With Epiphyllum as its botanical name, the orchid cactus is an epiphytic plant that grows on other plants or the bark of trees in its natural habitat.
Because of their large, colorful blooms that evoke the blooms of orchid, they are commonly and rightfully referred to as orchid cacti.
If you’re looking for a hassle-free cactus that will produce splendid blooms, this variety is a must-have. Read my quick guide on how to best care for orchid cacti houseplants.
Size & Growth
The flattened, fleshy, and leaf-like stems can achieve a height of around 3 feet and spread to about just as much. In their natural habitat, they can grow as much as three times as long as indoor orchid cacti.
Because of their epiphytic nature, they grow beautifully in hanging baskets, but they perform well even when grown in normal containers.
Despite being a cactus, the orchid cactus is not fond of direct sunlight. This is understandable since the plant doesn’t get direct sunlight growing in tree crotches and rotting vegetation, shaded by tree canopies.
Find a spot where the orchid cacti will receive filtered light or bright indirect light. Some direct light in the morning is tolerated, but not direct light in high noon, which will scorch and damage the plant.
Watering is perhaps the only aspect of orchid cacti care that will not be hassle-free. The plant is sensitive to chlorine and chloramine in water, so to avoid issues, I suggest you aerate your tap water overnight or simply use bottled water for watering.
The amount of water the orchid cactus gets is also important, not only its quality. Overwatering will easily cause root rot, so you need to understand the plant’s watering requirements.
Only water the cactus when the soil starts to dry out, but don’t allow it to completely go dry for prolonged periods. The orchid cactus tolerates some lapses in watering.
When watering, water thoroughly but then also make sure that the excess water is allowed to escape.
When the roots are allowed to sit in water, rotting processes will start that will destroy the plant’s roots, cutting the plant’s life short.
The best soil for orchid cactus is one that allows the quick percolation of water, yet it retains enough moisture to keep the plant hydrated.
To achieve this balance, you can use standard potting soil with perlite and sand mixed into it for fast drainage. Alternatively, you can go for standard cactus compost also enriched with perlite or grit.
The key here is to avoid using potting soil that will become waterlogged. Soil that’s heavy and retains water will adversely affect the health of the roots.
Temperature & Humidity
During the growing seasons, the orchid cactus will require at least 60 F temperature, but higher than this is better. Therefore, not being a cold hardy plant, it must be winterized indoors, unless you have a heated greenhouse or conservatory in your garden.
Orchid cactus requires moderate to high humidity, although it can tolerate some lapses in humidity as well. Yet, it’s best to make up for these dry periods by trying to increase the humidity around the plant.
There is no need for a humidifier unless you already have one. If not, the pebble tray method can work just as well.
Simply fill a tray with pebbles, add water then place the pot over the pebbles so that the pot itself is not touching the water. As water evaporates, it increases humidity around the plant.
The easiest way to provide all the nutrients the orchid cacti requires for growing — and eventually blooming — is to use a cacti fertilizer every 2 weeks during the growing stage (spring to fall). When the plant is in bloom, you have to suspend fertilizing.
Potting & Repotting
When the fleshy, leaf-like stems become too long, you can go ahead and prune them back. New shoots will develop. Still, even with pruning, the plant can become too heavy for its pot, signaling that it’s time for repotting.
You can repot in a larger pot, but at this point I recommend you opt for a terracotta pot. This will be heavy enough, so the plant won’t destabilize it, but it has another important advantage — it absorbs moisture better and quicker compared to plastic pots, helping the potting medium dry faster.
How to Propagate Orchid Cactus?
Although orchid cacti are started from seed, they take a long time to reach flowering maturity. From the time the seed germinates until the first bloom appears, you could be looking at 5 years altogether, but sometimes you could be waiting for as many as 7 years.
A much less timely propagation method is by stem cuttings. To harvest stem cuttings, cut sections of about 6-9 inches.
These should be allowed to callus (the cut end should seal over), which will happen if the stem cuttings are kept in a warm and dry place.
When the stem cuttings are ready, use cactus compost combined with a layer of grit on top and insert the stem cuttings about 1-2 inches deep.
Keep in a warm location (ambient temperature should stand somewhere between 65 °F and 75 °F) and ensure the potting medium stays moist to encourage rooting. Roots will form in about 3 to 6 weeks.
I suggest that you harvest stem cuttings in early spring, this way by that time next year, your stem cutting should start blooming.
Orchid cactus seems to combine the best of two plants — cacti and orchids. Its colorful and bright blooms are gently fragrant and although don’t last long, they’re certainly something to look forward to each year.
This isn’t a particularly fussy cacti variety if you understand the elements involved in its successful growth. Water and light are probably the two most difficult things to get right in its care.
Make sure you’re watering this cactus correctly and you’re using chlorine-free water. Don’t put your orchid cactus out on the scorching sun but do offer it plenty of indirect light.