Help! My Cactus Is Dying

I don’t always know why that happens, but it has happened to plenty of my cacti, too. Too much moisture, too little heat or light–who knows? If you do nothing, your beautiful plant soon will be gone. Here’s something you can try, but with absolutely no guarantee–and not much hope–that it will work.


  • A sterilized pot, and clean, fresh soil.
  • A half-dozen plastic (preferably) or wooden toothpicks.
  • Enough newspaper or brown paper or whatever to make several layers, about 18″ square.
  • A pair of large-mouthed tongs–more like the ones used for handling charcoal briquettes than the little ones used in the kitchen. They should be able to spread wider than the diameter of the cactus.
  • Some small tool with which to scrape. If you can find the butter knife from a child’s set of doll dishes, it would be perfect. A popsicle stick will do pretty well, too.
  • 2 or 3 very sharp knives, long enough to span the entire diameter of your cactus
  • A bowl of hot, soapy water to which you’ve added some bleach, and a few clean cloths.
  • A waste basket or trash can.

Fill the new pot with dry or only faintly damp soil up to the rim of the pot, and tap the pot a few times to settle the soil. Do not do this anywhere near your cactus. Don’t water it yet. Set it aside.

Spread all of the paper layers where you’ll be able to work comfortably, perhaps on your kitchen counter. Set the pot down nearby. Carefully spread the tongs around the base of the plant, then lift upward on the cactus very gently. If the “disease” or whatever is as advanced as I suspect, it may lift fairly easily, because the whole base of the plant will have collapsed. But be gentle; if it doesn’t lift, skip A and go on to B.

A. If the plant lifts away from the pot, set it on its side on the paper. Try not to get the tongs anywhere near the innards fof the plant. The “skin” and needles around the base of as much of the plant as lifted away from its base should appear a bit like a shell, with much gooey, tan, somewhat smelly stuff inside, where whatever caused all the damage has killed tissue.

Using the tongs very gently to steady the plant, gently scrape away as much of the gooey stuff as possible until you reach firm tissue. Sadly, sometimes there isn’t any, in which case you have lost. But, let’s hope that part of the plant still is firm and healthy. When you reach it, you will know how advanced the “disease” has become.

Lift the plant and remove the paper layer with the goo on it, and immediately drop that into the trash. Set the plant down on a clean sheet.

Now, carefully, but firmly, start slicing horizontally across the plant from the bottom edge, looking for clean tissue. If your first slice doesn’t reveal clean, pale green tissue–it looks a bit like the flesh of a melon–stop and clean the knife thoroughly, or pick up a clean one, to make the next slice, so you will not contaminate the healthy tissue. Also, remove the paper with the material you sliced away, and work on a clean sheet. Make fairly thin slices, using a clean knife for each slice and working on a clean piece of paper, so you won’t remove any more tissue than absolutely necessary. Once you have exposed only clean tissue, make one last slice to be certain that none of the diseased tissue has come into contact with the newly-exposed healthy tissue.

B. If the plant doesn’t easily lift, then lay the pot on its side on the paper. Use a bread-and-butter knife to run around the edge of the pot and loosen the rootball. Try to remove the rootball without knocking soil onto the plant. (Soil will both obscure your view of the plant and spread whatever soil-borne agent is making the plant sick.) Once the plant is free of the pot, gently lift it with the tongs and tap away the soil until the entire root system is exposed. Remove the paper and soil to the trash immediately, and work on a clean piece of paper.

Lay the plant on the clean paper on its side, and examine it thoroughly, looking for soft spots or discoloration. Its roots should be somewhat fleshy and feel “live”, not wiry and dessicated. The “skin” of the cactus should be uniformly green and feel firm to gentle pressure. Check especially carefully the area where the needles have fallen off, to be certain that the flesh beneath the “skin” is firm.

Carefully, using a clean knife for each cut, and working on one clean sheet of paper after another, remove any parts of the plant that do not seem healthy. Make firm, smooth cuts, and don’t leave any gouges or hollows, until all that remains is firm, any exposed flesh is green, and any roots are “live”.

C. What you will have left is, hopefully, healthy and uncontaminated, even if severely truncated. Now any exposed flesh–the green, melon-like inner tissue of the cactus–must be given time to callus, or form a light tan, papery “scab”.

If there are no roots, simply lay the plant on its side in the new pot, on top of some scattered toothpicks to keep soil out of the needles and all of the exposed flesh, and wait for the callus to form.

If there are roots, lay the plant on a few toothpicks on the surface of the pot of fresh soil so any exposed flesh is not touching soil, then carefully spoon away a little soil, and very careflully, add a small amount of water to the shallow hollow you’ve made, spread the roots, then cover them with the soil you’ve removed. Hoepfully, the roots will move down into the soil, seeking dampness, but the body of the cactus, and particularly the exposed flesh, will stay dry.

Now the trick is to provide plenty of heat and light. If your plant was thriving where you had placed it before it got sick, clean that area throughly, in hopes of removing any of whatever might be lurking there that made it sick, and put the pot with the surving portion back there to recover.

Callusing make take several months. If weather is warm and dry where you are, or when it again becomes that way, set the pot outdoors where it will receive early morning and late afternoon sun and heat, not the super-hot, burning noontime sun. Keep it out of rain until the callus is well-formed.

If a callus forms, the plant eventually can be uprighted on the soil and will make new roots and offsets. The offsets then can be separated from the original plant, allowed to callus in their turn, then potted up. Eventually you may again have a pretty plant, but the whole process can take quite a long time. There’s no satisfaction like having saved a favorite plant, but some people contemplate with dismay such a long wait with no guarantee of success, and give up.

I’ve done both, depending upon how badly I wanted to save a particular specimen. It is work, and does take a long time, but I’ve saved several pets by trying, and they lived to give me many years of pleasure.

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.

One Comment:

  • Vale: This is good to know! I had a small cactus set up and I’m not sure what happened, but they all started to rot and get moldy. I ended up putting them outside and watering them much, much less and now they are doing better, but I threw a few away (I didn’t realize I could have rescued them!).

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