The orchid cactus is a gorgeous group of tree-growing cacti. The Epiphyllum (the botanical name) has broad, flat, leaflike stems scalloped on the edge, strung together by a woody midvein.
These jewels are the proud owners of some of the largest, most unbelievable flowers in the whole plant world.
The porcelain-petaled, saucer-size pond lily suffers by comparison.
Not An Orchid At All
Although the epiphyllum is called the “orchid cactus” it is not an orchid but a cactus.
These are the most majestic of hanging plants, easy to handle, and include a group of miniature or basket varieties.
There is even a series of compact, yet free-flowering hybrids for those with limited growing areas indoors or out.
Summer Shade Lovers
Like the summer-flowering tuberous begonia, these are “shade plants” only in hot climates – where they can spend the summer near a protective north wall or in the dappled shade from a tree.
Otherwise, they need sunlight in fall, winter, and spring, and shade only when summer sun becomes searing hot. They flower best when temperatures stay near 65 degrees, and when the air is humid.
Misting or spraying the stems, except when the plants are in bud or flower, both humidifies and cleans the leaves of clogging dust.
Repotting & Soils
The popular conception of cactus potting soil is not acceptable.
At home in the tropics, these are tree-dwellers where their roots feed on decaying organic matter and are largely exposed to the air.
If your plant is badly pot-bound move it to the next size pot rather than to a much larger one.
A light, porous, humus-rich mixture that will hold some moisture and yet will drain quickly. The soil should be coarse, not finely sifted; slightly acid; and for further aeration and purification, generously supplied with small bits of crushed charcoal.
Nitrogen-rich fertilizers are not recommended.
These cactus should not be overpotted, but slightly root-bound. When repotting is called for – with mature plants, no more often than every second year – have the plant, new pot and soil nearly dry.
Transplanting is usually done a month after flowering but do not transplant unless necessary.
Withhold water for three or four days after repotting, and water sparingly for the next three or four weeks.
Water & Feeding Requirements
In winter, when they rest, they need just enough water to keep the stems from shriveling.
The active growing season starts in early spring for most varieties.
The plants need constant moisture in the air and for the roots.
While growing they need water, good ventilation and protection from extreme heat and strong sun. Give the plants a slight drying off during dormancy but never let them become perfectly dry.
In February when growth begins again, start with mild but regular feedings of weak liquid foliar fertilizer solutions every two weeks during growth.
Epiphyllums do not have leaves, but just stems or branches which consist of two-edged or triangular structures along which the flowers appear. The chief difference in varieties is the color of bloom although the shape of branch and flower also varies.
Epiphyllum plants flower while young, beginning in February and many plants keep flowering into July. After blooming they make their autumn growth and then become dormant.
Epiphyllums enjoy moist air and some sun. After the buds are set the pots are best moved outdoors, if the weather is mild.
Experts tell us never to change conditions while the buds are forming. Many epiphyllums spend at least half their lives in a lathhouse or greenhouse.
In cold climates they should be treated to the conditions given the Christmas cactus – or to tender begonias and ferns. A large proportion of the epiphyllums which were blasted by the January freeze pulled through.
Grown From Seeds or Cutting
Ephiphyllum cactus species can be grown from seeds. All types can be propagated by long stem cuttings with a strong center stem – which are laid aside for a week or ten days until the cut end is hardened over.
Insert the cuttings up to one inch deep in coarse, dryish sand, in good light but not sun. When they are rooted and potted, hold back on water for several days.
Throughout the process, handle the cuttings with care; bruises or broken spots on stems or new roots give fungus rot a way to enter.
Two Classes of Growth Habit
To me there seem to be two general classes of these unusual plants, distinguished by their growth habit… one being upright and the other more sprawling and requiring support.
Epiphyllum Ackermannii, I got years ago with flattened stems (often incorrectly referred to as leaves) are triangular in shape and quite ugly until suddenly a sizable scarlet, trumpet, pops from every joint… a real thrill, to any plant lover.
The second class includes the real photogenic prima donnas. The fleshy stems – flat and scalloped along the edges; the new growth is generally reddish in color.
The plant is sprawling in habit and requires support to keep it from taking up too much space.
Flowers, 6 inches or more in diameter, drooping and curved like a pipe; petals are numerous, and in the center is a conspicuous cluster of stamens. Flower colors are indefinable shades of red and purple.
They resemble in form the night-blooming cereus (Epiplyllum oxypetalum and hybrids) but are usually larger, are day blooming and more lasting.
Cactus Varieties and Options
New varieties and hybrids of these basket jewels are introduced each year.
There are literally thousands of different orchid cacti available from specialists – among them, many of the original white, night-flowering species.
The best known is probably Epiphyllum oxypetalum, queen of the night, with graceful, long-tubed, chaste white flowers that perfume a summer evening. From this point on, genealogy is complicated.
Epiphyllums have been crossed with each other and with cacti in other genera to create today’s race of beautiful, day-flowering hybrids.
You can choose flowers of many shapes, in sizes up to ten inches across, and all colors except true blue.
One specialist’s catalog describes more than seventy-five varieties with white or pale-yellow flowers. And then there are reds, pinks, salmon, rosy-lavender, orange, amber, copper, purple, orchid and many blends and combinations.
On some the center has a crown like a passion flower or clematis plants; on others it looks like an airy spray or fountain. Petals come in all shapes, sizes, and arrangements.
Also available are cacti from several other genera – groups of species or hybrids – with similar growth, flowers, culture, and propagation:
Aporophyllum – A group with round stems, some of which can trail to six feet, promising to lengthen the flowering season.
Chiapsia nelsoni – Thinner stems, and lilac-pink flowers in early spring.
Disapora – Plants with slender, ribbed stems and two-inch carmine flowers of unusual form.
Disophyllum – New hybrids with tubular, vivid violet-red flowers and hanging three-foot stems.
Common Name: Orchid Cactus