How to Get Epiphyllum (Orchid Cactus) to Bloom Abundantly

About Epiphyllum


Jungle cacti like the genus Epiphyllum can be recognized by their unusual foliage. Unlike their desert cactus cousins, which tend to be round and plump in order to minimize surface area and conserve water, these jungle dwellers sport segmented fleshy leaves. That explains why they’re also called leaf cacti!

Some jungle cacti are terrestrial (they grow in soil), but many, including Epiphyllum, are epiphytic. This means they naturally grow on trees in a non-parasitic manner, climbing their way up their host’s trunk in search of more light. (Other epiphytic houseplants you might be familiar with include Tillandsias, Hoyas, and Rhipsalis.)

One thing many people don’t realize about cacti is that they’re lavish bloomers, and many species of cactus have beautiful flowers. Jungle cacti are no exception, with the Christmas cactus and Easter cactus being two of the most popular examples.

Natural habitat

The genus Epiphyllum is naturally found in Central and South America, from as far north as Mexico all the way down to Argentina in some cases. It’s also an introduced genus in a bunch of other places around the world, particularly in China.

As mentioned, in their natural habitat, orchid cacti mostly grow on trees (although some can also be lithophytes, meaning they grow on rocks). It’s not a surprise, then, that they’re mostly found in forested zones. These can vary from tropical to subtropical, mountainous to lowland, and wet to merely moist—as long as there are trees for the cacti to grow on, they’ll thrive.

Epiphyllum’s night-blooming nature, white blooms, and strong fragrance give us good clues as to what their natural pollinators are. Rather than being pollinated by bees, like many plants that open their flowers during the day, the orchid cactus appears to rely on hawkmoths (family Sphingidae) to fertilize its flowers. These moths are noted to have a particular taste for pale-colored flowers and sweet scents.

Uses and cultural significance

The main reason (indoor) gardening enthusiasts love to grow Epiphyllum cacti should be clear by now: few houseplants can beat this species when it comes to flowers. But that’s actually not the only use for these epiphytic cacti!

First off, as a member of the tribe Hylocereeae, Epiphyllum is closely related to the dragonfruit cactus (Selenicereus undatus). Pollinated orchid cactus flowers will produce bright pink fruits that look just like mini dragonfruits when you cut them open. Some of them taste pretty good, others not so much, but they’re all technically edible.

Types of Epiphyllum

The genus Epiphyllum is not a particularly large one. There are currently 10 accepted species. Most of these are grown as houseplants, although some are more common in the hobby than others.

  • Epiphyllum oxypetalum: Also known as Dutchman’s pipe or queen of the night, this is undoubtedly the most common orchid cactus. Its flowers, which do indeed open up after sunset, are bright white and absolutely worth losing some sleep for.
  • Epiphyllum hookeri: Mostly known for its subspecies, called E. hookeri subsp. guatemalense, specifically a cultivar called ‘Monstrose’ or sometimes ‘Curly Sue’. As the name suggests, it has curly foliage!
  • Epiphyllum pumilum: Similar to E. oxypetalum, although its flowers are a bit smaller. They still smell just as divine, though!
  • Epiphyllum laui: White flowers with yellowish outer petals. 
  • Epiphyllum chrysocardium: Maybe the most spectacular of all the Epiphyllums, this one doesn’t just produce the typical huge, fragrant flowers. It also sports unusual jagged foliage, which explains why it’s commonly referred to as the fern cactus.
  • Epiphyllum phyllanthus: Smaller flowers, but relatively large, bright pink fruits. 
  • Epiphyllum baueri: Unusual flat blooms. This one isn’t quite as popular in cultivation as some of its cousins.
  • Epiphyllum cartagense: Big, pointy-petaled flowers. Another one of those species that’s not quite as common, meaning it’s mostly reserved for serious collectors.
  • Epiphyllum grandilobum: Typical Epiphyllum blooms, but with elegantly lobed leaves.
  • Epiphyllum thomasianum: Large white flowers with striking golden stamens.