Orchid Cacti - Disocactus/Epiphyllum


Disocactus × hybridus 'Red German Empress'


Top Tips

  • Water once the top third of the soil dries out, reducing this further in the autumn and winter.
  • Provide a humid location. Introduce a humidity/pebble tray to keep the surrounding moisture high during the winter to avoid dry air. The use of artificial humidity is not needed in the summer.
  • Provide a bright location. Avoid more than two hours of direct sunlight, as well as away from excessively dark settings.
  • Supplement with houseplant feed or a general plant fertiliser, at monthly intervals.
  • Regularly check for pests, most notably Mealybugs.
  • Keep the ambient temperature above 10℃  (50℉)  throughout the year, especially if placed outdoors in the summer.
  • Flowers between late spring and early summer, lasting only a few days once opened.
  • Repot every three years using a Cactus & Succulent potting mix.

•Water - πŸ”ΈπŸ”Έ

The rule of thumb with Orchid Cacti is to allow the top couple of inches to dry out in between irrigations - once the pot begins to feel light, it's time for another water. Reduce this further during winter to replicate their dormancy period. Whilst in bloom, avoid the use of cold water due to the species' sensitive nature to cold temperatures. Under-watering symptoms include little to no new growth, a much-needed transplant, and drying leaves - remember, although they're in the cactus family, they originate in tropical locations meaning soil moisture and humidity should be generous. Over-watering symptoms include yellowing leaves that soon drop off, no or little growth and root rot. These are common with too much soil moisture, an improper soil medium or too low light.


•Humidity - πŸ”ΈπŸ”ΈπŸ”Έ

High humidity should be at the forefront of Orchid Cacti care. A weekly mist, or introducing a humidity/pebble tray will help replicate its natural habitat in the Brazilian forests. Botrytis petal blight and southern blight are caused when excess moisture (from misting or messy irrigations) is allowed to settle in the cubbyholes of the flowers or stem.


•Location & Light - πŸ”ΈπŸ”Έ

Bright, indirect light is favourable; however a darker location won’t do too much harm. A position that offers more than two hours of strong direct light must be kept off the cards, due to their susceptibility to sun-scorch. A location within three metres of a north, east or west-facing window, or below a skylight window are the ideal areas.


•Fertilisation - πŸ”ΈπŸ”Έ

Use a fertiliser high in potassium to prolong its flowers during the spring and summer - an excellent example would be Tomato Feed. Regular fertilisers will still do the job but will favour foliar growth instead. For the rest of the year, houseplant feed or a standard fertiliser can be used for supplementation, at monthly intervals.




Common Issues with Orchid Cacti

Root rot is a big issue; typical symptoms include yellowing lower leaves, stunted or softened growth often accompanied by vine collapse. Take the plant out of the pot and inspect its root systems. Yellow roots symbolise good health, however, if it's brown and mushy with the soil being quite soggy, action must be taken immediately. More information about addressing root rot can be found on this link.

Yellowing leaves or a naked base are products of excess moisture being allowed to sit on the foliage, commonly sped up by too little light or poor air circulation. Although watering from the top is acceptable, it's recommended to use the bottom-up method to reduce the chance of rotten foliage. For specimens that have a bare head, improve growing contains by using this method and increasing light levels slightly. Promote a bushier appearance by taking vine cuttings and placing them halfway down into the soil. Immediately remove yellowed or rotten debris as this will harbour both bacterial and fungal diseases that can both spread across to other sections of the plant.

Failed leaf or stem cuttings are a common issue among amateur gardeners, with damaged wounds or too small vines being the usual culprits. Although propagating all tropical cacti is relatively easy, people still find it hard to ace. Not only will the size of the vine dictate its success, damaging the leaves or vine can also hurt the chances of it rooting. For more information about how to take vines, scroll to the 'Propagation' section of this article.

Too much sunlight will cause a red tinge to the foliage. Although Orchid Cacti are best grown in locations offering bright light, prolonged periods of intense rays cannot be tolerated. Although the new growth will develop into its original green texture, sunburnt leaves will remain red or yellow for the rest of its functioning life.

