One of the telltale signs that summer is near is the arrival of one of the Conservatory collection’s most ostentatious specimens – The epiphylic cacti, more commonly known as the Orchid Cactus.
By Giselle Blythe
The Orchid Cactus is a member of the Cactaceae family. Unlike the majority of cacti they are not terrestrial desert plants. They prefer to grow in shaded places where the rooting material is mostly organic and moist for most of the year. Epis are closely related to Christmas Cactus, Easter Cactus, Rhipsalis, Growers have been hybridizing various epiphytic cacti for many years, resulting in a fabulous rainbow of exotic flowers from small to huge.
In habitat, these plants perch on trees or rocks, adapting to their humid environment. Growing these beautiful flowering plants at home or as greenhouse plants is relatively easy when you understand their origins. They enjoy early or late afternoon sun, but need protection from hot, direct midday sun. Most epis can take temperatures as low as 35-40 degrees, and actually prefer to be a bit cooler in the winter than summer. They love to be outdoors in shade all summer long, where they can receive rainfall or overhead watering.
At the Conservatory, we use 1 part each of medium fir bark, coarse pumice, chunky peat, and soil-less (peat-perlite) potting mix. It’s best to avoid composted wood products, as they break down quickly and become mushy.
Re-potting should be done during the active growing season – spring through summer. Epis prefer to be root-bound, so you should only go to a larger pot if the plant is top heavy and won’t stand up. Hanging baskets are ideal for many epis, and clay pots are good for added stability.
Epis are easy to propagate from cuttings. Cut branch pieces into 4″- 6″ sections, and leave them out to dry for 3-7 days. Pot them into sterile, loose mix, and do not water until roots begin to develop. (A little overhead mist is helpful, but keep potting mix dry.) You can tell if roots are forming by tugging gently on the cuttings. They resist when roots are taking hold. Then water just enough then to keep them from shriveling, keeping on the dry side.
Pinch off any flower buds the first year to send energy into plant growth. You can also grow epiphyllums from seed if your plant develops fruit. The fruit usually take nearly a year to ripen and turn red. Then it can be harvested, cut open and the seeds separated from the jelly within. Put the fruit contents into a jar of water with a tight lid and shake well. Carefully pour seeds and water out onto a paper towel and allow to dry. Sow seed in seedling mix and cover to maintain humidity. Seedlings may need to remain in the original container for two years until large enough to transplant to individual pots.
It can take 3-5 years to bloom a seedling. Mealybugs may be a problem. They can be easily controlled with rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab, or diluted in a spray bottle. Outdoors, slugs may be attracted to plants.