Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: What’s the Difference?

fire stick plant in yard
© iStock.com/Page Light Studios

Written by August Croft

Published: September 9, 2022

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Given just how many colloquial names there are for plants these days, you may be wondering what the differences are between a pencil cactus vs fire stick. Are these plants indeed two separate species, or is this the same cactus plant? Is this plant even a cactus at all, or is it just called one because of its overall appearance?

In this article, we will address everything you need to know about the pencil cactus and the fire stick so that you can fully understand the differences between them, if there are any. We will go over what these plants look like as well as how they grow best in case you are interested in growing one in your own home or backyard. Let’s get started!

Comparing Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick
You can classify pencil cacti and fire stick plants under the same name, considering they are indeed the same plant.
Pencil CactusFire Stick
Plant ClassificationEuphorbia tirucalliEuphorbia tirucalli
DescriptionUnique succulent shrub ranging in size depending on whether it is planted outdoors or indoors. Reaches up to 30 feet tall outside and less than 10 feet tall inside. Stems and foliage are succulent in nature, roughly the same size and shape as pencils, but in a light green shade. Can produce small yellow flowers in the springtime, but maintains a twiggy appearance overallSame as pencil cactus, though typically earns the nickname fire stick in the fall and winter months, when it changes colors
UsesCommonly used as a low-maintenance houseplant or a large and impressive shrub when planted outdoors, but also needs some caution. Produces a potentially toxic substance in its sap, but this plant is also used medicinallySame as pencil cactus
Origin and Growing PreferencesNative to Africa and Asia; prefers well-draining and sandy soil. No need to worry about nutrients, and only needs watering on occasion in the winter. Likely only available as a houseplant, as it grows outdoors in hardiness zones 11-12 onlySame as pencil cactus
Name OriginsUnique succulent structure makes it look like pencils or twigs stuck together!This succulent shrub turns reddish orange in the fall and winter, making it look like sticks on fire!

Key Differences Between Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

If you are seeking a true fire stick type of pencil cactus, make sure to do your research and find a local nursery that can help you identify the variety that’s best for you!

©iStock.com/Page Light Studios

There are no real differences between a pencil cactus and a fire stick; these are both common names for the plant classified as Euphorbia tirucalli. However, the pencil cactus plant turns a vibrant reddish orange in the fall and winter, earning it the nickname of fire stick. It may also be called fire stick due to the toxic sap found within the pencil cactus, causing skin irritation to whoever touches it.

Let’s discuss the pencil cactus or fire stick in more detail now.

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: Classification

You can classify pencil cacti and fire stick plants under the same name, considering they are indeed the same plant. Known scientifically as Euphorbia tirucalli, the pencil cactus or fire stick is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family, a plant family with a variety of species and types found within it, primarily in tropical regions.

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: Description

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

Some fire stick varieties need plenty of hot sun to turn from green to red, but other pencil cactus varieties will accomplish this naturally.

©iStock.com/Vasin Hirunwiwatwong

It’s no wonder why the pencil cactus is called both the pencil cactus or the fire stick, depending on the season. Technically a shrub, the pencil cactus grows with succulent leaves and stems. These stems closely resemble pencils in both circumference and length, earning this plant its unique name. But where does the name fire stick come into play?

There are some varieties of pencil cactus that turn a vibrant orange or red, depending on the time of year as well as the type of sunlight and nutrients they are receiving. Some fire stick varieties need plenty of hot sun to turn from green to red, but other pencil cactus varieties will accomplish this naturally. If you are seeking a true fire stick type of pencil cactus, make sure to do your research and find a local nursery that can help you identify the variety that’s best for you!

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: Uses

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

The pencil cactus or fire stick produces a toxic sap that is poisonous to animals as well as people.

©iStock.com/Jack Tankard

The fire stick or pencil cactus is used most commonly as a houseplant, or a popular ornamental landscaping plant. Depending on where you plant this particular succulent shrub, it can reach heights of up to 30 feet, making it impressive when planted outdoors. However, the pencil cactus or fire stick produces a toxic sap that is poisonous to animals as well as people. It can cause severe skin irritation, which may also give it the name of fire stick. However, pencil cacti are also used medicinally in other parts of the world, making it a plant that is more than meets the eye! 

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: Origin and How to Grow

Native to Africa and Asia, the pencil cactus thrives in locations with low nutrient soil and plenty of sunshine. In fact, this plant grows best in hardiness zones 10 or 11, making it difficult to grow outdoors If you experience any sort of frost or cold winter. That’s why many people choose to grow the fire stick or pencil cactus as an indoor houseplant. Keep in mind that this particular succulent shrub grows much faster than others, so you may need to repot it often! 

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick: Name Origins

Pencil Cactus vs Fire Stick

The fire stick or pencil cactus is used most commonly as a houseplant, or a popular ornamental landscaping plant.

©iStock.com/skymoon13

The only real difference between a pencil cactus and a fire stick is the colloquial name in which they are called. You have likely already guessed that the pencil cactus is called a pencil cactus based on its unique structure, with the stems looking strikingly similar to the average pencil. However, the name of “fire stick” can also be attributed to this appearance, but only in the fall and winter when the sticks transform from green to a vibrant red!


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About the Author

August Croft is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on astrology, symbolism, and gardening. August has been writing a variety of content for over 4 years and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Theater from Southern Oregon University, which they earned in 2014. They are currently working toward a professional certification in astrology and chart reading. A resident of Oregon, August enjoys playwriting, craft beer, and cooking seasonal recipes for their friends and high school sweetheart.

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