Everything You Need to Know About Growing and Nurturing Orchid Cactus Plants at Home

The orchid cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) brings bright color and pleasant fragrance into your home. This popular houseplant’s common names include queen of the night, leaf cactus, and Dutchman’s pipe cactus. The orchid cactus is prized for its brightly colored blooms that burst into a magical array come spring. What’s more, their segmented, serrated stems make a dramatic impression in hanging pots. Epiphyllum is what’s known as epiphytic cacti. This means that, in nature, they grow on the surface of other plants. Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about Orchid Cactus Care at home including how to plant; the best soil mix; light, temperature, and humidity considerations; how to water and fertilize; when and how to prune and propagate. Let’s go!

Contents:


Orchid Cactus Care – The Essentials

Achieve successful orchid cactus care with an optimal balance of water, humidity and light. Epiphyllum thrive in moderate indoor humidity, moist but well-draining soil, an acidic pH, and filtered sunlight. Balanced fertilizer and lower winter temperatures help encourage bright, fragrant blooms.


About Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum) Plants

About Orchid Cactus Plants

Origins and History

The orchid cactus grows naturally in lowland jungle and cloud forest environments. They’re usually found in the shady, humid forest canopy where they grow on trees such as the frangipani.

Unlike many other epiphytes, the orchid cactus doesn’t take from its host plant. Instead, it draws its nourishment from leaf mold, insects, animal droppings, air, and moisture in the surrounding environment.

In nature, orchid cactus blooms appear at night. But in the 1800s, plant hunters sought out specimens that bloomed in the day, as well. Though botanists continue to crossbreed in an attempt to create more day bloomers, most still bloom only at night.

Species and Characteristics

Plants in the Epiphyllum genus belong to the Cactaceae (cactus) family. There are about 20 species of Epiphyllum.

This cactus has broad, flat, fleshy stems. Stems are jointed, with serrated or toothed edges and spineless areoles. Stems trail or are pendant-like.

In early winter through spring, large, brightly colored flowers emerge from the ends of the stems. Usually, flowers bloom at night.

Many have a sweet fragrance. Blooms come in a range of colors, including red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, white, and bi-colored.

Orchid cacti are native to the tropical forests of Central and South America. They’re also found in the Caribbean region. In their natural environment, they thrive in the rainforest canopy, growing on trees and basking in the dappled light.

Popular Cultivars and Varieties

Popular Orchid Cactus Cultivars

There are a wide variety of orchid cacti available. Most are hybrids, cultivated to produce blooms of different forms, fragrances and staying power, with a special focus on brilliant color.

Popular hybrids by bloom color include:

  • Red: Arlene, Beautiful Red, Miss America, Showboat
  • Orange: Cutie, Dragon Heart, Hawaii, Honeycomb, J.T. Barber
  • Yellow: Desert Falcon, Jennifer Ann, King of Yellows, Reward
  • Purple: Dragonfruit, Miss Hollywood
  • Pink: Fantasy, Fortuna, Lynda Ann, Millennium, Ophelia, Pegasus, Unforgettable
  • White: College Queen, Fred Bouton, French Sahara
  • Bi-color: Andromeda, Dante

For especially fragrant flowers, home gardeners love E. oxypetalum, E. ‘Evening Delight’ and E. ‘William Clark’.

While bloom time differs by hybrid, most are relatively short-lived. Some blooms only last one night, while others last for a few days.


Are Orchid Cactus Toxic to Humans and/or Pets?

Orchid cacti are not toxic to humans or pets.

Epiphyllum Uses & Benefits

Indoor gardeners prize the orchid cactus for the stunning color, size, and fragrance of its blooms. In some cultures, orchid cactus flowers are used as an ingredient in soup. Blooms have a texture that’s said to be similar to that of okra.

The Epiphyllum can produce edible fruits. Some compare their taste to that of passion fruit, with a kiwi-like texture and seeds.


Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum) Meaning & Symbolism

The translation of Epiphyllum means “upon the leaf”. Ironically, though, orchid cacti don’t actually have leaves. Rather, Epiphyllum is a reference to the way this cacti’s blooms emerge directly from its stems.

Botanists and hobbyists alike have cross-bred the orchid cactus for more than 200 years. Gardeners are always in search of new colors, stronger fragrances, and longer bloom times.

