Epiphyllum is a genus of tropical succulents often referred to as orchid cacti or climbing cacti. There are over a dozen species and many associated hybrids of varying shapes and sizes. They usually have long, flat, non-spiny, and trailing stems. With the right care, they showcase bright, large, fragrant, and night-blooming flowers in the spring or summer. In the wild, these mostly epiphytic plants grow on branches or trunks of trees rather than developing roots in the ground. They absorb the moisture and nutrients they need from the humid environment around them.
In a garden landscape, the trailing stems of orchid cacti look good in hanging baskets. Despite their common name, they don't like full sun and dry air like normal cacti species. Epiphyllums do best in warm, humid, and shady spots that replicate their tropical forest natural habitat. This makes them a good choice as an easy-to-grow, slow-growing bathroom plant.
|Common Name||Orchid cacti, climbing cacti, leaf cactus|
|Botanical Name||Epiphyllum Spp.|
|Plant Type||Evergreen, cactus|
|Mature Size||2 to 10 ft. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Partial sun|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Flower Color||Red, white, orange, yellow, pink, purple|
|Hardiness Zones||10 - 11, USA|
|Native Area||Central and South America|
Orchid Cacti Care
Unless you can offer your epiphyllums mild temperatures, dappled sunlight, humidity, and porous potting mix, then it's best to stick with growing them indoors. They like similar conditions to orchids and bromeliads. Grown outdoors, they should have protection from strong winds and ample air circulation.
Orchid cacti thrive in filtered sunlight, which mimic the light conditions they receive in their natural tropical forest habitat. A few hours of full morning sun should be fine, but keep them out of full midday sun to avoid scorching or white scabbing. Outdoors, growing in a hanging basket in the shade of a tree works well.
Don't position your epiphyllum in a room where lights are kept on for long periods after sundown, as this can impact flowering the following year.
If your plant is getting too much light, it can cause wilted growth and yellowing. Leggy, delicate growth can be a result of too little light.
Your epiphyllum shouldn't be grown directly in the ground. Normal soil is overly compact and the roots won't cope which will result in the death of the plant. Stick with a loose, fast-draining potting mix with additional light and porous materials to promote drainage. An azalea mix with added perlite, bark, cocoa chips, or pumice can work well.
Getting the balance right with water is the key to successful growth. Unlike their traditional cacti relatives, orchid cacti need regular watering during the growing season. The potting mix should be moist but not soggy. Ideally, you want the top 1/3 of the potting mix to dry out before rewatering. In winter, reduce watering and move the plant to a cooler location. This will help produce healthy, large flowers the next season. Using distilled or filtered water instead of tap water is beneficial for these sensitive plants.
Branch dieback or rust spotting can be an issue if your soil is too wet, especially when temperatures are on the low side. If this becomes a problem, remove the diseased branches, repot in a dry and fast-draining mix, and be more conservative with your watering.
Temperature and Humidity
If grown outdoors, it's best to grow epiphyllum in pots or hanging baskets, so you can move these tender plants indoors when the temperatures drop. They won't survive in frosty conditions or when temperatures drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you keep your orchid cactus indoors, it might need a different location in the winter from during the growing season. From spring to autumn, temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit are best, and a cooler place that still provides filtered light is ideal in the winter. Temperatures from around 50 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal and away from radiators and cold draughts. When the buds of the blooms appear, move to the warmer location again.
Epiphyllums need higher humidity to thrive. Standing on a tray of wet gravel (making sure the plant's roots aren't absorbing the water), misting the stems, or using a humidifier can be helpful.
Conservatively fertilizing your epiphyllum a couple of times a year is beneficial for encouraging strong growth and bud stimulation. However, because they grow naturally in an environment with low nutrient levels, be careful not to overfeed. A balanced, slow-release type that isn't too high in nitrogen works well (i.e., not above 10%). A 2-10-10 application in early spring can help to encourage healthy blooms.