A lack of flowers is caused by immaturity or an insufficient dormancy period served in the winter months. Specimens will only flower once they reach maturity - which can take in the region of three to eight years from a leaf cutting. Also, locations that offer near-similar temperatures all year round won't allow the plant to go dormant, resulting in poor spring growth. To achieve bud development, situate in a location that offers nighttime temperatures of around 12°C  (54°F) with fewer waters. The combination of both cooler temperatures and dry soil during the colder months will help seasonise the plant, thus leading to a better chance of flowers.

Always use lukewarm water, and if you choose to use tap water, allow it to stand for at least 24hrs before application. Tropical cacti tend to be quite sensitive to temperature change, so pouring cold tap water immediately into the pot will not only ionise your roots but could even cause yellow edges, sudden flower loss and stunted growth.




Dormancy Care & Annual Flowers

Established specimens (2yrs +) will easily bloom during the summer if its previous dormancy period has been served well in the winter. As ukhouseplants been challenged many times on this subject, we've created an acronym to help you through this process - SHORT. The combination of drying soil, cooler temperatures and dark nights will contribute to better flowers in the following season. Repotting isn't mandatory, but instead might hurt the chances because of transplant shock and stress. The following steps must be taken from autumn to winter, to provide the best possible dormancy period.


Sunlight

Provide a bright location with a splash of winter and spring sun. Darker settings will significantly reduce the chance of flowers.

Hydration

Reduce watering so that the soil becomes fully dry for a week, for the prevention of root rot and to replicate its dormancy period.

Occasional Feeds

One or two feeds using Cactus & Succulent Fertiliser is all that is needed for supplementation, as too nutritious soil will reduce the chance of buds.

Reduce Everything

This one is a reminder to reduce everything - especially the temperature.

Temperature

Reduce the temperature by around 5℃ or place in a room which is within 15 - 18℃  (59 - 65℉).  As most houseplants are sensitive to temperature change, we can't empathise how important this is to replicate their dormancy period. If all of the steps are fulfilled, an established specimen could produce beautiful red or pink clusters of flowers in the summer, lasting several weeks.

Time of YearCare Requirements

January & FebruaryResting/Dormancy Period. Reduce irrigations and fertilisation.
MarchEnd of Resting/Dormancy Period. Increase waters and feed using a nitrogen-based fertiliser at monthly intervals.
AprilPre-Flowering Period. Use a potassium-based feed fortnightly during this period. Water once the top their of the soil dries out.
May & JuneFlowering Period. Maintain moist soil and fortnightly potassium-based feeds.
JulyEnd of the Flowering Period. Gradually decrease both water and fertiliser intake in the soil. Remove spent flowers as they wilt.
August & SeptemberWater once the top third of the soil dries out. Supplement using houseplant feed or a general plant fertiliser, at monthly intervals.
October - December Resting/Dormancy Period. Reduce irrigations and fertilisation.


An Absence of Flowers

If your Orchid Cactus hasn’t flowered during the spring or summer, it's most likely due to incorrect care and its environment throughout the year. During the winter, reduce irrigations so that the soil almost dries out, along with reducing the temperature a few degrees. Provide an area that has at least twelve hours of complete darkness, with an absence of artificial light during the night. The buds may start to drop off if it endures persistent droughts or has been relocated in another room. The table above shows a basic timetable in which you can follow to significantly increase the chance of flowers during the spring.




Origins

There are several different Orchid Cacti in cultivation, whether they're true species, cultivars or hybrids. Unfortunately, taxonomy of Orchid Cacti is confusing. The argument of whether they belong in the Disocactus or Epiphyllum genus has been ongoing for decades. And even when they've decided on a family name, the species name is contradictory, too! The Disocactus × hybridus, pictured above, originates from Guatemala and was first described in the early 19th century. This hybrid is among the most popular among Orchid Cacti growers, due to its fragrant red flowers that are put on show in the spring or summer. The other popular Orchid Cactus, Disocactus ackermannii, has be reclassified FIVE TIMES since its discovery in 1829 by Adrian Haworth - Cactus ackermannii (1830), Cereus ackermannii (1837), Phyllocactus ackermannii (1842) and Nopalxochia ackermannii (1935) before the current Disocactus ackermannii in 1991.


