Would you believe you could find cactus in the rainforests? Epiphyllums are true cacti that are native to just such a tropical environment. These jungle cacti are "epiphytes", or plants that take root and grow in humus pockets of trees. Other examples of epiphytic plants include orchids and bromeliads. Epiphyllums range from Mexico and the Caribbean through Central and South America.
The name “Epiphyllum” means literally “upon the leaf” which refers to how flowers spring forth from the strap-like branches. The name is a bit of a misnomer, however, because Epiphyllums, like all other types of cacti, do not have any leaves. Their flowers form directly on the branches of the plant.
Epiphyllum hybrids are commonly referred to as "Orchid Cacti" because of their luminous blossoms, reminiscent of tropical orchids.Like all cacti, epiphyllums have stems but no leaves. Unlike desert cacti, however, epiphyllums grow grow on trees, not on the ground. They also lack the sharp spines of their desert cousins.
In a manner similar to orchids and bromeliads, Epiphyllums attach their roots to trees and grow in the shady and somewhat humid environment of the tropical jungle. In addition to the species Epiphyllum, there are several related genera of epiphytic cacti such as Selenicereus, Disocactus, Aporcactus, and Nopalxochia (the latter two recently reclassified in the Disocactus genus).
Since they are so closely related, these varieties of epiphytic cacti readily cross with each other. Since the early 1800s, plant hobbyists have crossed epiphyllums with other, more colorful epiphytic cactus species. As a result, there are now literally thousands of different hybrid epiphyllum varieties, with various rainbow-hued blossoms. Hybridizers have created an array of beautiful blooms, of different shapes and sizes, and in a veritable rainbow of colors. Every color is represented except true blue, a color which does not exist naturally in the cactus family. Some of the individual named plants date back over a century, having been continuously propagated by cuttings down through the years.
These beautiful hybrid epiphytic cacti are commonly known as ‘Epiphyllums’, hence the name ‘Epiphyllum Society of America’ was chosen for the society devoted to the promotion of this unique horticultural class. These plants have also been referred to as ‘Phyllocacti’, ‘Jungle Cacti’ and ‘Orchid Cacti’. A more recent suggestion has been to refer to these hybrids as ‘Epicacti’….but most people prefer to call them ‘epiphyllums’ or simply and affectionately ‘epis’ for short.
Epiphyllum species usually have large white blossoms that open at night. Other related genera of jungle cacti have colorful blossoms that open in the daytime. Because these hybrid plants have the mixed heritage of different types of cacti, there can also be some variation in growth habits. The stems can vary depending on the individual plant; ranging from strap-like and pendant to upright, angled and stocky. Individual plants may have slightly different light and soil requirements, but in general they are extremely hardy and quite easy to grow.
Night-blooming epiphyllum species usually have a lovely, ethereal fragrance; and many of the hybrid epies do too!
The smaller-flowered varieties produce mass quantities of blooms that can last up to a week. These small-flowered varieties also tend to bloom over many months. Larger-flowered varieties have fewer blossoms that may only last one, two or three days. Blooms tend to last longer in cooler weather and will tend to wilt more quickly in hot weather. The spectacular beauty of the blossoms more than compensates for their short lifespan.
The height of the flowering season is April through June, but sometimes you will be rewarded with off-season blooms earlier in the spring or into the late summer.
For care and cultural instructions, please see our "Cultural Information" page.