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What's that plant? A trailing cactus called lepismium

February 23, 2010 | 10:17 am

Baldwin_LepismiumCruciforme The name is Lepismium cruciforme, and you can be mean to it. This trailing cactus, which grows on trees in jungles of Argentina and Brazil, is olive green under ideal growing conditions but blushes magenta when stressed. Give it more heat or cold, less water or fewer nutrients, and you'll get that beautiful hue.

Grow lepismium in a flat-backed pot against a light-colored wall to show off the plant's striking color and spider-like explosion of scalloped leaves. Or use it as a cascading element of a potted composition with other succulents. Regular potting soil is fine as long as it drains well.

Pamper lepismium during spring and fall by keeping soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Give it dappled shade and warm but not hot temperatures, preferably under 80 degrees. It will want regular water and occasional doses of dilute fertilizer. Then stress the plant in winter and summer to encourage it to redden. Lepismium is not frost-hardy and won't tolerate desert heat, but it thrives in coastal gardens. Mist it occasionally, year-round, unless you live where humidity is high.

Over time, stems may reach 4 feet -- sometimes longer. Tufts of white spines sparkle along fleshy leaves that produce dime-sized white flowers, followed by bead-like seed capsules. In its natural habitat, the plant is endangered. But considering its beauty, you can expect lepismium to become more common in nurseries, especially because it's easy to propagate from cuttings.

Some potential sources: California Nursery Specialties' "cactus ranch" in Reseda; California Cactus Center in Pasadena; the Plant Man nursery in San Diego, (619) 297-0077 (on back order); and the mail-order operation Tropical Treasures, where the plant is sold under the name Rhipsalis cruciforme.

-- Debra Lee Baldwin

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Photo: Lepismium cruciforme in a potted design by R.C. Cohen of Newport Beach. Credit: Debra Lee Baldwin

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