The orchid cacti (or Epiphyllum) are a stunning group of flowering cactus plants native to the lush tropical forests of Central and South America. In the wild, they typically don’t root in the soil; instead, they grow on the sides of trees, branches, or even rocks. Any required nutrients come from their tropical home’s dense, humid air.
The Epiphyllum genus boasts several species, color variations, and hybrids, but they’re all famed for their striking appearance. The long, reaching stems of the orchid cactus form a cascade of stems, making them the perfect plant for hanging baskets. While it’s difficult to replicate their natural forest environment as a home gardener, it is entirely possible to successfully grow, propagate, and nurture the orchid cactus indoors.
|Common Name||Orchid cacti|
|Scientific Name||Epiphyllum spp|
|Native Zone(s)||Central America, South America|
|Sun/Light Requirements||Indirect light, dappled sunlight, no direct light|
|Soil||Well-draining, slightly acidic|
|Flowering Season||February – July|
|Color Varieties||Orange, pink, yellow, white, red|
|Size||2ft. to 10ft. long stems / 2-inch to 12-inch flowers|
|Hardiness Zone||USDA zones 10 and 11|
One of the most notable things about the orchid cactus’ appearance is its breathtaking waterfall of green stems. They’re leafless, as the orchid cactus is a type of succulent, and the stems are broad, flat, and often serrated like many other succulent varieties. A mature, fully-grown plant can be up to ten feet long.
Depending on the species, the orchid cactus has a whole rainbow of flower options. The flowers are typically cup-like and range from four to right inches, although it’s possible to get a particularly dramatic plant showing off even larger blossoms. They’re fragrant and showy and tend to bloom as early as February through July. The most common colors for orchid cactus flowers are:
An orchid cactus is a cactus, of course, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it has the same care requirements. While many cactus varieties thrive in hot, direct sun, the orchid cactus doesn’t do well in direct light. Remember – its native habitat is the sun-dappled and moist tropical forest.
Indirect light is best for the orchid cactus. If you have your basket situated outside, it’s safe to give it a few hours of direct light in the cooler morning sun, but move it elsewhere by midday. It will do best in a shadier spot where it’s not at risk of being scorched. Hang your basket beneath a tree or somewhere with ample shade and a hint of sun.
Even if you’re keeping your plant indoors, make sure it isn’t constantly exposed to light. For example, if you spend a lot of time in the living room and constantly have the lights on after dark, that room isn’t the best home for your orchid cactus.
There are a few easy ways to tell if your orchid cactus is receiving too much light. Look for signs of yellowing or wilting on the stems and note if new growths seem delicate or frail. Too much light may also prevent the plant from flowering.
These plants are native to very humid environments, so you’ll need to replicate those conditions for successful care. Aim for 50% humidity for optimal growing conditions. If your humidity is low, you can mist the plant with water or group it together with others to stabilize the humidity levels.
They need regular watering, especially during the growing season, but don’t leave the soil soggy. Orchid cacti have similar care requirements to bromeliads, so opt for well-draining soil. The key to their happiness is moisture, not necessarily keeping them wet.
If you’re just getting the hang of their care, it’s safer to underwater than overwater, as it’s difficult to get rot under control once it sets in. Once the top third of the soil is dry, it’s time to water them again. Once the growing season ends, you can reduce the amount of watering and take a longer break in the winter.
Because orchid cacti don’t root or grow in soil naturally, don’t pot them in something dense and heavy. Opt for something light, airy, and fast-draining. In nature, they feed off decaying organic matter, so keep that in mind as you choose your soil mixture. Peat moss and perlite are both excellent options to mix in. They do best in slightly acidic soil, too, so lean in that direction as you prepare your mix.
Fertilizer helps encourage flowering, but take care not to use a fertilizer too high in nitrogen. A 10-10-10 fertilizer is best during the growing period. During winter, let the plant rest and take a step back from fertilizing.
These plants do not do well in cold temperatures. If you’re growing your orchid cactus outdoors, bring them in as temperatures approach freezing (32°F). During the growing season, temperatures ranging from 65°F-75°F are ideal. If you want a spectacular flowering season, cool them off during winter and house them somewhere with temps closer to 55°F.
The orchid cactus doesn’t grow quickly, so it doesn’t require frequent maintenance or pruning. However, the sheer weight of the long stems makes it necessary, sometimes. If you do need to prune, get a clean, sharp pair of sheers and cut the stems. Take care not to tear them, as stem cuttings are great for propagation.
Speaking of propagation, orchid cacti are delightfully easy to propagate from cuttings, so make sure you hang onto them. To successfully propagate an orchid cactus, follow these tips.
- Cutting to Size – Ideally, take a healthy cutting between four to nine inches. Shorter cuttings may work, but they’ll take longer to grow to the flowering stage.
- Dry It – Don’t put the cutting into the soil right away. Instead, set it aside to dry for a few days until the end that’s been cut feels dry or hardened. This takes a while (a week or longer). Doing it too soon risks rot.
- Place in Soil – Get moist, well-draining soil and place the cutting upright into it. Don’t get an oversized pot. The orchid cactus does best if it’s a bit rootbound, so don’t give it too much space.
- Wait – Leave your potted cutting in indirect light and a warm room and mist it with water occasionally. In about a month (sometimes longer) it will take root and you’ll have a new orchid cactus to tend to!
While it’s possible to grow orchid cacti from seeds, obtaining the seeds is difficult. They’re hard to buy, and producing your own seeds involves hand-pollinating and having a male and female plant flowering at the same time. Needless to say, it’s a lot trickier than propagating new plants from cuttings.
Orchid cacti prefer smaller spaces and being slightly rootbound, so don’t select something oversized when it’s time to repot. Don’t repot during the flowering season or too frequently, either. In all likelihood, you can go anywhere from three to seven years without needing to repot. When the time comes, just go one size up.
Pests and Insects
Since the orchid cactus doesn’t sit in wet, soggy soil, it isn’t as prone to pests as some other plants. It doesn’t escape them entirely, though. Keep an eye out for
- Spider mites
- Fungus gnats
Many common pests can be handled with neem oil, which is safe to use on your orchid cactus. If your plant is looking sickly, don’t waste any time checking for the tell-tale signs of pests.
Popular Varieties of Epiphyllum
There are many marvelous varieties of orchid cactus out there, but there are a few varieties that are well-known (for good reason). They show the range of the Epiphyllum genus. They all have one thing in common, though – a flair for the dramatic.
Queen of the Night
Epiphyllum oxypetalum, commonly known as the Queen of the Night, is the most well-known species of orchid cactus. Its sweet, white flowers bloom for a single summer night before fading. They only open a single time, but the large, fragrant blossoms are worth the wait if you can catch it in the act.
Red Orchid Cactus
Disocactus ackermannii, often referred to as the red orchid cactus, is a striking variety. Not only are its flowers a gorgeous red, but healthy plants have a reddish tint on their stems, too. The flowers are more funnel-shaped than some other varieties and come in a range of red hues.
Epiphyllum phyllanthus, or the climbing cactus, can grow up to ten feet long! It has smaller flowers than many other orchid cacti, though, and its white blooms are only around two inches wide. They’re exceptionally fragrant and, like the Queen of the Night, only bloom for a short while. Typically, they last a single night but might stick around for two.
Orchid cacti make wonderful additions to any houseplant collection. Their care is simple, though they must receive it. These plants are striking in appearance, whether their flowers are large and colorful or small and delicate, and they’re well worth the effort.