San Diego Floral Association
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Easy to Grow and Impossible to Ignore
By Sandra Chapin
Epiphyllum ‘Norma Cantifio’
Photo: Sandra Chapin
My husband and I started our love affair with epiphyllums about 15 years ago, when we strolled through Balboa Park on Mother’s Day and found ourselves in the midst of a sale and show of epiphyllums. Whether you call them jungle cactus, orchid cactus, epiphyllums or just plain epies, the awesome array and variety of colors, sizes and shapes of the blossoms on these wonderful plants will take your breath away.
Epiphyllums are hybrids of the epiphytic cactus species that grow under the jungle canopy of trees in the Central and South American rainforest. The Greek word epi means placement at, on, over, beside, among or on the outside. Thus, epiphytic plants such as epiphyllums, orchids, bromeliads and the like grow without rooting into their host or draawing nutrients from them. You may see them growing on other plants or objects, but their root-like projections are for stabilization rather than nourishment.
While epiphyllum hybrids encompass a near-rainbow of colors, most of the species have white blooms, although a few have pink or red blooms. Most species bloom at night. In their natural habitat, epies grow in the forks of trees or crevices of rocks, their roots nestled in the decomposing leaf matter. Moisture is obtained from the frequent rains and humid air. The air circulation high in the trees brings a continuing stream of nutrients to the growing epies. In Greek, Epiphyllum means “upon the leaf.” The blossom appears to emerge directly from the leaf. In fact, epie plants do not have leaves. What many call leaves is a wide thick stem or branch.
Epiphyllum ‘George’s Favorite’
Photo: Sandra Chapin
Hybridizers have been able to produce a startling variety of epiphyllums by crossing the species and introducing other related cactus. Early plant explorers took species to Europe in the early 1800s where hybridizers started making crosses. Since the beginning of the 1900s there have been many hybridizers in Southern California. Over time, they have changed and improved various characteristics of the plants.
Changed and improved characteristics are numerous. Sizes of blooms run the gamut from one inch to more than a foot. Colors range from pure white and white with traces of yellow, green, pink in them, to vivid reds, yellows, oranges, pinks and purples. There has never been a blue epi. Hybridizing has created more dramatic color patterns and combinations of colors. First consider hues, tints and shades of the colors in exquisite tones and combinations, such as bright pink petals shading to intense magenta. Petals may vary in color pattern to demonstrate stripes, marbling and other variegation. Petal and flower shapes have also been modified by hybridzers. Petals can be narrow or wide, pointed, rounded or blunt. The flower can be cup and saucer shape, flat or funnel shaped.
Epiphyllums typically bloom from April to June, however, a few varieties bloom off-season. The smaller blooms especially may bloom several times a year. It is not unusual to have a flower on the hybrid ‘Harald Knebel’ most of the year.
Epiphyllum ‘Lola Leah’
Photo: Sandra Chapin
We are lucky to live in San Diego County as this is really the hub of epiphyllum growing, with many enthusiastic collectors and growers. Epies are grown all over the world including Sweden, Germany, England, Australia, New Zealand and in most of the U.S., however, our frost-free Mediterranean climate, moderate rain-free summers and mild winters make them nearly care-free plants for us.
Epies must be protected from the frost if you live in one of the colder areas. They will briefly tolerate a few nights of 28 degree Fahrenheit weather, but prolonged exposure to cold will damage or kill them.
They also like humidity. The areas that have morning fog are ideal, but if you don’t have that during the hot summer, a mister or occasional spray from the hose works great.
Epiphyllums need a soil that drains quickly. Most growers mix perlite into their potting mix. Each epi grower has his or her secret mix, however, most contain some combination of the following: potting mix, orchid bark or cocoa chips and perlite or pumice. Some growers add charcoal, blood meal, bone meal and slow release fertilizer. Adding perlite or pumice is a must for the quick draining soil that epies require.
Epies need fertilizer at least twice a year. In January or February, epies need a fertilizer for blooms. A fertilizer with no- or low-nitrogen is best. When you look on the package Nitrogen is the first number of the three hyphenated digits displayed, e.g., 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 are typical general purpose fertilizers. Look for a low first number such as 0-8-8 or 2-10-10. After the blooming season use a balanced fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 for growth. You may use a granular, slow release or liquid fertilizer. Many like to use a liquid as a foliar spray also.
Epies are also very easy to start from cuttings. Take a six to eight inch cutting of the stem. Let the cut callous over for at least a week. Then put two or more areoles into the potting mix. Do not water! When the cutting shows resistance when you give a slight tug, then you know roots have developed and you should start lightly watering.
If you start three cuttings of the same variety in the same pot, you will increase your chances of growing a blooming plant sooner. However, be certain they are cuttings of the same variety. Do not mix cuttings.
The plants need filtered light. They may be hung or placed on shelves under patio covers, in trees or under shade cloth or lathe. Remember you are trying to replicate that jungle tree canopy.
Starting Your Collection
Epiphyllum cuttings are available at the Plant Trader at the Wild Animal Park. The shade house at the Wild Animal Park has in excess of 600 hybrids and a number of species on display. The display is certainly worth a visit during blooming season. The Wild Animal Park collection is cared for by the San Diego Epiphyllum Society (www.epiphyllum.com). SDES also has a sale at the Wild Animal Park the first weekend of May and during the fall garden festival.
The San Diego Epiphyllum Society is a non-profit society with the purpose of furthering the culture of epiphyllums. It meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month in Room 101 of the Casa del Prado building at Balboa Park. The general meeting includes of a short business meeting, a speaker, a raffle, an opportunity to purchase cuttings and supplies and a time to socialize with other growers and learn more about this interesting plant. There is also a pre-meeting culture class at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104. Everyone is welcome to attend and hopefully join the society.
Epiphyllums are easy to grow, have a huge variety in size, shape and color. They are fun and interesting to have in your garden.
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