Epiphytic cacti are unlike any other, these have adapted to a life in tropical rainforests of Central and South America, rather than the semi-arid environments where most cacti species are found. Most cacti within this group are found growing in leaf debris and high up on tree branches in the forest canopy, though few are found spread over rock formations and have their roots firmly in the ground. They derive water from the air and nutrients from composting leaves and further forest debris.
Epiphytic cacti are popular within the growing community, being an easy-care plant choice with relatively little requirements of water, food and even soil. Like any organism, Epiphytic cacti play their part in nutrient cycles, adding to the diversity and biomass of the ecosystem of where they live.
Epiphytic Cacti are an intriguing, wondrous collection of plant life, with some of the most unexpected and exceptional flowers you are likely to come across. Today we’re going to be looking at some of the best flowering epiphytes and learning a little about their histories and homelands.
Many of you will already know about the Epiphyllum genus, with their leaf-like stems and large spectacular floral displays. This is one genus which has been extensively hybridized in the last few years, to achieve an array of floral colours in any and every /possible shade.
There are 19 species within the genus, all living as epiphytes with thick, broad and flattened stems, mostly with a wavy, lobed edge. The Epiphyllum crenatum is one of my favourite species, native to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador. Also known as the Crenate Orchid Cactus, its Latin name means “wavy-toothed”, referring to its crenate stem margin.
The beautiful flowers of the Epiphyllum crenatum are produced from late spring to early summer time. Creamy white in colour with blushed red-to-amber on its outer tepals. The flower itself is cup-shaped, with long, creamy white inner tepals and pale-yellow stamens. In its entirety, the flower can reach a huge 29 cm long and up to 20 cm wide, is highly fragranced and nocturnal, opening at night to attract insects for pollination. Unlike the Epiphyllum oxypetalum whose flowers bloom for one single night, this is one species whose flower will remain open for the following few days.
In 1844, at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Exhibition, this fascinating epiphyte won the Highest Medal Award for a new introduction. The Epiphyllum crenatum is widely known as the only species of Epiphyllum to be extensively used for cross-pollination with other genera, such as Disocactus, in a bid to develop the range of coloured hybrid blooms available today. Flower colours of the hybridised Epiphyllum cultivars range from white to light yellow and rose pink to orange, sometimes you will find deep amber coloured hybrids too.
Overall, you will find Epiphyllum an easy to cultivate and fast-growing genus of plants, which like a moist, humus rich soil and a semi-shaded position. Why not take a look at the hybrids, “Beauty” and “Pegasus”, both are tropically stunning.
The Disocactus genus belong to the Hylocereeae tribe of plants and found growing as epiphytes (in trees) or lithophytes (on or over rock formations). Native to parts of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, this strange looking plant life are a beautiful challenge to the experienced grower.
Species of Disocactus have two different growth habits, one being flattened cladode stems with a wavy stem margin, much like the Disocactus macranthus species, and the other being a more rounded and ribbed stem structure, such as my favorite of the species, Disocactus flagelliformis. Both however, have a strong pendulous habit and mass of beautiful blooms, making them the perfect flowering specimens for hanging baskets.
Cultivation of the Disocactus species can be tricky, but once you have mastered growing techniques with your plant reaching maturity, sit back, relax and enjoy the magic of these highly scented nocturnal blooms. Flowers are produced along the length of the stems, or at the growing tip of the cacti, (depending on the species), from a brightly colored, bristly structure, called the cephalium. This structure also protects any new buds which tend to grow pretty quickly, often opening up overnight to be pollinated by the hawk moth. In their natural habitats, many of the species will synchronize their flowering in a bid to maximize pollination.
The Disocactus flagelliformis is of the more rounded stem structure, with thick and pendulous stems reaching up to 1m long, (3 feet), and almost 2 cm wide, (0.75 inches). Bright green in color, these stems are covered with groups of fuzzy-looking needle clusters, each made up of fine orange spines. The flowers are big, bold and beautiful; curved in shape and candy-pink in color, which appear en masse along the stems in late spring to early summer time. Fruits of this “Rats Tail” Cacti are red, bristly and globose in shape, reaching around 12mm long, (0.5 inches).
