Care Diary: Pilosocereus azureus – or is it pachycladus?

pilosocereus azureus

Written byJen Greene

Animal lover, plant enthusiast, and addicted to the sunshine and warmth in San Diego.

May 5, 2021

This probably should have been my first blog post, as Felicia the Cactus was really what kicked off the level of collecting that has become my norm.

I’ve had this cactus since October 2015, making it one of the cacti I’ve owned the longest (next to the Echinopsis “LA” I picked up around the same time). I picked it up from a friend who has an absolutely drool-worthy collection in his yard, including the “mother” cactus that is where mine originated from as a cutting.

You might recognize Felicia from around the internet, since plenty of people like to steal my Instagram post and use it like it’s their own.

Below is the original image, uncropped, and without the silly filtering I applied to the image because it was for Instagram. I’d cropped it so you couldn’t see the funky pale coloration on the body below the flower, which I think was just general stress damage and nothing too terrible. It happens. 

pilosocereus azureus

The latin name

So… Pilosocereus azureus isn’t…really… a real cactus. There’s no actual recognized species, near as I can tell, of azureus – rather, the name is applied to hybrids or even pure specimens of what’s usually Pilosocereus pachycladus.

Why does “azureus” keep sticking?

Because we keep looking for it. It brings up the right cactus on Google, many nurseries keep referring to this name, and so do forums, Facebook groups, and growers all over. We just can’t let go.

Google is on it, though (see the screenshot below), and we may see a shift in the next few years. I’m not holding my breath, though. Humans are stubborn

I picked up Felicia in October of 2015, with that cute little new growth. 

I didn’t repot her right away, which was a terrible idea – she was top-heavy and blew over with the slightest hint of Santa Ana winds, rain, or even just looking at the pot wrong. She has more than a few blemishes from falling off the patio table multiple times the first few months I had her. 

That being said, I bought Felicia the Cactus as a Pilosocereus azureus, and I highly doubt the misnomer was intentional. She’s probably a pachycladus, or a hybrid of such.

Felicia was a two-armed cutting, rooted in a 1 gallon black nursery pot, and she was glorious.

pilosocereus azureus

Temperature and Light

Most of what I’ve read online indicates that this species does not tolerate freezing temperatures, and will get distinctly frost bitten if the plant gets actual frost on it. 

These originate from Brazil, and like it hot. While I’ve found them to tolerate a light frost reasonably well, they do get frostbite on the tips if they experience even a light frost touching them. If you can prevent the tips from getting frost on them, they put up with air temperatures down to the high 20s just fine. You can prevent the frostbite with a frost cloth, which is ideal, or you can try styrofoam cups placed carefully over the tips. 

In summer, the hotter the better. Once acclimated to your lighting conditions (don’t toss a nursery plant into full sun, for example), these do best in full, direct sunlight and absolutely love daytime highs in that hit the 90s or even 100s. For them to look their best and also grow the most, water regularly during these hot months. Once established, the more water they get in summer each time their soil dries, the more they’ll grow (as you will see). 

Felicia was potted into a nice pretty glazed pot after a few months, where the refreshed soil gave her nutrients to thrive and her placement in nearly full sun encouraged rapid growth. 

Pilosocereus pachycladus

While you can see that there was some growth compared to when I first brought her home, it’s nothing too crazy. You can also spot some of the scars from the table tumbles…

When I potted Felicia into this pot for summer, it wasn’t quite big enough. She got some refreshed soil and did grow somewhat, but the pot size was’t nearly big enough for the root growth needed to support more height. After reaching the size seen in the photo above, she pretty much stopped growing. 

In 2016, she also earned her name: I brought her inside to be decor for a day while we had a pool party. A friend of mine promptly carried her outside, and hid her in plain sight around a corner in front of the house. 

Bye, Felicia.

It took a week to find her again, and by then, everyone was pretty entertained by the disappearing cactus. The name “Felicia” stuck. 

Luckily she grew too big for such shenanigans in very short order.

pilosocereus azureus

Potted up in October of 2016, in a pot I figured would work for a while. It’s at least 3 gallons, maybe even 4 or 5 – it’s pretty big and nearly impossible to move when filled.

pilosocereus pachycladus

This is November of 2017 – you can see the paler new growth that took place all in a single year! While these definitely don’t like their roots disturbed much, once they settle in, boy do they skyrocket.

The initial growth spurt in the new pot was the biggest single year growth that we saw from Felicia, and then she grew little, if at all, in subsequent years.

