Unidentified Brain Succulent

A reader named Millie from California sent a photo of this wonderful succulent. Along with the following question.

This succulent has very tight 1/2″ leaves, that wrap around each other. There are very small spikes on the end of the leaves. I call it my brain succulent. I’d like to enter it in the fair, but I need a name. I bought this at either a home improvement store or maybe even a 99c store, and it has grown from a few inches to over 7″ wide. Any help with the name would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Brain Succulent

Have you ever wondered what color a zombie’s brains might be? 

If you’ve accidentally come across a brain succulent in the desert at night, you could be forgive for wondering. But, if you’re looking for fun new plants to add to your Halloween decorations, or to round of a xeriscape garden, brain succulents might be just the plant for you! 

These interesting little succulents, mammillaria elongata cristata are a classic example of brain succulents. 

How Do You Get Brain Cacti?

Did you know that brain succulents normally grow straight up? 

That’s because the growth patterns that cause a succulent to grow in a brain pattern naturally a pretty rare. 

There are only two ways to turn a mammillaria elongata succulent into a mammillaria elongata cristata, or brain plant. 

The first option happens most often. Early in the growth and development of a mammillaria elongata, if the growth tip, or center of growth, is damaged, the plant work to repair itself like normal. However, in this case, the brain cactus will actually overcompensate for the damage. Instead of growing uniform straight stems as normal, the area around the damage will overproduce new cactus cells. 

The result? 

Lovely curled and kinked stems that look just like the folds in a healthy human brain! 

The other option is a mutation that causes the same growth pattern, either in part or all of the brain cactus. 

However, the mutation that causes this variant is pretty rare. Even in central Mexico, where the plants are native, most of the brain cactus you see are the result of damage. 

That means that brain cacti are a rare form of the mammillaria elongata cactus, rather than a separate cultivar. 

It also means that, unlike regular mammillaria elongata, cristata cactus are pretty rare. If you have one in your collection you’ve really got something special! 

Cultivation Of Brain Cactus

There are a few challenges that come with growing brain cactus in normal cultivation practices. 

For one thing, unless you have a succulent that has a reproduceable mutation, meaning that you can clone the plant and get the same growth patter, you need to learn how to carefully damage the center of growth without killing the plant. 

Some nurseries do know how to do that, which is why some plant retailers like Succulent City in Chicago have them more reliably than others. 

You can also sometimes find brain cactus from home-growers that sell the baby plants on Etsy or other retailers. However, those retailers are only so reliable. 

If you do happen to get a mutated plant and notice that you can reliably grow brain cactus at home, we recommend getting a skull planter and starting your own business! 

There is a lot of demand for this houseplant, especially in those novelty skull planters, and they are big sellers around Halloween! 

As a note though, if you are ordering brain cactus online, be wary of free shipping offers unless the seller has high shipping success rates. 

How To Grow And Care For Brain Cactus

Another big challenge for nurseries that want to grow and sell brain cactus are the difficulties that come with this growth pattern. 

If you want to keep a brain cactus, you should be prepared for a bit of a challenge. 

Like all cactus and succulents, brain cactus are native to arid regions, in this case Central Mexico. That means that they need a dry place to grow, with little humidity and warm temperatures. 

If a brain cactus gets too cold, it’s likely to go into hibernation. That stops the growth of the plant, and means that it’s going to survive off stored resources with a slowed metabolism. You want to avoid accidentally causing your brain cactus to go into hibernation whenever possible, because it can be difficult to bring them out of hibernation. 

It’s also important to think about how you’re going to water your brain cactus. 

These cactus grow in a big clump, but they aren’t any more water and moisture-tolerant than any other cactus. 

If you get too much water in the folds in the plant, it can easily cause rot and other problems. You could also accidentally create soft spots in the plant, which make it more vulnerable to pests and parasites. 

You also shouldn’t get too much water in the soil under the plant, especially small plants. These cacti are used to growing in rocky outcroppings, crevasses, and other challenging environments. 

Normal growth is challenging for these cacti, and they’ve evolved to thrive in spare conditions, occasionally splitting off babies from a thriving parent plant, and their spines, from the finest spines to the thickest, to keep potential predators away since they have slow growth. Even small plants have hairy spines that can accidentally trap water. 

So, neither the above or below ground portions of these cacti do well in excess water. Root rot is a common problem for brain cactus houseplants. 

The best way to care for these succulents is infrequent small watering, minimal fertilization, and thinner sandy or rocky soil. 

Most succulent potted plant mixes will work, but you can improve the mix by adding a little pumice or perlite to improve drainage, absorb excess water, and give the roots something to grip. 

Like most succulents, you don’t want to repot brain plants very often since they aren’t very tolerant to handling or changing conditions. If you do need to repot or handle your brain cactus though, we highly recommend using gloves. Even a very small plant can do some damage if you handle it without protection. 

For the best growth, you want to place your brain cactus in a succulent dish, and put it under a grow light or near your brightest window. 

For outdoor cacti, try to get an outdoor specimen that’s always been grown outside. You should have hot weather, lots of sun, and a short drenching rainy season. Those weather conditions will replicate the natural growth conditions for this fascinating plant. 

Common Pests

Pests aren’t very common in a healthy brain plant, and can be difficult to address. However, spider mites and gnats both seem to be common on these succulents. A light pesticide spray should take care of them. 

Worms can be more challenging, but adding more perlite, pumice, or sand to your soil mixture should help keep worms away from the plant. 

There you have it! More information about the curious brain cactus, how they grow and form, and how to take care of them if you’re lucky enough to find one!