As a genus, the Disocactus are quite fast growers, requiring an open, well-drained and acid soil. A perfect hanging plant for that warm and sunny spot, with a minimum winter temperature of 15 degrees C or 59 degrees F.
The extraordinary flowers of the Hylocereus genus are among the largest of all cacti, enough motivation for the enthusiastic growers amongst us to be intrigued. Native to Central America, North Southern America and the Caribbean, these large and climbing hemi-epiphyte cacti have fleshy, jointed stem structures with aerial roots and undulate stem margins. These use their roots to clamber their way over trees and shrubs in dry and open woodland areas. They are simply huge in size, their three-angled stems growing to an impressive 5 m long, (16.5 feet), allowing them to reach a height to 10 meters, (33 feet), once supported by trees and stony outcrops.
My favorite species is the Hylocereus undatus, which incidentally is the most cultivated of all species under the Hylocereeae tribe. Dark colored spines are only produced on adult branches of this clambering cactus and the magnificent flowers are borne on the branch tips. Ripe flower buds burst open in the summer to reveal an off- white, deep, bell-shaped flower with green flower bracts and outer tepals. These mighty and highly scented floral beauties reach up to 14 inches, (35 cm), long and up to 12 inches, (30 cm), in diameter, opening at dusk for one night only. Their heavy scent attracts moths and bats for cross-pollination with the aim of fruit production.
Fruits of the Hylocereus species are wonderfully exotic and fully edible, ranging from scarlet-red to pink, orange to yellow in color, globose in shape and covered in soft green scales. When opened, these large fruits contain a white “pulp” dotted with hundreds of black seeds which are commonly known as “Dragon Fruits” or “Patina”. These exotic-looking fruits are now cultivated for juice, wine and liquor and eaten fresh, throughout much of the world.
Overall, the Hylocereus undatas is a relatively easy to grow species, requiring a large, warm and well-lit space. Given bright light, sufficient water and a good, well-draining soil mix you too could have the privilege of witnessing these great nocturnal blooms, if only for one night.
A mostly epiphytic genus native to the low-land tropics and moist Montane forests of South America including Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. A relatively small genus with only around a dozen species, some of which are quite difficult to source, all within the Rhipsalideae tribe.
The species Lepismium cruciforme is more commonly available in succulent collections, comprising of long and twisting succulent stems each armed with tiny, fuzzy-looking white groups of thorns. In full sun, the species changes colour from its natural green shade to a deep pink- maroon. These colorful stem segments are quite varied, multiple-angled in structure and reaching up to 20 inches long, (50 cm), by nearly 2 cm wide, (0.8 inches). Flowers are borne along the long, thorny stem margins, these are quite small and range from creamy white to yellow and pink in color.
My top species is the Lepismium floribundum, a relatively new found species with much larger and scented blooms than others in the genus. Its dark green, arching habit of angled and flat stems become pendulous in time, reaching several meters in length with no specific maximum size recorded. Along the stem structures, many bell-shaped, scented, pale pink flowers seem to emerge at pretty much any time of the year, even in winter when temperatures are down to 0 degrees C.
A cold hardy specimen plant with a lovely arching habit and vigorous growth rate. Natively grown in filtered shade through dense tree growth, so best situated in indirect morning sunlight and moved to a shadier position after noon. Best results are produced with a light and well-draining soil, with regular watering and a well-diluted cacti feed throughout the late spring and summer months.
Our next subjects are the small genus of Hatiora, belonging to the Rhipsalideae tribe and native to the tropical forests of Mata Atlantica in South Eastern Brazil. Natively, these are found growing on trees and occasionally on rock formations. You will already recognize some Hatiora species as the ever-popular “Easter” or “Whitsun Cactus”.
All plants within the genus have succulent stem structures, either growing upright or pendulous and are spine-free. This genus is split into two subgenera’s, these being Hatiora and Rhipsalidopsis, each have distinguishable characteristics and growth forms, as follows:
Plants in the Hatiora subgenus tend to have a woody base, a cylindrical segmented stem structure and an upright growth habit. The flowers in this sub-genus tend to be rather small and either red, orange and pink in color.
