A type of epiphytic, perennial cactus occurring in rainforests from Mexico to Argentina as well as the West Indies, Epiphyllum are sometimes called orchid cactus, with branched, flattened stems similar to a zygocactus but on a much grander scale. As with most cacti, they have no true leaves but have modified leaves in the form of spines on the sides of the stems, in pads called areoles, from where flower buds emerge. The reduced size of the leaves helps restrict water loss; and the fleshy stems are able to store water to help the plant survive. The huge funnel-shaped blooms generally appear in spring, opening at night and often having a sweet perfume.
Most species have creamy-white or yellow flowers, with Epiphyllum oxypetalum (sometimes known as queen of the night) being one of the best known - its fragrant, white inflorescences bloom for just a single night. However, hybrids of Epiphyllum with other epiphytic genera (the naming of which is very problematic among botanists!) have spectacular blooms in hues of brilliant fluorescent pinks, orange, yellow, purples and reds, many with an iridescent sheen, which stay open during the day and last a couple of days. Unlike the species, they don't have much scent. There are some lovely small-flowered hybrids, as pictured below. After flowering, strange, inflated fruit may develop on the stems.
They are best grown in part shade, but some winter sun is beneficial to promote good flowering. They can be grown in containers or hanging baskets affixed to strong tree branches to display the long, trailing stems. Use an orchid or succulent mix in pots or baskets for the planting medium. In their native habitat, Epiphyllum lodge on rocks or in the forks of trees in the canopies of rainforests, where their small, fibrous roots take hold in decaying vegetative matter. One way to attach the plant to a tree is to use an old stocking with some orchid bark placed in the middle of it, and then tie the stocking in a knot on either side of this to create a sort of pocket. Cut a slit in the stocking on one side of this pocket and insert the base of the plant into the orchid bark. Use the end of the stocking to tie the plant onto the host. Eventually, the plants roots will grow onto the tree and the stocking will rot away. Before this happens, a handful of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) can be used to hide the stocking to some extent. These epiphytic cacti don't like to dry out completely, so they need to be given a spray of water every so often; overwatering will be detrimental to the small root system, however, especially in winter, when they prefer to be on the dry side. They are frost tender. Propagate via stem cuttings in early summer, using a well-drained potting medium. Let the cuttings dry out for a few days before potting up.