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Snake Cactus (Nyctocereus serpentinus) 

The Snake Cactus is an erect-growing perennial cacti shrub with tall stems reaching 2-3 meters high. It produces both sexually (by seeds) and asexually (vegetatively). 

Nyctocereus serpentinus can be identified by its dark green cylindrical stems covered with white spines, which give it a fuzzy appearance. It also produces reddish to pale pink tubular flowers that open up at night to reveal fragrant, bright white petals. 

Nyctocereus serpentinus Scientific Classification

  • Domain: Eukaryota
  • Kingdom: Plantae 
  • Phylum: Tracheophyta
  • Subphylum: Angiospermae
  • Class: Magnoliopsida 
  • Order: Caryophyllales
  • Family: Cactaceae 
  • Genus: Nyctocereus 
  • Species: Nyctocereus serpentinus
  • Common Names: Serpent cactus, Cereus cactus, Crested night-blooming cereus, Moon cactus, Moonlight cactus, Junco, Junco espinoso, and slangkaktus. 

Nativity & Distribution

Snake cactus is native to Mexico and regions of the United States (Arizona and New Mexico). However, it can also be found in: 

  • South Africa
  • Australia
  • New South Wales

Physical Characteristics

Snake Cactus plant
Snake Cactus plant. Image: kens-nursery
  • Leaves: No leaves. It has several white spines, giving the plant a fuzzy appearance.
  • Fruits: Large oval fruits covered with soft spines. The fruits are green but turn red or yellow when ripe. 
  • Stems: dark green erect stems about 2-3 meters tall. 
  • Flowers: Its tubular, funnel-shaped pale pink flowers that open up at night to reveal fragrant, bright white petals. They are about 25cm long and 15cm wide. 
  • Roots: Tuberous roots 

Nyctocereus serpentinus is a perennial, tall-growing cacti that can reach up to 3m in height.

It can easily be identified by its dark-green, fuzzy-looking stems covered in white spines and the pink, tubular flowers that open up to reveal fragrant white petals at night. 

Snake cactus does not have leaves. Instead, it has modified succulent stems that perform the functions of the leaves. 

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The stems are long, slender, cylindrical, and dark green. They usually grow upright, although they sometimes trail across the ground or climb over other plants or structures like rocks.

The trailing behavior creates a snake-like appearance, hence the name. 

The stems are covered with several bristle-like, whitish spines arranged closely together, creating a woolly appearance. The spines vary in length from 1 to 3 cm. 

The white bright and pale pink petals bloom for one night only
The white bright and pale pink petals bloom for one night only. Image: ruthbancroftgarden.org

Nyctocereus serpentinus has funnel-shaped, pale pink (sometimes reddish) flowers that emerge at the edge of the stem.

Each flower is attached to the stem by a long tube with spines at the base, slightly hairy in the middle, and smooth at the top (where the flower tube begins). 

The flowers are long (25cm) and bloom into bright white petals (up to 15cm wide) at night. Their intoxicating fragrance attracts moths and bats for pollination.  

The flowers bloom between late summer and early fall and usually last for one night only. 

Nyctocereus serpentinus produces egg-shaped fruits (4-6cm long) covered by soft spines. They are green when unripe but turn a conspicuous yellow or red when ripe. 

The fruits have a reddish to-purple pulp that holds large, black seeds (about 5mm long). The seeds can be oval, flattened, or warped.  

Reproduction, Dispersal, & Life Cycle

  • Life Cycle: Perennial 
  • Seeds: Large, black seeds contained in the flesh of the fruit. 
  • Climate: Thrives in tropical regions that are warm and humid. 
  • Dispersal: Seeds are dispersed by animals. 
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Nyctocereus serpentinus can reproduce both sexually and asexually. In sexual reproduction, the fruits are eaten by birds and other animals (doves, pigeons, bats, rodents, etc.) and deposit the seeds in their droppings. 

The seeds have a hard coat, allowing them to survive harsh conditions, such as extreme temperatures and inadequate moisture. Therefore, they can remain dormant in the ground until they find favorable conditions for germination. 

In asexual reproduction, the pads (stem) of the snake plant on the ground can take root, producing new shoots. Pieces of the stem can be broken off from the main plant and spread by animals, water, footwear, vehicles, and farm machinery. 

They can also spread when the plant parts are cut and disposed of in the fields or garbage bins. 

Like the seeds, the stems of Nyctocereus serpentinus are hardy. Therefore, they can survive harsh conditions until the weather becomes favorable. 

Uses

Snake Cactus fruit
Snake Cactus fruit. Image: ruthbancroftgarden.tumblr
  1. The fruits are edible – can be eaten raw or used to make jams and puddings. 
  2. The fruits are a source of food for birds and other wildlife.
  3. It is cultivated as an ornamental plant due to its beautiful, night-blooming flowers.  

Impact on Farms and Environment

Nyctocereus serpentinus is an invasive, fast-growing weed that can spread quickly, taking over large land areas. It can also form thick, dense bushes that choke native plants and other useful vegetation. 

Sexual and asexual reproduction make controlling snake cactus infestations very difficult. In addition, it is hardy and can remain vigorous in harsh conditions that would cause other plants to wither and die.

Once it spreads to a new area, snake cactus interferes with several agricultural activities, such as livestock grazing or land tilling.  

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The spines that cover the stems of Nyctocereus serpentinus are sharp and can cause painful injuries to humans and animals, especially livestock. The weed is also noxious and can be poisonous to young kids and pets. 

Control

  • Natural Methods: physically digging out the plant, fire. 
  • Chemical Control:  Glyphosate, Triclopyr, Triclopyr + Picloram, Aminopyralid + Picloram + triclopyr, and Amitrole + Ammonium thiocyanate. 
  • Biological Control: Dactylopius tomentosus, a cactus-feeding insect. 

Nyctocereus serpentinus can be controlled naturally by digging it out from the ground. However, the entire plant, including the tubers, must be removed to ensure it doesn’t regrow. Care must also be taken when digging out snake plants to prevent injuries from the sharp spines. 

Once removed, the entire plant must be disposed of at an approved landfill or incinerated. You should not dump snake cactus as garden waste, compost it, or leave any part of the plant (including the fruit) lying around, as this will allow it to regrow. 

Mechanical control using farming machinery is not advised, as pieces of the stem can break down and fall into the ground, from where new shoots can emerge. Therefore, burning the plants to the ground is a better option for large infestations. 

Chemical control is another option for dealing with snake cactus infestation. You can use herbicides like Glyphosate, Triclopyr, Triclopyr + Picloram, Aminopyralid + Picloram + triclopyr, and Amitrole + Ammonium thiocyanate, which are applied to the stem or base of the plant. 

Biological control of Nyctocereus serpentinus is also possible. One of the top biological agents used to contain the plant is Dactylopius tomentosus, a cacti-eating insect that has proven very effective at controlling cacti weeds.