viral levels of awareness recently. With the rise of Instagram-fueled popularity of certain species, these went from an uncommon cultivar to being one of the most in-demand varieties for many hobbyists. This is especially true for those new to cactus keeping, which is something of a recipe for disaster – the most commonly available booby cactus specimens are typically freshly imported, meaning they have dessicated, sterilized roots to achieve their phytosanitary certificate before being shipped. Those small roots aren’t actively growing, which means you’re establishing this cactus like a fresh cutting and not as an actively growing, thriving specimen.
The Myrtillocactus geometrizans var. fukurokuryuzinboku
This is a Japanese cultivar of the blue candle cactus, which in and of itself is a gorgeous plant even before being encouraged to mutate. The Fukurokuryuzinboku is a monstrose form, which means the plant isn’t developing quite normally. In the case of this plant, the monstrose formation is that the areoles of the plant resemble the areoles of a woman’s breast, complete with “chinned” ribs that also look like tatas. Otherwise, it grows almost entirely like a regular Myrtillocactus geometrizans, which makes them easy to keep and maintain once you get them established.
Establishing Your New Cactus
The plants you find available online are generally cuttings produced and grown in a tropical nursery, commonly Thailand, Phillipines, or Korea. The conditions there are carefully calibrated to encourage rapid rooting and growth of the cacti, which the species will only do in nice, hot weather. The tropical heat combined with being sheltered in a greenhouse (and thus, dry) allows for cuttings to harden off and root quickly.
When you get your cactus and it’s a recent import, you’ll see that the roots are brown and crispy looking. This type of sterlization is necessary for exportation, and ensures that no pests or diseases are sent out with the cacti. Unfortunately for you, it means that you are in essence starting over with the cutting once it arrives. It’s several steps ahead of a fresh cutting in that you don’t have to wait for it to callous over, and the dried roots may not be entirely killed off by the preparation for exportation.
It does mean that you’ll need to keep your new cactus quite warm and dry in order for it to root well, which can feel rather counter-intuitive. They should be kept in the 70 – 80 range at least, and in bright, indirect light – nearly full shade with a couple of hours of morning sun have worked best for me. If you’re ordering yours in cooler months, you may want to consider a plant heat mat to keep the pot warm enough for rooting to take place.
You’ll also want to plant it in a very well draining soil mix. I’ve had great success with both perlite and pumice mixed in 50/50 with a regular soil mix. That much drainage ensures the roots and base of the plant stay quite dry, even if the plant body itself starts to indicate that it wants water. You should only water your new titty cactus when it starts to distinctly shrivel and get wrinkly – and even then, only a tiny bit! You’re just giving it enough water to not die. You need it to be somewhat thirsty so that it sends out new roots to seek water. If you’re keeping your plant indoors, even if it’s by a window, chances are you won’t need to water it at all for the first month you have it. Outdoors, sheltered, it may need water once, as the amount of light it gets through the duration of the day is higher than it would get indoors.
You should only water the cactus enough that the soil doesn’t turn into a disc of dried dirt. This generally means a small splash every so often, just enough to moisten the top layer of soil without really getting the entire thing wet. Remember that the cactus effectively has no roots, so watering thoroughly won’t do much except give you a bunch of soggy soil for a long enough time that you may rot out the base of your plant.
How Long Will It Take To Establish?
If your weather is nice and warm, and your days are long (spring and into summer, basically), your titty cactus will likely start to show new growth within a month or two. You’ll notice new green areoles emerging at the top of the plant, and perhaps some green in the margins of areoles further down. This is a sign that the plant is taking in moisture, and expanding somewhat. You do not want to water at all until you start to see this new growth! When you do see it, you can begin watering very lightly when the soil seems dry.
While the new growth is promising, it doesn’t mean that your cactus has a solid root system yet, or that you should start watering significantly more! It typically means there’s some new small roots that have extended out, and the plant itself has turned the corner towards being a robust and established specimen in your collection. The surest sign that your cactus is rooted and thriving is seeing consistent new growth being produced at the top of the plant. Remember the golden cactus rule – it’s far easier to bring your plant back from being underwatered than over watered!
With my plants, the shift from “getting established” to “actively growing” took about 3 or 4 months, and by the time I was seeing active growth, they needed water very regularly, even more often than my regular Myrtillocactus. Once established and growing, you can begin moving your cactus to increasingly higher levels of light. I have my specimen plant in full sun, in the same general area I have my gymnocalyciums, copiapoas, and opuntias when the weather is warm.
Why aren’t there any U.S. produced titty cacti?
Some folks may want to get these cacti from US growers in an effort to support local, but quickly realize it is hard to do so, or even impossible!
Why is this?