Temperature

10°C - 26°C   (50° - 78°F)
H1b - can be grown outdoors in summer in a sheltered location, but is fine to remain indoors. Placing an Orchid Cactus outside is very beneficial to help with its overall health. If you decide to bring the plant outdoors, do not allow it to endure more than an hour of direct sunlight a day as this will burn the leaves. Regularly keep an eye out for pests, most notably aphids.


Spread

Up to 0.8m in height and 1m in width, with maturity taking up to eight years. If you've got images of any tropical cacti that are over twenty years old, be sure to send an image of it to us via the 'Contact Me' section of this website!

Pruning

Remove yellowed or dying leaves and plant debris to encourage better growth and improve the all-round appearance. Vine cuttings can be taken to halve the vine-length of the specimen, as well as doubling your stock.

Propagation

Via seed or leaf/stem cuttings. To learn about the essentials with sowing seeds, be sure to click on this link - Seed Propagation Tips.

Soil Propagation of Leaf Cuttings

  1. Choose which leaves to use. The ideal candidates are those that show no sign of damage, pests or diseases, and have small wires roots already-attached. Cuttings that don't have any roots will still survive, but it may take a little longer for its propagation.
  2. Delicately prune the whole leaf off from the plant, and cut it into several sections sideways. If you're stuck on which way to propagate the leaves, look at the image below.



  3. Prepare the pot and soil. Choosing a free-draining potting mix, for example, Cactus & Succulent Compost, provides a nice balance of moisture-retention and well-drainingness. Of course, most soils are acceptable (Houseplant or Multi-purpose compost), but try to add some extra ingredients like grit, sand and perlite to help loosen it up. If you've got any shallow and wide pots, for example a Bonsai pot, this is the time to use it. Propagating tropical cactus cuttings won't require deep soil, so try and avoid pots that are too big. Terracotta and plastic pots are both acceptable in this instance.
  4. Place the cuttings ON TOP of the moist soil. Allowing both the plant and it's wound to callous over (dry up) will kick-start the rooting process, along with the prevention of rot. Keep the cuttings on top of moist soil for a week, misting the soil and foliage on opposite days.
  5. Provide a bright, indirect location with temperatures above 18°C  (64°F) throughout this period.
  6. Then, place the cuttings into soil, submerging the bottom third. Make sure you don't set it too deeply into the soil, as this may lead to 'Blackleg' (the rotting of its base).

  7. Do NOT pat down the surrounding soil to aid support. The ideal soil conditions need to be fluffy and oxygenated, so compacting the soil will result in the suffocation of roots that'll lead to root rot. Tap the pot's side to consolidate (not compact) the soil. If support is needed, use a small stick or cane, but be sure NOT to condense it.
  8. Aftercare - Maintain evenly moist soil, allowing the top third to dry out in between waters. The ideal location would be in a warm, humid room within a few metres of a window, but out of direct light. After another month or two of being in the soil, treat it like a normal houseplant.


Flowers

Orchid Cacti will flower between late spring and summer with rosette-shaped blooms, sporting either red, yellow, pink or white appearances. Each flower will take several weeks to develop, lasting only a few days once opened. Most cultivars or species will produce a sweet-smelling fragrance that'll be most prominent at night. Be sure to take photos of your specimen in bloom, as the flowers will only last a few days!


Repotting 

Every third summer (after the flowering process), transplant into a slightly bigger pot using Cactus & Succulent Compost. This is an excellent time to check the roots' condition, as well as propagation. As all tropical cacti are prone to root rot, have a look around the bottom half of the root ball for any brown or broken down roots. If this is the case, remove the affected areas with clean utensils and ease off with the irritations. Click on this link to learn about how to perform the perfect transplant.


Diseases & Pests

Typical diseases associated with Orchid Cacti are root or leaf rot, leaf-spot disease, botrytis petal blight & powdery mildew. Keep an eye out for scale, spider mite, mealybugs & vine weevils. For more information on how to address any of these issues, click on this link.  Identifying Common Houseplant Pests & Diseases


Toxicity

Orchid Cacti are classified as non-poisonous. If large quantities of the plant are eaten, vomiting, nausea and a loss of appetite could occur.


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