"The allure of the orchid cactus"

This intriguing epiphytic plant is in bloom now.
Sunday, 24 October 2021     

Epiphyllum growing in a hanging pot in a tree in the former garden of Linda Macaulay in Sydney

A few months ago, I planted up an old stump with epiphytic plants. They have mostly established pretty well and some are flowering at the moment, including the Zygopetalum orchid with its intricately marked petals, and the beautiful Dendrobium nobile orchids, with their cascading trusses of gorgeous, long-lasting flowers. Another of the epiphytes in bloom Is the mysterious orchid cacus (Epiphyllum species and hybrids), which has just started to open its strange, flamboyant flowers. This was a plant I had no understanding of a few years ago but I have grown to appreciate it in recent times, and I have placed a large one right on the top of my epiphytic stump!

Epiphyllum (ht 50 cm - 2m) look rather like giant forms of zygocactus (Schlumbergera hybrids). Both are cacti found in South and Central American rainforests, where they anchor themselves in the forks of tree branches, their small, fibrous roots taking hold in decaying vegetative matter, which provides some nutrients for the plants. Like zygocatus, Epiphyllum have fleshy stems divided into flattened, oblong-shaped, leaf-like segments with distinctive toothed edges, and tend to develop a pendent form as the plant matures. 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 form of the plants doesn't really have much appeal to the uninitiated, and they might even seem a bit repulsive, but once seen in flower, they are never forgotten!

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 related 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 also some really pretty small-flowered versions that are useful for more compact places, and I have added a piece grown from the plant illustrated above to my stump.

Epiphyllum are best grown in part or even full shade, in containers or else in hanging baskets affixed to strong tree branches to display the long, trailing stems. Use an orchid mix in pots or baskets for the planting medium. They can also be attached directly to a stump or tree, as I have done. One way to do this 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; over-watering 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 mix, allowing the cutting to dry out for a few days first.

Another type of mysterious epiphytic cactus from rainforest environments is Ripsalis, which has long strands of hanging stems and small but interesting flowers. Some species have very narrow stems but others have stems rather like those of Epiphyllum. They are excellent subjects for hanging baskets to provide textural interest, and I hope to understand them one day!

 Reader Comments

1/8  Carmel - 2219 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2021

Thank you Deidre for all this information about their care. I have a number of these plants coming into flower now but have never known how to really care for them properly. I find them such a joy when in flower. They are amazing, aren't they! Deirdre

2/8  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2021

Ahha!! now I know what to do with that tree stump! another small project with PLANNING!! not my usual style, always ready to learn and 'change my spots' and plan! Excellent, my thanks Deirdre, Shaun I am happy with my stump so far. It looks a bit wacky but I am enjoying seeing it progress as the plants start to adhere to it! Deirdre

3/8  Jude - 4560 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 October 2021

Thanks to you, I now know the wonderful flowering plant we inherited with our garden is an epiphyllum!. It looks like the one you provided, from Mary Chaplin's garden. It's growing in a charmingly painted old milk can, the bottom of which has completely rusted away. I plan to take cuttings to grow on a stump. How many 'sections' do you recommend for a cutting? Thank you--I do love iGarden! I think you just need a few sections for the cutting and it's a good idea to let it dry out for a few days before striking it. Hope it all works well! Deirdre

4/8  Laurel - 4179 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 25 October 2021

Thank you for your growing tips above, I will have to try the stocking method next time I re-pot. I have loved the large epiphyllums ever since I bought a brilliant pink/red large flowered one for my mother some 40 years ago. My mother has since passed on but the epi has continued to bloom each year in my backyard. Your garden always sounds so wonderful with all different plants you have. How lovely to have that plant as a memory of your mum. Deirdre

5/8  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Oh Dierdre now you're talking! I adore Epiphyllum or Epis as we affectionately call them! I actually run a Facebook group called Epiphyllum Buy Sell Swap Australia & I invite your readers to join if they are interested in buying selling or swapping or getting information on all things Epiphyllum. I will say one thing, they do need sun in winter to set their buds for Spring & if growing in a pot they need a free draining mix like succulent mix or orchid bark. Don't overwater! Thanks for that info re the winter sun; I will update my blog and plant reference accordingly! Deirdre

6/8  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Thank you, Deirdre, like other readers, I have a number of these plants, and appreciate your information, as well as Kerrie's. They have an awkward growth habit, I find, become top heavy in pots, and the spikes can be painful, but I do enjoy their vibrancy of colour. One plant is wandering among my yellow banksia rose. Yes they do seem to get top-heavy so need some sort of support from other plants. Deirdre

7/8  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 October 2021

I like Epipyhllums and Rhipsalis also. Epiphyllums must be one of the most abused plants. I have seen them planted in the ground, in full sun and completely chewed up by snails. I have also rescued a few abused specimens from the green section of the local tip; they are very easy to restore to health (and I am sure they are thankful!). That is great you could rescue those sad Epiphyllums and nurse them back to health! Deirdre

8/8  Jean - 4035 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 26 October 2021

My plant delivers white blooms which appear in winter called Queen of the night but sadly drop closed by morning around 8 am. I had a yellow one 15 years ago which bloomed for several days! Thanks for the info Deidre about tying them to trees. I hope you are able to admire your flowers at night! Deirdre

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