How to Grow and Care for Epiphyllum
Introduction to Epiphyllum
Prized for their dramatic, fragrant blooms, epiphyllum are beloved houseplants that hail from the tropical forests of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The plants produce a cascade of flattened stems that drape dramatically over the sides of pots and hanging baskets. But the real showstoppers are the blooms — up to 10” in diameter! — in shades of red, white, orange, yellow, pink, or purple, depending on the variety.
In their native habitats, most epiphyllum are epiphytes that grow high in the branches of trees. Like other epiphytes, the plants don’t harm the trees but simply use them as a perch as they reach for sunlight in the dense forest canopy. Like all true cacti, they don’t have leaves; the flattened, jointed “leaves” are modified stems, similar to those of their relatives, the Christmas cacti. These succulent, spineless stems have a waxy coating that conserves moisture.
The plants’ common names include orchid cactus, climbing cactus, and leaf cactus. There are more than a dozen species in the Epiphyllum genus and hundreds of hybrids. The most commonly grown epiphyllum is queen of the night, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which is sometimes called night-blooming cereus (though this common name is used for several different plants). As the common names imply, the flowers open at night.
Gardeners in tropical and subtropical regions can grow the plants outdoors year-round, where they’ll grow 2’ to 10’ tall. Elsewhere, they’re commonly grown in pots so they can be brought indoors when temperatures drop below 55 degrees F. Many gardeners enjoy them as year-round houseplants.
Growing Zones for Epiphyllum
Epiphyllum are tropical plants hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11.
Choosing a Site to Grow Epiphyllum
Epiphyllum’s treetop jungle homes give clues to their needs and care: The plants prefer dappled sunlight, high humidity, and good air circulation. Indoors, the plants grow well in bright light, such as sunlight filtered through sheer curtains in a south-facing window. A location near an east-facing window is also a good choice. In warm climates the plants thrive in baskets hanging from tree branches, and this is also a good summer location for plants in colder climates.
Planting Instructions for Epiphyllum
Although they can be grown from seed, epiphyllum plants may take years to bloom, so most gardeners start with purchased plants or rooted cuttings. The plants grow best when somewhat rootbound, so if you start with a purchased plant you may not need to repot it for several years.
If you’re potting up cuttings or repotting a plant, take your cues from the plants’ natural habitat. Because they absorb moisture and nutrients from the air and from organic matter that collects on the branches, the roots of epiphyllum aren’t adapted to life in wet, heavy soils. Rather, the plants require a porous, well-drained growing medium that includes some organic matter. A potting mix formulated for cactus and amended with a bit of compost and orchid bark is a good option. When choosing a pot, terra cotta is ideal. Its weight prevents the top-heavy plants from toppling, and porous material allows soil moisture to dissipate.
Fertilizer for Epiphyllum
Epiphyllum require minimal fertilizer. Feed actively growing plants monthly with a dilute, all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Stop feeding in winter when the plants are resting.
Epiphyllum Pests and Problems
Epiphyllum are relatively pest-free. Keep an eye out for the usual houseplant pests — mealy bugs, aphids, spider mites, etc. — and treat the plants with insecticidal soap as needed. Root rot can be a problem if the planting medium stays too moist.
Ongoing Care for Epiphyllum
Keep the planting mix slightly moist but never saturated. Allow the top few inches of soil to dry out, then water thoroughly. Allow excess water to drain and then empty the saucer. Cut back on watering in winter when the plants are resting.
The plants thrive in regular room temperatures. However, to encourage flowering, starting in fall you should give the plants cool temperatures (around 55 degrees F.) with about 12 hours of light per day. The plants should bloom in late winter or early spring.