Types of Orchid Cacti
There are less than 20 true epiphyllum species, but thousands of hybrid varieties that come with a wide range of different sizes, shapes, growing habits and bloom colors. Some hobbyist favorites include:
- Queen of the Night (Epiphyllum oxypetalum): This popular species is known for their rare, large, and fragrant flowers that bloom at night. The flower's funnel shape gives the plant its other common name—the Dutchman's pipe cactus.
- Climbing cactus (Epiphyllum phyllanthus): If you want a smaller epi, this stout species could be for you. The flowers might be smaller than some varieties, but the beautiful pink tinge in the centre is eye-catching.
- Epiphyllum 'Wendy': This epi hybrid has large pink flowers that bloom during the day rather than at night. However, they don't have the fragrance of true epiphyllum species.
Slow-growing, epiphyllum can grow large and their trailing stems can get heavy. Cut the stems to a shorter length if you don't want to support them with unsightly canes or twine. Use the cuttings to propagate new plants. New shoots usually grow behind the cut. If you cut numerous stems, your plant won't need as much water.
Propagating by stem cuttings is the quickest and easiest way to produce new epiphyllum. It also means your plant will be true to type. If you're lucky, they might even flower the following year. Follow these suggestions for rooting your stem cuttings:
- Select healthy stem sections that are around 9 inches in length (if your cutting isn't long enough, it can take longer to flower)
- Allow the wound to dry and fully callus (harden)—this takes at least a week and is important to prevent rot.
- Put the cutting vertically into a fast-draining cactus potting mix with additional pumice or perlite. Insert at least the bottom 1.5 to 2 inches of the stem.
- Leave in a warm, dappled light position and don't select a pot that is too large (epis like to be a little rootbound).
- Start with just misting the cutting. Then, water once roots begin to form and make sure the potting mix remains damp (not soggy). Keep it at a temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- It should take around a month to six weeks for the cutting to root.
How to Grow Orchid Cacti From Seed
Epiphyllum seeds aren't easy to source commercially, and there's no guarantee they will grow true to type. Producing your own seeds means you'll have to pollinate the flowers by hand, and you'll need two simultaneously flowering male and female plants. These difficulties, plus the fact that it can take at least four years for the plants to flower, mean propagating from cutting is much easier and more common.
Potting and Repotting Epiphyllum
To increase the chances of your epiphyllum flowering, you'll want to make sure you don't opt for too big a container or hanging basket. These plants like to be relatively root-bound and don't need repotting often—it's unlikely you'll need to repot more than once every six to seven years. When you repot, do it after they have flowered to minimize root disturbance. Selecting a heavy container will help to keep the plant stable as the trailing stems grow.
Serious pests and diseases aren't something that often bothers epiphyllums. However, keep an eye out for pesky mealybugs, aphids, fungus gnats, and red spider mites. Slugs and snails also love the thick stems of these plants, but hanging them in elevated baskets outside can help to minimize this problem.
How to Get Orchid Cacti to Bloom
This genus is famous for its large, fragrant flowers. Because of the wide variety of cultivars and hybrids, you have many bloom colors, shapes, and sizes to choose from. However, most of the main species only produce short-lived, white flowers that bloom at night. Flowers range from 1 to 12 inches in size and can bloom from just one night to a week. The smaller flowers tend to last longer. Depending on the variety, starting flowering times can vary from April to July. Occasionally, off-season blooming occurs in early spring and fall.
Moving your indoor epiphyllum to a cooler winter location and reducing water while never letting the plant completely dry out greatly increases the chance of a successful bloom the following season. Wait for the flower buds to form and then return the plant to its normal, warmer location.
How long can orchid cacti live?
Epiphyllum are long-lived and can provide interest for many years with the right growing conditions. Just be careful with your watering schedule, sunlight, and temperatures.
What plants are similar to epiphyllum?
If you're looking for a plant that resembles epiphyllum and has similar growing requirements, you can try a holiday cactus (Schlumbergera). These succulents like similar warm, humid, and moist conditions with filtered sunlight. Schlumbergera, however, are faster-growing and not as large as many epi species, and they bloom in the fall and winter.
Is the fruit of epiphyllum edible?
The small fruit of many epiphyllum species is edible. It's said to be similar to that of the pitahaya (dragon fruit), a closely-related plant.