It does not produce seed true to type, which is to say you can’t grow these from seeds. The only way these are readily produced is from cuttings, which are typically taken in early spring and summer to allow for rooting during warmer months. In the tropical nurseries where these are the most common, they’re able to take cuttings and have them root pretty much year round, which is one reason for them being so much more common outside of the US.
As a result, the only way we could produce these in the US is if a grower was willing to slice and dice their own cactus, encouraging branching to propogate cuttings from. This takes time, and makes for an unattractive mother plant. Most US growers want a booby cactus as a centerpiece or prized specimen, and are naturally reluctant to cut up a beautiful specimen.
That’s not to say someone, somewhere, is working on creating their own titty tower farm – but it’ll be hard to compete with the wholesale prices from the established nurseries abroad.
Care Once Established
Once your titty cactus has rooted and is clearly growing, you can begin moving it to a more permanent location. When established, these cacti actually prefer plenty of sunlight, and should be somewhere quite bright. I keep my specimen plant in the same area as my neoporteria and gymnocalyciums, to give you an idea of brightness, and it is quite happy. The area it’s in receives about 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day, with early afternoon being shaded by a large nearby palm tree.
Water regularly during the summer growing season, with a thorough soaking every few days if the soil is dry. During the hottest months here in San Diego, I water mine nearly daily, and taper off as we get into colder fall months. Over the winter, these should be kept dry, similar to most cacti, although I have found that established plants will tolerate winter rains as long as they’re able to dry again before the temperatures drop below 40F. Your mileage may vary – when in doubt, keep dry and water less. Through the winter, these often shrivel up somewhat as they get thirstier, just as other cacti do – they just look more wrinkled and comical due to their shape. If your cactus is looking distinctly pruny, water the top portion of the soil and let dry again before watering more.
These cacti will appreciate light fertilization in the summer growing months, with a dilute balanced fertilizer or cactus-specific food every 3 weeks or so. I tend to use very dilute fish emulsion, and occasionally worm casting tea. Do not fertilize at all in colder months while the cactus is dormant.
Where can I get a Myrtillocactus geometrizans var. fukurokuryuzinboku?
You can find these on eBay or on international wholesaler websites with regularity, but that does typically mean you have to go through the importation process yourself. This isn’t impossible or difficult; expect to pay $30 – $45 for a phytosanitary certificate, and to go through the entire establishing process outlined above. If you go this route, I highly recommend doing so in spring, when the weather will be on your side. You can also get them established over winter, but plan on using a plant heat mat or something similar to keep the cactus warm enough to root.
Do not skimp on the phytosanitary certificate! Some growers may offer to not get one if you don’t ask for it, but that is a gamble. Customs doesn’t always check every international shipment, but lately with COVID, they are extra scrupulous, and if your imported plant does not have a certificate they will simply burn it/destroy it, and send on the empty box with a note. Phytosanitary certification helps ensure no pests or diseases are accidentally brought into the US from foreign nurseries, and it is worth it to ensure you have a healthy specimen.
Alternatively, you can buy a plant that has already been imported from a US seller, but it is rare that these are established specimens, even if you see them displayed for sale in pots. Unless you can see active new growth at the top of the plant (see below), be wary of cacti that are in pots. You can’t be sure the seller/importer has actually acclimated them or established them well, or if there is rot hiding under the surface of the soil.
The new growth is circled on the plant below, and can be seen in the other photos of this blog. It’s smooth and unblemished, with some of the light farina the cactus develops visible and unbroken. In the process of being imported or shipped, the main body of the cacti often get the very minimal farina rubbed off, or they have mineral/pesticide deposits from watering or treatment before being shipped out.
When buying your cactus from a US seller, look for one that is clearly a recent import and not even in a pot if you want to establish it yourself, or look for a seller that has cacti pictured with fresh growth. Also look for pictures they have taken themselves, not those provided from the nursery! It is common to use the nursery’s photo of inventory (rows upon rows of titty cacti) to show how many there are; the cactus you receive is likely one that has been imported and is not established.
None of this is to say getting a fresh import is bad – just be aware of what you’re buying! Be cautious of plants that may have rot, and be cautious of pricing that seems too good to be true.
Occasionally sellers, like myself, will offer established specimens for sale. Expect these to cost more due to the time spent getting them rooted, but your plant will be ready to grow and thrive for you right away, rather than needing time to send out roots.
Here are some partially cleaned off roots from a specimen I recently prepared to ship out – notice the pale roots and all the fine growth trying to cling to the soil. That is a sign of a solidly established cactus cutting!
That is a nice healthy root ball – and it took 6 months to get that way! That was part of a batch I got in spring, around May or June, and I didn’t offer for sale until the end of November. I typically try to get these in each spring, and raise them over summer so they are established and ready to ship by fall and winter. It takes a while, so just bear that in mind as you make your titty tower selection.
Whichever route you choose to go, enjoy your silly tower of titties!