Opening Night: Epiphyllum Cacti, Their Flowers, and the People Who Love Them

Photos by The Horticult

We dig flowers that come with a whiff of danger. Flowers, for example, that grow from cacti. Flowers that bloom at night. For these reasons (and so many more), epiphyllums — known for howlingly beautiful flowers that typically blossom into the evening — are scratching this itch.

Last summer we picked up, from Walter Andersen nursery, an epiphyllum for our garden. Eight months later, after four days of rain last March, this lanky mass of fleshy stems started budding: mostly in fuchsia, with the exception of one yellow guy. Two different color blossoms on one plant?!

Our epiphyllum that we picked up last July.

The epiphyllum that we picked up in July of 2013. Epiphyllum is a genus of 19 species within the cactus family.

Our epiphyllum first budded back in early March. We noticed these buds after a three days of rain. This photo was taken on March 3rd.

Our epiphyllum first budded back in early March. We noticed these buds after four days of rain. This photo was taken on March 3.

One month later, the buds are the epiphylllum are about two or three inches. Photo taken on April 6th.

One month later, the buds of the epiphyllum are about two or three inches long. Photo taken on April 6.

April 16th.

April 16.

April 22nd and our first epiphyllum bloom is starting to unfurl, about  50 days after we saw it bud.

April 22: our first epiphyllum bloom is starting to unfurl, about 50 days after we saw the first buds.

We were busy building the epiphyllum wall in our garden while the bloom was getting set to bloom. It was a race!

We were busy building the epiphyllum wall in our garden while the flowers were getting set to bloom. It was a race!

In anticipation of the flowering epiphyllum, Ryan finishes up a custom vertical planter with a protective stain to preserve the cedar.

“Have you seen this before?” we asked people about the dueling colors of flowers. We felt like proud/slightly concerned parents. It turned out that our epiphyllum, which propagates by cuttings, was actually two plants growing together.

And then they bloomed. Oh, baby. We woke up to this:

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Opening up in the evenings, the flowers of our epiphyllum peaked for about one day each. We transplanted ours into 1/3 perlite, 1/3 orchid bark and 1/3 Kellogg’s organic potting mix, inside a custom, south-facing planter built by Ryan, partially shaded in the afternoon by our lovely guava tree.

Our Instagram friend/garden genius Warren Keller advised us to not to move or transplant them while budding, lest the buds fall off, and that they are heavy feeders that love fertilizer, and organic matter and sand in their soil. But we just couldn’t wait to see them in their new habitat, and the plant did indeed suffer two lost buds. (Sobbing emoji.)

Also, epiphyllums need to be root-bound before they will bloom. Transplanting to a larger pot should normally be done after blooming, spring through summer for most species and hybrids.  The plants in this location get morning sun, and we water them on a timer about twice a week.

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Be sure to check out the time-lapse video that we made of our plant’s last bloom of the season! (See bottom of post.)

With names like ‘Frida Kahlo,’ ‘Poison,’ ‘Circus Circus’ and ‘Cinco de Mayo’ (!) the hybrids of the epiphyllum genus are many, varied and often developed by home gardeners. Flower circumferences can range from sand dollar to dinner plate; textures can be soft, stark, fluffy, spidery. And the colors! Powder pink, red, white, ivory, yellow, tangerine, fuchsia — this list is just one corner of the kaleidoscope.

Last Sunday, we saw a great array of “epies” at the San Diego Epiphyllum Society’s annual flower show in Balboa Park. The show included hundreds of flowers on view, many of which were displayed in a “Hats Off to Epies” show and competition.

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The Epiphyllum Flower Show and monthly meetings are held at Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego.

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A scene from the epiphyllum flower show in Balboa Park. ‘Jeffery Kida’ by Ken Loomis won second place at the “Society” table.

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‘Jeffery Kida’ by Ken Loomis.

'Orangutan' by Darryl Miyamoto.

‘Orangutan’ by Darryl Miyamoto.

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Outstanding new hybrid, "Akari"

Most outstanding new hybrid: “Akari” by Darryl Miyamoto.

Our favorite? The veiny Black Satin x El Natural by Mildred & Ge

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The theme was epies and hats!

The theme: “Hats Off to Epies!”

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Giddy up.

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A Horticult fave 'Poison' by Jerry Moreau.

That girl is…(‘Poison’ by Jerry Moreau).

'Bamba' by Cindy Decker.

‘Bamba’ by Cindy Decker.

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Looking down a row of epies at the people’s choice table. Which one is your favorite?

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'Glow Bug'

‘Glow Bug’: this was Ryan’s vote for the society’s “People’s Choice” awards.

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Chantal’s vote.

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"Chihoko Miki"

‘Chihoko Miki’ by Derek O.

