By Bruce Brethauer
Cissus quadrangularis is an unusual succulent member of the grape family, with vining 4 angled stems, with conspicuous constrictions at the nodes. The stem segments have the appearance of curious strings of rectangular sausages. Smaller plants typically produce smallish segments to about 1/2 in wide and several inches long, with branching stems growing to several feet in length. Older, more established plants will eventually produce stem segments to over 1 inch in diameter, and (in the largest plants which I have seen to date) to about a foot in length. The vines of established plants scramble on the ground and climb vegetation, and will eventually spread to at least several yards, and possibly to over 20 feet. Tendrils, adventitious roots, and ephemeral leaves are produced at the nodes. Mature plants will produce racemes of very small yellowish green flowers, followed by small inedible fruits which ripen to a red coloration.
This species is native to southern Asia, Malaysia, and tropical Africa, and has been introduced into Brazil, and into the southern United States. Preparations of the stems have been utilized in traditional medicine in India for the treatment of bone fractures, and injuries to tendons and ligaments. It has also been utilized as a treatment for the symptoms of malaria in traditional treatments in Africa. In recent studies (mostly small scale, and utilizing animal subjects), it has shown some promise in the treatment of bone fractures, joint pain, and in weight reduction. Preparations of Cissus quadrangularis and its derivatives are frequently promoted online for these and other conditions. (Please note that I am not promoting the medicinal use of this plant - many of the succulent members of the greater grape family contain dangerous levels of oxalic acid and other toxins in their fruits and tissues: the raw herb may not be safe for consumption. DO NOT try to self-medicate from a plant in your own collection - only use approved preparations from trustworthy sources).
This species has a huge distribution, and on-line photographs of this species reveal that there is a good degree of variation in the leaves and stems of this plant. Differences may be the result of regional variation, or may also be due to differences in maturity or environment. There are also several additional plants which are quite similar to this species, and may in fact have been reclassified as subspecies or varieties of C. quadrangularis in recent years: Cissus hamaderohensis, the so-called "tape worm grape", with 4 sided stem segments which are flattened in one plane, C. quinquangularis, with five sided segments, and C. cactiformis, with raised wavy margins along the edges of the sides of its segments. I believe that the pictured plant is most similar to C. cactiformis, but this name is largely regarded as synonymous with C. quadrangularis, or may be regarded as a sub-species or variety of this species. While all of these plants have a similar appearance and identical requirements to C. quadrangularis, I do not know if they all share similar medicinal properties.
Cissus quadrangularis is an unusual and attractive plant which is both easy to grow, and fast growing. While most people who grow this plant are drawn to the curious geometric shapes of its stems, established plants make attractive, low maintenance house plants. Plants probably show best with their stems cascading from a hanging baskets, or when trained to grow on a trellis or similar support. One of the most magnificent plants I have seen in cultivation (some years ago at the Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park Cincinnati) featured a plant which scrambled over and climbed the Nopales and other large cacti in their collection: this plant approached the ultimate size and spread for this species and gave a good impression of what plants in habitat may look like. This species responds very well to my basic guidelines on growing succulents. It benefits from being moved outdoors in summer to experience warmer temperatures, and increased daylight. Given warm temperatures, bright sunlight, evenly moist soils, and occasional fertilization, this plant will produce remarkable growth: the pictured plant began the season as a small rooted cutting with 3 small segments; by mid autumn, it had grown to its present size, with multiple branches and over 30 new segments - a ten fold increase! My plant is still fairly small, and lacks the fullness and character of an older, more mature plant. Given another year of growth, it will probably make an impressive hanging basket plant. Once it has reached its desired size, this species can be maintained by pruning off any unwanted growth. Pruning will encourage the production of numerous side branches which will give this plant a fuller, more lush appearance. Keep in mind that this plant produces tendrils which helps this plant to secure a foothold onto the plants and stones which it climbs over. If you do not want this plant to be come firmly attached to the plants or other objects in its growing space - keep it set apart from them. This plant really needs good light for best growth: in my opinion, it is not really suitable for dimly lit interiors, and should always be given the brightest window in the house, although it will tolerate dimmer spaces through its winter dormancy. It is also my experience that this plant thrives under very warm conditions - somewhere in the range of the mid 80's to the mid 90's is probably best. Even though my plant has demonstrated that it will survive temperatures down to practically freezing, it is probably best to maintain it above 50 degrees Fahrenheit during its winter dormancy.
It is easy to propagate additional plants by rooting cuttings. I have heard that when taking cuttings, it is best to twist off the stem segments rather than to cut them. There is really no minimum size for a cutting to root - a section of stem with several segments is probably best, but this plant can be propagated from a single small segment. Allow the cuttings several days to about 2 weeks to heal and callus before planting in a sterilized potting medium. Keep this medium barely moist, and position the potted cuttings in a warm site where they receive very bright but diffuse sunlight. Cuttings which are healthy, and in growth when they were taken should root readily; cuttings taken when the plant was dormant or stressed will take longer, sometimes much longer to establish roots. Plants can also be propagated from seed harvested from the fruits of this plant, but flowers and fruits will only set on established plants - so it may be several years before a plant has matured sufficiently to produce its first flowers. I have no experience in raising this plant from seed.
The availability of this plant has changed over the years: In years past, it was occasionally possible to locate small rooted cuts of this species in the cactus selection at nurseries - and while it is still offered through mail order catalogs and online, I have not encountered it at any of the area big box nurseries in recent years. Due to its uses in herbal treatments, plants frequently command somewhat inflated prices today from some online sources, although it is generally offered at very reasonable prices from mail order plant stores. Ken Frieling of the Glasshouse Works has commented that in some years, he has had difficulty propagating plants in sufficient numbers to supply recent demand for plants of this species. Always look or ask for it at the sales of regional Cactus and Succulent Societies; there is almost always a member or two who grows it.
The Glasshouse Works