How to grow epiphyllum cacti
Also known as orchid cacti, these tropical succulent plants produce large, showy, often fragrant flowers. They make exotic and unusual houseplants, with trailing, leaf-like stems.
- Tender evergreen houseplant
- Large, showy flowers
- Most bloom in spring or summer
- Trailing, succulent stems
- Like warm, humid conditions
- Keep cooler and drier in winter
- Grow new plants from cuttings
All you need to know
What are epiphyllum cacti?
Epiphyllum are succulents from the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. They are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants, rather than rooting into the ground. They often cling to the branches or trunks of trees, or nestle in bark crevices or the forks of branches. They don't take moisture or
To grow well, plants need a wide range of nutrients in various amounts, depending on the individual plant and its stage of growth. The three key plant nutrients usually derived from soil are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, while carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are absorbed from the air. Other vital soil nutrients include magnesium, calcium and sulphur. Gardeners can add nutrients by applying fertilisers (either artificial or naturally derived) to boost plant growth and improve flowering and fruiting.
As they naturally grow in warm, humid, shady forests, they need similar conditions when grown as houseplants. Unlike most cacti, they don't like full sun, and need humid air and regular watering.
There are many species and hybrids, often with spectacular, fragrant flowers. These can be various colours, including red, white, pink, purple, yellow or orange, and usually open between early spring and midsummer. They tend to be about 10–20cm (4–8in) across, but the blooms of some hybrids can reach 30cm (1ft) in diameter. Individual flowers are often short-lived, lasting only a couple of days, and some open in the evening to attract night-flying pollinators.
The succulent stems are generally long, flat and leaf-like, with scalloped edges. They are usually trailing, and can grow to 60cm (2ft) long. These can be an attractive architectural feature in their own right. Epiphyllum cacti are often grown in hanging baskets, where their trailing stems can be shown off to good effect.
Epiphyllum cacti resemble Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera) and like similar growing conditions.
How and what to buy
Epiphyllum cacti are mainly available from online plant suppliers, including houseplant and cacti specialists. They are sold as plants or as rooted or unrooted cuttings. See our guide to buying by mail order.
A few of the most popular species, such as the rick-rack or fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger), may be available in some garden centres or houseplant shops. See our guide to choosing healthy plants.
Epiphyllum cacti are tender, and most won't survive temperatures below 10°C (50°F). They are best grown as houseplants or in a heated greenhouse, in pots or hanging baskets. They can be moved temporarily outdoors in summer, into a warm, lightly shaded spot.
During the growing season, from spring to autumn, they should be kept above 15°C (60°F).
In winter, move to a cooler place, at 11–14°C (52–57°F), to encourage flowering. Once flower buds appear, return them to their usual position, at 15°C (60°F) or above, where they will then bloom.
Keep them away from radiators and other heat sources, and out of cold draughts.
Epiphyllum cacti like lots of bright, filtered light. But keep them out of strong midday sun, especially in summer, as this can scorch them.
They need moderate to high humidity, so stand the container in a tray of damp gravel. Keep the water level below the base of the container, so the compost doesn't become saturated.
From mid-spring to late summer, water regularly to keep the compost slightly moist but not soggy. Water whenever it begins to dry out, and let the excess drain away. Don't leave plants standing in water.
In winter, reduce watering when you move the plants to a cooler spot. Keep the compost only just damp, but never completely dry.
Epiphyllum cacti originate in tropical rainforests, so they like humid air. To raise the humidity:
- Mist the leaves regularly from spring to autumn, especially in hot, dry weather
- Stand the container in a tray of damp gravel or clay pellets. Keep the water level below the base of the container, so the compost doesn't get waterlogged
- Group several container plants together to help create a more humid micro-climate
- If growing outdoors in summer, position in a shady, sheltered spot, protected from drying winds
To encourage strong growth, you can apply a cactus fertiliser fortnightly from early spring to autumn. Epiphyllum cacti grow naturally in a low-nutrient environment, so feed sparingly. Overly generous feeding can be damaging, rather than beneficial.
Epiphyllum cacti generally flower only when their roots have filled the container, so re-pot them as little as possible. If you need to move them into a new container, do it once flowering has finished, from spring to autumn, and try to avoid disturbing the roots.
Choose a container that is only slightly bigger than the rootball, as overpotting can deter flowering.
Use a loose, fast-draining compost, as prolonged dampness around the roots can lead to rotting. A standard cactus compost with added grit or perlite is ideal. Or mix your own using three parts' loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 2, two parts' grit or perlite, and one part peat-free multipurpose compost.