There was also a sale in which many hybrids of Epiphyllum were sold alongside Selenicereus, a genus that contains moonlight cactus and night-blooming cereus. After consulting a thick binder of flower photos, we picked up an Epiphyllum ‘Londonii” (whose blossoms are creamy white), ‘Cinco de Mayo,’ and a Selenicereus, whose lean, clambering, needle-spiked stems shoot out white, fragrant, night-blooming flowers during summer. It’s a plant fit for a moon garden.

Also, of course, for after-dark pollinators like bats and moths.

Chantal searches the epiphyllum photo guide hybrids.

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New SDES member perk: one free cutting!

Bringing home some Selenicereus

We’ll take two! Bringing home the Selenicereus.

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Fast Facts and Care Tips for Epiphyllums

Epiphyllum is a genus in the cactus family Cactaceae. 

– Epiphyllum hybrids are part of the tribe Hylocereeae. Other genera in this tribe include SelenicereusDisocactus and Pseudorhipsalis.

– They’re also called “orchid cactus” (even though they are not orchids), “epies” or “epis.”

– Epis are tropical (rather than desert) cacti, growing abundantly in oak forests and rainforests across Mexico and Central and South America.

– They’re also epiphytes! (Which we love.) Epiphytes grow on trees/other structures for support — but not in a parasitic way.

– Bright, indirect, filtered light is advised. Morning or late afternoon sun is ideal.

– Soil should be rich with excellent drainage, sand and organic matter.

– Plants require some humidity, but make sure not to overwater them.

– Conversely, don’t allow the soil to dry out.

– Fertilize monthly with a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer from spring to fall. Do not fertilize in winter.

– Plants bloom best when they are root-bound. So only re-pot if absolutely necessary.

This time-lapse, which we shot from 5:40 PM to 11:30 PM, shows one of our epiphyllum flowers blooming:

At the show, we were guided by members of the SDES, a welcoming, very knowledgeable corps of epi devotees. They advised us on soil mixes (see below), pollination/hybridization techniques (e.g. a makeup brush works well for transferring pollen), and urged us to separate the two plants we have growing together before one overtakes the other. Wow, we were happy just to see our first blooms! But the experts at SDES  are masters at developing show-worthy hybrids. We can only imagine what their epiphyllum-filled gardens must look like this time year.

We’re so smitten (and in a cold sweat about how much we have yet to learn) that we signed up to become members.

Below, check out some soil wisdom from the show, and how we installed our new epis!

—TH

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Comparing soil mixes.

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Then it came time to plant our new Epiphyllum ‘Londonii’ (above), ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and Selenicerius.

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Hello, beautiful!

  • adriankeith

    Wow all of those were beautiful! Would you say these are easy enough for a novice to start with? I have absolutely zero gardening experience but have been wanting to start. I’ve got limited space to work with but would love to try planting these. They’re gorgeous! Great photos. I just stumbled on your blog the other day. Love what you guys are doing!

    • Welcome, welcome, Adriankeith! Glad to have you here. We say definitely give epiphyllums a try — try one of the soil mixes mentioned above, and as far as water and sun go, pay close attention to what the plant’s trying to tell you. Feel the soil and water accordingly. If the plant is looking burned, move to a shadier spot. They are truly a marvel, totally worth the effort. Let us know how it goes! (And thank you for the kind words.)

      • adriankeith

        I’ve been neglecting reading your blog and I don’t have a good excuse. I wanted to ask, where would I be able to get one of these epiphyllums? I live in the Long Beach area but don’t know where to look. Any ideas?

        Thanks again for the tips!

        • Hm…We found ours at an independent nursery that specializes in a wide range of plants, so you might be pleasantly surprised if you called around and checked with local shops. ALSO, we understand there’s a fellow by the name of Captain Cactus who sets up at the Long Beach Farmer’s Market: http://www.yelp.com/biz/captain-cactus-long-beach

          You might wanna swing by and chat with him — if he doesn’t already have epi cuttings, he might be able to help you find ’em.

        • ooh, PS! there’s also Pacific Epiphyllum Nursery in the LA area — lots going on online with them; don’t know if they’ve got a brick-and-mortar? http://www.pacificepiphyllum.com/servlet/StoreFront

  • 1st. Girl

    What strange new world! Thank you for the great photos of the show and inspiration of your garden placement. You are lucky to grow them outside. In Minnesota, my Cereus, whose fragrance, or I really should say, smell, is overpowering the night it is In full bloom. We have to stop worshiping it and flee the room! Apart from the amazing flowers, it is getting pretty ugly and ungainly so I want to take cuttings and start fresh. Where do you make the cut-across the leaf or at the node where it attaches to the stem. Thanks again! Love your enthusiasm.

    • Aren’t they absolutely otherworldly? We can’t wait for our nightblooming cereus to flower and to experience it in its overpoweringly fragrant glory. From what we’ve read, you should cut at the node (with a sterilized blade) and then let it callous before planting. But any experts out there, feel free to chime in…