This is likely in part to soil washing out of the bottom of her pot, and roots taking over. If you look closely in the two photos showing the year’s growth, the pebble line has dropped slightly. Soil washed out, roots “ate” some, and the entire thing probably compacted down over the hot summer months.

Felicia stayed in this pot for a few more years, primarily because the idea of getting her out terrified me. That is a big ass cactus to get out of a pot and into something new. I tried amending the soil with some worm castings, along with occasional fertilizer, but growth was limited at best.

Worm castings were the least effective, although dilute fish emulsion during summer months with occasional cactus/succulent-specific fertilizer a couple times a year did spur a small amount of new growth in 2019.

pilosocereus pachycladus

April, 2018. 

pilosocereus azureus

This is March, 2019, and there’s clearly little, if any new growth.

The changing pile of cacti and succulents around Felicia’s base show more change and interest than Felicia herself. 

2019 was the year I decided Felicia needed to go in-ground, but then I had to decide: where? 

The decision to put her in ground was largely based around my very large desire to never have to re-pot her again. The catch was finding a place that wasn’t near the dogs (so they wouldn’t get poked by spines), somewhere that didn’t freeze, and somewhere with nearly full sun.

This meant a small patch of particularly horrible, dry, hot soil lining our driveway on the side bordering our neighbor’s fence. What better way to be neighborly than by planting a large species of cactus that can reach 20 feet tall, right?

After deciding in 2019 that I needed to move Felicia, I proceeded to not move her until February of 2020. 

We did so with a cardboard box and lots of butcher paper and bubble wrap; ideally, we would have used towels to cushion the spines, but we didn’t want to sacrifice any to the cactus gods. As a result, even the folded edges of the jumbo cardboard box we used to tip her out and get her out of the pot gave her some deep wounds on the edge that touched the box. 

And, since that edge was where we had leverage, it’s where we pushed her up into place – so the “ugly” side is what faces the driveway and what I can get photos of. 

Not gonna lie, thought I might have killed her. There was no soil left in the pot by the time we got it off the root ball; it was just a giant clump of roots with maybe some pumice chunks left. I did what I could to dislodge the tight, compacted ball but I was worried about damaging the cactus more than we already had getting it out of the pot. 

After getting her in the ground, she spent pretty much all of 2020 doing absolutely nothing, much like the rest of us. 

pilosocereus pachycladus

The astute observer will note that the two columns are nearly identical in height at this time; that was the extent of growth for 2019, not anything new she’d done in 2020. 

The photo above is from April 2020, two months after going in the ground and around when I’d accepted she probably wasn’t going to die. You can see the deep gouges from the box near the base, as well as midway up the columns. Multiple kind people on Instagram recommended a handful of remedies to help with callousing, but in the end, I left her to her own devices, and the wounds calloused on their own. 

I fully expected to see some growth over the summer months, but nothing – the top apical growth points even seemed to die back, and by fall, I was getting worried again that maybe she was just dying slowly. 

Winter arrived, and she didn’t shrivel or rot, just…definitely had sad apical growth points at the top of her arms. I began wondering if she would maybe make new arms? It’d ruin the nice columns she had already, but I really just wanted her to not die

And then it happened: after inspecting the plants after our February 2021 hail storm, I spotted growth! She’d put out a couple blooms, but not long after the storm, she was absolutely covered – and the glorious new growth and new arms were clearly visible. 

pilosocereus pachycladus

You can see new growth emerging from the top of the two columns, and multiple stems peeking out from the original base of the plant. You might have to squint through the weeds, but there’s at least 4 arms visible in the photo, and another 2 or 3 emerging from the back. 

My best guess is that the large, older cactus that she was took a while to recover both from the rude handling of her main body above ground, as well as to acclimate to the roots being in-ground. Since the root mass had little to no soil in it, and she was too big and unwieldy for Dan & I to really work soil into the root ball, I also suspect it took a while for the mud and dirt to seep inbetween the roots. 

The first couple months that Felicia was in the ground, she’d wobble when I weeded around her base. Not now, that’s for sure. 

My attempt at preventing weeds with the weed cloth and mulch, clearly, wasn’t 100% effective, but did help to keep the invasion at a level that is less severe than previous years, believe it or not. 

And that’s it! I’m pretty confident she’ll provide me with fruit and seeds again this year, particularly considering the massive quantity of blooms she’s making. Now that she’s in the ground, she has plenty of room for her roots and her branches to reach the impressive size that these can be known for. 

Follow along with me on Instagram! @TrexPlants 

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