When moving the plant, be gentle with the long trailing stems, which are easily damaged.
Position the plant in its new container at the same level it was previously growing. Firm it in well and water thoroughly.
If you buy cuttings by mail order, pot these up immediately on arrival. (See Propagation, below.)
In winter, move plants to a cooler location, about 11–14°C (52–57°F). Reduce watering, keeping the compost only just moist. Never let it dry out completely.
This cooler, drier spell stimulates them to produce flower buds. Once buds have formed, return plants to their normal location, at above 15°C (60°F), and resume the normal watering regime.
Simply remove the faded flowers to keep plants looking their best.
If plants have been moved outside in summer, bring them back indoors by early autumn, before night temperatures fall to 10°C (50°F) in your area.
Keep plants at 11–14°C (52–57°F) over winter, to stimulate flowering – see Encouraging flowering, above.
Caring for older plants
Epiphyllum cacti can live for many years, if given the correct growing conditions. But they are susceptible to over and under watering, so take care to water correctly – see Watering, above.
Keep plants looking neat by occasionally pruning out old, tatty or overly long stems – see Pruning and Training, below.
Plants rarely need re-potting, as most flower best when slightly rootbound. Overpotting can hinder flowering. If you do need to re-pot, wait until after flowering and try not to disturb the roots.
As plants get larger, make sure the container is heavy enough to stay upright under the weight of all the long, cascading stems. Choose a heavy terracotta pot or a wide, shallow container (known as a pan).
The removed stems can be used as cuttings to grow new plants – see Propagation, below.
Large plants can become unstable due to the weight of its long trailing stems. You can use canes and string to support them, but this can look unsightly. It is better to move them into a heavier, shallower container that would be more stable – see Planting, above.
New plants can be grown from stem cuttings and by sowing seeds. Plants grown from cuttings may flower the following spring, but seed-raised plants may take four or more years.
Taking stem cuttings is a quick and easy way to grow new plants. You can take cuttings from your own plants or buy them from specialist suppliers online, either rooted or unrooted.
To root stem cuttings:
Remove a healthy and vigorous leaf-like stem
Cut it into 15–23cm (6–9in) sections and let the wounds dry out and harden, or callus, for several days in a warm place. (Shorter cuttings will root, but the resulting plants will take longer to reach flowering size)
Fill a pot with cactus compost and cover with a layer of grit. Insert the cuttings vertically, to a depth of 2.5–5cm (1–2in)
Keep the compost just moist and maintain a temperature of 18–24°C (65–75°F)
They should root in three to six weeks. Cuttings rooted in spring should flower the following year
Seeds are not widely available commercially, but can occasionally be found online, often as mixed hybrids.
If you want to produce your own seeds, you should pollinate the flowers by hand. Two different plants are needed, both flowering at the same time, so pollen can be transferred from one plant to another:
Use a fine paintbrush to pick up pollen from the (male) anthers in the centre of a flower on one plant
Dust this onto the sticky (female) stigma in the centre of a flower on another plant
A rounded fruit should then form. Wait until this starts to shrivel, then harvest the ripe seeds inside. Germination is usually more successful with fresh seeds, so sow them as soon as possible
The resulting plants may differ from their parents
Seed: collecting and storing
Sowing the seeds is straight forward:
In spring or summer, fill a small pot or seedtray with cactus compost and scatter the seeds evenly on the surface
Moisten the compost lightly with a fine mist sprayer, then cover with a thin layer of fine grit
Place a clear polythene bag over the pot or place it in a propagator, and keep at 21°C (70°F)
Remove the covering once the seedlings appear
Keep the compost moist, but not wet
Prick out the seedlings when they become crowded and are large enough to handle easily
They will take four to seven years to flower
Epiphyllum cacti are generally trouble-free if given the correct growing conditions – see Planting and Ongoing Care, above.
Overwatering, underwatering and strong sunshine can all cause problems, including:
Failure to flower – may be due to the plant not getting a cooler, drier spell in winter. See Ongoing Care, above. Plants flower best when their roots fill the container, so avoid overpotting
Brown spots or discoloured stems – this may be due to scorching by strong sunshine. Keep plants in filtered light throughout summer. Other causes include overwatering or fungal diseases
Epiphyllum cacti are prone to several common glasshouse pests. Check plants regularly, as it's always easier to control pests if spotted early. Look out in particular for:
If you move plants outdoors in summer, or grow them in a heated greenhouse, protect them from snails.
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