Plants in the Rhipsalidopsis subgenus have a more flattened, segmented stem structure and a more pendulous growth habit. The flowers here tend to be much larger in size and either red or pink in color. There is only one exception, this being the Hatiora epiphylloides which has small yellow blooms.
I have two favorites here, one for each sub-genus. I feel I must recognize the wonderful form and bright cheery flowers of the well-recognized Hatiora gaertneri, otherwise known as the “Easter Cactus”. Without doubt, one of the best-known epiphytic cacti which even non-gardeners would know of, hence, this must be celebrated. This sits in the Rhipsalidopsis sub-genus, having flattened segmented stems and a pendulous habit, with flowers appearing from March to April time. These wonderful trumpet-shaped flowers are borne on each stem tip, varying between shades of red or pink, each with a contrasting throat and lighter stamens. The blooming period can be extended when given the right conditions – more water and a cool evening temperature of around 45 – 55 degrees F, that’s around 7 – 8 degrees C.
My next favorite is the hard to find Hatiora herminiae, a member of the Hatiora sub-genus. Upright in growth habit and with a cylindrical segmented stem structure. Its’ unique and mostly solitary flowers are again, borne on the terminal stem tips, beautiful deep rose-pink in color, each growing up to around and inch long, (2.5 cm).
Fruits of the Hatiora herminiae are up to 8mm in length and olive green in color.
Both of the species listed above are relatively easy to grow, preferring a high humidity environment and cooler temperatures than most cacti and other tropical plant life. With a little extra care and attention through the Autumn months, your Hatiora cactus could be blooming in time for the holidays.
My next choice is a relatively compact and slow-growing epiphyte, native to Argentina and Bolivia another specimen plant belonging to the Rhipsalideae tribe.
Young growth is erect in habit and spiny, almost triangular in stem structure which in time matures to a flatter, branched and more pendant form. These linear, oblong branches have many bumpy areoles and can reach up to 18 inches long, 45cm, and about 1.2 inches wide, 3 cm. Each areole produces small, trumpet-shaped, waxy orange flowers along the length of the flattened branches, each only a couple of centimeters in size, but produced in the hundreds and stunning none the less. Small, round and waxy fruits follow on from the flowers which often remain on the plant for months.
Overall, the Pfeiffera monacantha is a very floriferous and unusual epiphyte, requiring little care, adequate warmth and a semi-shaded position. Natively, this cactus receives filtered sunlight through the dense forest canopy and will be scorched if placed in a direct sunlight position.
Also known as the “Moonlight Cacti”, my final choice is an epiphyte, lithophyte and terrestrial genus of plants, natively found in Central America, Northern South America and throughout areas of the Caribbean. Throughout the genus, there are a couple of dozen species, all with a similar climbing growth form. Stem structures range from clambering and flat to slender and ribbed, each with many knobbly areoles and aerial roots which help them climb their way over trees, shrubs and rocky outcrops.
Some specials produce spines, though not all, all do however, produce the most tropical funnel-shaped, scented flowers which open at dusk, for one night only. These large and nocturnal blooms are typically white in color, produced in abundance on mature plant specimens, and generally pollinated by moths and rarely bats.
My top species in this “Moonlight Cacti” group is the Selenicereus grandiflorus, also known as “Queen of the Night”. This species is very rare in cultivation, though renowned throughout the globe for its large and lustrous white flowers. Each bloom easily reaches up to and beyond 8 inches in length, 20.32 cm, and has the sweetest nocturnal fragrance.
In 1753, the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus described the Selenicereus grandiflora as the largest flowered species of all cacti known to that day. Today however, this may not be the case, but we do know that reports show the “Queen of the Night” was grown in the Royal Gardens at Hampton Court Palace before the 1700’s. This itself pays great homage to this special species, whose name is aptly derived from “Selene”, the Greek Moon Goddess and “Cereus”, meaning candle in Latin and referring to the genus’ nocturnal flowers.
We have taken a trip of discovery and learned more about the most spectacular flowering species of all epiphytic cacti.
Have a look for yourself and why not bring a little of that tropical paradise back home?