When many people hear the word cactus, they immediately envision something like a saguaro or prickly pear. Unlike a traditional cactus plant, however, the orchid cactus doesn’t have any prickly stickers or thorns. This stunning flowering plant does come from the cactus family, but has no thorns, and offers arguably the most beautiful flowers on Earth.
In this article, we’ll show you how can cultivate them and keep them thriving for years to come. They’re great for hanging baskets indoors or out, easy for beginners, and come in miniature varieties if you’re short on space.
What’s an Orchid Cactus?
The orchid cactus isn’t actually an orchid at all. Its botanical name is Epiphyllum, which is an epiphyte. They grow in tropical areas on trees, where their roots can feast on the decaying organic matter nearby. However, this plant isn’t parasitic: rather, it sustains life through the air rather than from the vegetation near it. This makes it easier to cultivate at home than most standard orchids.
These are hybrids whose parents are native to Central and South America, as well as southern Mexico. As a result, orchid cacti enjoy a dry period and cool temperature during the winter, with warmer, more humid conditions in the growing period. With the right care, the plant blooms in spring. Mature plants offer some of the most stunning waves of flowers in spectacular colors during the following weeks.
These plants are well known for their blooms, but they also grow edible fruit. Although I haven’t tried the fruit personally, it’s said to taste similar to passionfruit, with a texture similar to kiwi.
Orchid Cactus Varieties
Most of the orchid cactus varieties grown today are hybrids. They come in shades of yellow, orange, white, red, pink, or purple, or they can be multi-colored. The flowers are often nocturnal and very fragrant, but the blooms only last for around two to three days out of the year.
Although there are many varieties available, the primary genera people choose from include Selecnicereus, Epiphyllum, Disocactus, and Rhipsalis. Epiphyllum varieties are easy to break down based on color:
- Red: Arlene, Miss America, and Beautiful Red
- Purple: Miss Hollywood and Dragon Fruit
- Pink: Millennium, Unforgettable, and Ophelia
- Orange: Cutie, Hawaii, and Dragon Heart
- Yellow: King of Yellows, Jennifer Anne, and Desert Falcon
- White: Fred Bouton, French Sahara, and College Queen
Epiphyllum oxypetalum is the most popular species. This variety offers white, fragrant flowers and only blooms for a single night. Sneak up on it during the night it’s in full bloom for a stunning view, and watch it wither away before morning.
How to Plant an Orchid Cactus
You can start an orchid cactus from seed, but using this method means your plant won’t flower for the first 5 years. It’s much easier and faster to grow from cuttings, which is the common way to propagate these plants.
To propagate, cut off a 4 to the 6-inch-long segment in the springtime. Allow the end to callus over a few days. Then, place the stem piece upright with the callused end downward, in a container full of moist soil.
The cuttings will take to root easily, which makes creating an orchid cactus easier from cuttings than anything. Put the container in a bright, indirectly lit area, and keep the soil moist for 3-6 weeks for them to take root.
Where to Plant
To imitate their natural habitat, grow an orchid cactus in a hanging basket where its long, flat leaves can cascade down over the sides. These natural tree-dwellers plants enjoy hanging out, and they’re easy to grow when placed in a shady area.
While these plants are great in hanging baskets, you can also plant them in a shady location if you live in a hot climate. They thrive near a north wall that can offer protection, or shaded by a nearby tree from the daily heat. Pot-bound plants will best, however, making them nearly indestructible even for beginners.
Just keep them away from drafty areas or heating vents.
Potted orchid cactus plants grow well with roots filling up the bottom of the pot. Sometimes the roots can become a tangled mess, which makes division and repotting quite difficult. Additionally, you’ll need to repot the plant every two or three years to a slightly bigger pot for optimum health.
A potted orchid cactus can head outdoors after it forms buds, as long as the weather remains mild. However, be careful when moving your plant from one condition to another while the buds are forming.
For this reason, many orchid cacti are grown in a greenhouse.
Wherever you choose to grow yours, leave it completely alone once the plant begins to bloom. Keep it in the same spot and don’t change anything environmental—such as the temperature or light—or the plant will drop its buds.
Plant in the shade if you live in a hot location. In a colder climate, you can follow the same care guides for a Christmas cactus, ferns, or tender begonias and grow these as houseplants. An orchid cactus is hardy to zones 10 and 11, although some varieties extend into zone 12 as well.
Bright, indirect sunlight is required all year long, whether the plant is indoors or out. Maintain protection from the harsh summer sun and direct sunlight.
A cactus or succulent potting soil is said to work fine for these plants. However, I don’t recommend using this mix. Instead, choose a light and porous mixture that’s rich in humus holds moisture and drains quickly. Texture wise, the soil should remain coarse over finely sifted options and teeter toward being slightly acidic.
How to Care for an Orchid Cactus
Caring for an orchid cactus is easy with a little practice. Follow the care requirements for your variety and take the following overall care requirements into consideration.
During the growing season, especially in hotter locations, the plants will need plenty of water, proper ventilation, and protection from strong heat. The soil should remain moist from the spring to the fall, watering more infrequently in the winter. Constant humidity is great for these plants, and an indoor plant would thrive near a humidifier. Humidity levels of around 50-60% are ideal. Mist or spray the stems from time to time with water as well to offer some humidity and clean the dust from the leaves, but stop when the plants begin to bud and flower to avoid fungus.
During the winter, an orchid cactus requires much less water. Some plants thrive with no winter water at all, while other varieties shouldn’t ever completely dry out, no matter what season it is. If the leaves appear to shrivel, give them a small drink, but check your variety’s care guide to make sure.
The active growing season kicks back in during early spring, and most varieties will start to need more water again starting in February for blooms to form in April or May.
Average room temperatures should remain between 60-75 degrees F overall. For an orchid cactus to form buds, the plant will require around 8 to 10 weeks of cooler daytime temperatures around 60-65 degrees and nights as cold as 45 degrees, no less than 30 degrees.
The dry season also requires lower nightly temperatures and maintaining a range between 30 and 50 degrees is best while restricting water. After February, temperatures can begin to rise.
Rather than prune the plant throughout the growth period, wait to prune back the blooms just before winter or do so in the early spring, just before the plant begins to actively grow or after the plant has completely flowered. Regularly pruning each spring can help encourage the branches to stem out and create a fuller-looking plant. However, don’t toss out the clippings. You can use the cuttings to propagate new plants.
Begin using fertilizer in February to prepare your orchid cactus for the growing season. Use a weak liquid foliar or a 2-10-10 NPK fertilizer around every two weeks or so until the temperature cools off. High-potassium fertilizers also work well and encourage more blooms next season. Just don’t use a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and only apply during the growing season to ensure bloom growth.
Common Problems to Growing an Orchid Cactus
Problems pop up if and when you water this plant too much.
Some varieties are susceptible to fungal leaf spot, particularly in spring, which is why it’s important to only mist the stems. They may grow fuzzy patches of mold on the leaves, and this condition is very difficult to treat. If you only notice a few small spots, try using a fungicide spray. With a cactus that’s entirely covered, however, it’s easier to dispose of the diseased plant and start over with healthy cuttings.
If you overwater, you may also face pests like fungus gnats. These bugs are common in houseplants that have been overwatered, particularly during the winter months. Root rot could also become a serious issue if you don’t correct the moisture issue.
Balance is Key
The blooms of these stunning plants don’t last long and may not appear at all. As a result, proper care all year long is very important for growing an orchid cactus. Luckily, the care requirements are easy enough even for beginners to follow.