There’s even a special society devoted just to orchid cacti. The Epiphyllum Society of America was founded in 1940 to promote awareness and cultivation of these lovely plants.


How to Grow Orchid Cactus at Home

How to Grow Orchid Cactus Plants at Home

How big do Orchid Cactus grow?

If you’re growing an Epiphyllum at home, what should you expect? The orchid cactus grows at a moderate rate.

When grown indoors, the cactus’s stems reach from 18 to 30 inches long. In nature, however, these plants can grow up to 10 feel long and three feet wide.

It may take up to five years before an orchid cactus flowers. Usually, they’re also more likely to bloom if their roots fill the pot, or they’re root-bound. Usually, a plant growing in a four-inch pot blooms before a plant growing in an eight-inch pot.

What to do Before Planting

When planting an orchid cactus, choose a pot or planter on the smaller side. Containers must have drainage.

Try not to plant while blooming. Wait until at least a month after flowers die.

To accommodate the plant’s long stems, a hanging basket is a good choice. If you’re not hanging your Epiphyllum, place its container on a gravel-filled tray. Keep the tray almost topped with water to improve humidity.

What’s the Best Orchid Cactus Soil Mix?

The Best Soil Mix for house plants

In nature, orchid cacti usually grow on trees. Mimic these conditions by choosing a soil mix that holds moisture but drains quickly. Consider three parts potting soil to one part pumice or perlite, or half peat moss-based potting soil to one part perlite.

As for pH levels, aim on the acidic side: A pH of six is ideal.

How to Plant an Orchid Cactus

When potting an orchid cactus, partially fill your chosen container with moist, well-draining soil. Gently place the plant in the pot.

Fill the sides loosely to the original soil level. Tamp the soil gently. Keep the newly planted Epiphyllum moist.

When planting a cutting, let them harden for one week before you plant. Place the cutting, growing end down, into the soil. Don’t place more than two leaf serrations under the soil.

Put the container in a location with bright but indirect light. Keep the soil moist by misting regularly. The cutting should root in three to six weeks.

Orchid Cactus Light Preferences

Orchid Cactus Light Preferences

Orchid cacti thrive in filtered light, such as the type found in their natural rain forest habitat. A spot that receives light in the morning but is sheltered in the afternoon is ideal.

Never expose your Epiphyllum to full afternoon sun. Usually, a south- or west-facing exposure is preferable.

If your plant isn’t getting enough light, you may notice leggy or weak growth. Yellow or wilted growth is an indication of too much exposure. With the right amount of light, your plant should have light- to dark-green stems with a slight red tinge at the edges.

Over the winter, place your plant in a room where the lights aren’t turned on after daylight has passed. Exposure to artificial lights during the winter months may affect flowering in the future.

Temperature & Humidity Preferences

During most of the year, orchid cacti prefer temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, however, they need to experience around eight to 10 weeks of cooler temperatures in order to flower.

During this cool period, temperatures should be between 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. At night, temperatures should be between 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

The orchid cactus thrives in moderate humidity. Indoors, this means from about 40 to 50 percent. You can boost humidity by placing the pot on a tray of wet rocks.


Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum) Care

Orchid Cactus Care

How To Water Orchid Cactus Plants

Overwatering is the greatest threat to a healthy orchid cacti. Never let your plant stand in water. However, you do need to ensure their roots never dry out.

From mid-spring through summer, water when the top third of soil feels just slightly damp. During the winter, the plant requires less moisture. Water sparingly during these periods of inactivity.

Use bottled or de-mineralized water, as opposed to tap water.

How, When and Why to Fertilize Orchid Cactus Plants

During periods of growth — from spring through fall — apply a 10-10-10 fertilizer every two weeks. Don’t use fertilizer that has more than 10 percent nitrogen content.

At the end of February and October, apply a 2-10-10 fertilizer. This will encourage flowering.

Over the winter, take a break from fertilizing as the nutrient overload is too much for the plant during periods of natural dormancy.

How to Prune Orchid Cactus Plants

The only reason to prune an orchid cactus is to control its size. If you want to prune, do it right after the plant stops flowering.

When cutting stems, use clean, sharp shears. This will help prevent tearing. Be especially careful not to overwater after pruning.

How to Propagate Orchid Cactus Plants

If you prune your plant, keep the cuttings. This is the easiest way to propagate an orchid cactus.

