The orchid cactus has a rich history as an ornamental accent plant, enjoying popularity amongst gardeners and homeowners alike since the 1800s. The cactus is prized for its vibrant, exotic blossoms that appear each year in the springtime and come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. While the orchid cactus can be a bit more difficult to grow and bloom than other succulent species, its beautiful flowers are well worth the effort.
Behind the Orchid Cactus
The term “orchid cactus” can refer to a number of Epiphyllum species and hybrid breeds that produce stunning bursts of flowers in mid-spring. These plants are not in any way related to orchids, but are instead a variety of cactus that is native to the tropics of Southern Mexico. In the wild, this plant lives in between tree branches and into rock crevices, making it well adapted to growing from a hanging position. Many gardeners choose to display their orchid cactus from a hanging basket.
Orchid cacti are named for their exotic flowers, which bloom for up to several weeks each year. Originally, these plants produced creamy white flowers, but nowadays you can find hybrid varieties in shades of red, pink, yellow, orange, and even purple. Gardeners first started hybridizing orchid cacti in the early 19th century. New varieties of the plant have continued to emerge until as recently as the 1950s, when the first yellow orchid cactus hybrid was unveiled. Breeders today are still working on adding new colors to the already impressive spectrum of orchid cactus blossoms.
When your plant is flowering, be sure not to move, handle, or otherwise disturb it, as this can cause the blossoms to fall. The only time you should touch your orchid cactus during its flowering period is to water it. The rest of the year, it’s fine to handle the cactus as long as you use a gentle touch. The plant bears no spines, so you don’t have to worry about wearing hand protection.
Caring for Your Orchid Cactus
The orchid cactus can be a difficult plant to care for, whether you’re a novice hobbyist or an experienced professional. When planting and growing an orchid cactus, it’s important to keep in mind that this plant prefers conditions that mimic its natural tropical environment.
- In the wild, orchid cacti hang from rocks and tree trunks. They have adapted to growing in the shade provided by a thick forest canopy, and as such, you should try to place your cactus in indirect or filtered light instead of full sunlight. Yellowed, withering leaves indicate too much sun, while limp or undersized leaves indicate too little sun.
- Moisture is vital to the health of the orchid cactus. While you should be careful not to overwater your plant and encourage root rot, you also can’t let your plant’s roots dry out. Even during arid winter months, you should make sure that the bottom layer of soil in your plant’s pot remains moist.
- Pre-made cactus potting mixtures don’t always work well for orchid cactus varieties, as it is often too gritty. It’s best to make your own mixture using potting soil and pumice or perlite.
- Repot the plant once every two years as it grows bigger. If your plant is in bloom, wait at least a month after it has finished flowering before transferring to a new pot.
If you want to propagate your plant and grow even more orchid cacti in your home, you can do so after pruning. Simply take a cutting, preferably at least two segments long, and sever at the joint. Place the section in a cool, dark and dry place for about a week until the severed end of the cutting has healed over. Insert the end of the cutting into an appropriate soil mixture, and water sparingly for a couple of weeks until the plant’s roots have taken hold.
Unlike growing an orchid cactus to maturity from seed, which can take up to fifteen years, propagating a plant from a cutting usually takes just a single year. You can learn more about how to successfully propagate your orchid cactus from the experts at Gumbii Grows.
Growing Gorgeous Flowers
With an orchid cactus, the trick to growing bright, beautiful flowers each year is to plan ahead. The cactus follows a seasonal growth cycle where development is halted during cold winter months so that the plant is able to grow flowers and reproduce in the springtime. By mimicking tropical weather patterns, you can encourage your cactus to follow its natural flowering cycle.
During its growth period, the orchid cactus prefers to be kept at temperatures of around 60 to 75℉. During winter months, however, the plant is used to colder temperatures. Beginning in November or early December, you should move your cactus to a room that’s kept in the low to mid-60s during the day, and between 40 to 55℉ at night. Avoid temperatures below 35℉, as prolonged exposure to extreme cold is likely to kill your cactus.
Once you start to see buds forming, usually sometime between late winter and early spring, you can move your plant back to a warmer spot. Just remember that although orchid cacti need increased temperatures during their growth period, they still prefer plenty of shade and partial sunlight at all times.
You should never let the roots of your orchid cactus dry out completely, but it’s important to reduce the amount of water that you give your plant during its winter resting period. Restrict irrigation until you see buds starting to form, and then resume watering regularly to simulate Southern Mexico’s rainy season.
During winter months, you may see your plant’s leaves starting to shrivel as you restrict water. This is perfectly natural and should be no cause for alarm. As soon as you start to increase the water intake of your budding cactus, you will see its leaves plump up to their former healthy volume.
Once a week during the summer and fall, you should fertilize your plant to encourage healthy growth and development. A balanced 10-10-10 mixture diluted to a quarter teaspoon per gallon is the ideal fertilizer for most orchid cactus varieties. During that plant’s winter rest period, you should reduce fertilizer applications to just once per month. When your cactus starts to flower in the spring, a blooming fertilizer such as 7-9-5 should be used to promote the growth of luminous blossoms.
If you’re having trouble getting your orchid cactus to bloom, our friends at MouseLilly Orchids have a few helpful tips on how to produce beautiful flowers year after year.
You may also read our article about Boston Fern.