To propagate, simply cut a stem cleanly off. Allow the end to form a callus (harden) for a week. Then push the growing end into clean, moist soil.

No more than two leaf serrations should be under the soil. Place the pot in a bright, but shaded, spot and water or mist regularly. It’ll take about three to six weeks for the cutting to develop roots.

When and How to Repot Orchid Cactus

Opinions on how often to report orchid cacti vary, from every two to seven years. When you do choose to repot, move just one container size larger. (Orchid cacti tend to flower more vigorously if they’re slightly root bound).

Wait to repot your cactus orchid until about a month after blooming. Don’t remove too much soil off the root ball.

Instead, just give it a light shake to remove excess soil and set the root ball in the new container. Then fill with fresh soil. Don’t water for a week after repotting.

If you have a large plant and don’t want to repot, you can add fresh soil. Lightly top dress the plant in its current container.


Common Orchid Cactus Problems & How to Treat Them

Common Orchid Cactus Problems

The most common issue affecting orchid cacti is overwatering. If your plant sits in water, you may notice stems turning limp or growing black at the base. This is an issue known as stem rot. If you see stem rot, take a break from watering. Cut blackened stems off at soil level.

Overexposure to harsh, direct light, may lead to stems that turn yellow or look wilted. Too much light may also create a sunburned appearance.

Conversely, if your orchid cactus needs more light, it may take on a leggy, weak appearance.

Overwatering your plant may also lead to an infestation of fungus gnats. Other potential pests include aphids, mealybugs, and glasshouse red spider mites. Treat infestations using insecticide soap or Neem oil.

Keep an eye out for spotting on the stems, which may indicate a fungal issue. Often, fungus grows when water sits on stems for too long. Prevent fungus by watering away from stems and using well-draining soil.


Essential Tools to Have Around

Essential House Plant Tools

Orchid cactus care doesn’t require many specialized tools. However, you will want sharp shears to prevent tearing while pruning or taking cuttings.

A spray bottle is handy to keep soil evenly moist.

Use a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer during growing times. Twice a year, use a 2-10-10 fertilizer to promote flowering.


Wrap-Up

The orchid cactus offers bright, fragrant blooms. It’s especially dramatic when grown in hanging baskets.

The trick to successful orchid cactus care lies in finding the optimal balance of light and water. With the right light exposure, adequate humidity, and well-draining soil, the orchid cactus will beautify your home for years.


Orchid Cactus Care FAQ:

During periods of growth — from spring through fall — apply a 10-10-10 fertilizer every two weeks. Don’t use a fertilizer that has more than 10 percent nitrogen content.

At the end of February and October, apply a 2-10-10 fertilizer. This will encourage flowering.

Over the winter, take a break from fertilizing as the nutrient overload is too much for the plant during periods of natural dormancy. 

Orchid cacti thrive in filtered light, such as the type found in their natural rain forest habitat. A spot that receives light in the morning but is sheltered in the afternoon is ideal.

In nature, orchid cacti usually grow on trees. Mimic these conditions by choosing a soil mix that holds moisture but drains quickly. Consider three parts potting soil to one part pumice or perlite, or half peat moss-based potting soil to one part perlite. As for pH levels, aim on the acidic side: A pH of six is ideal.

It may take up to five years before an orchid cactus flowers. Usually, they’re also more likely to bloom if their roots fill the pot, or they’re root-bound. Usually, a plant growing in a four-inch pot blooms before a plant growing in an eight-inch pot.

With due care and attention, an orchid cactus will bloom indoors typically once it reaches maturity after several years of growth. 

To propagate, simply cut a stem cleanly off. Allow the end to form a callus (harden) for a week. Then push the growing end into clean, moist soil.

No more than two leaf serrations should be under the soil. Place the pot in a bright, but shaded, spot and water or mist regularly. It’ll take about three to six weeks for the cutting to develop roots.

Typically, deadheading cactus flowers isn’t necessary as the past blooms will eventually drop on their own accord allowing new growth to come through.

Author

I’ve long been fascinated with the world of flowers, plants, and floral design. I come from a family of horticulturists and growers and spent much of my childhood in amongst the fields of flowering blooms and greenhouses filled with tropical plants, cacti, and succulents from all over the world. Today, my passion has led me to further explore the world of horticulture, botany, and floristry and I'm always excited to meet and collaborate with fellow enthusiasts and professionals from across the globe.

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