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Epiphytic Cacti from the Rainforest

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This page offers an introduction to these fascinating and gorgeous plants, with a list of currently recognized species and their synonyms.

These are hardy and rewarding plants, worthy of being included in every gardener's collection. They do well indoors during the winter in cooler climes, and absolutely thrive outside when weather is warm enough.


Epiphyllum Tele Ann, fully open -- a hybrid with a cup-and-saucer form. Like many "epis" it initially opens at night, but then stays open for several days. It can reach over 10 inches (25cm) in diameter.


Plants of the genus Epiphyllum are epiphytic cacti from Central and South America. They are true cacti (from the plant family Cactaceae). A list of the species in this genus is provided below, and brief descriptions of individual species are offered toward the bottom of the page. Most epiphyllums grown in captivity are hybrids, such as the one shown above, and the "opening sequence" shown below. However, there is a growing interest in species both for their intrinsic natural beauty and, in the case of rarer species, for the opportunity to contribute to their conservation.


Epiphyllum Blazon fully open. Though it first fully opens at night, there is ample time to enjoy these marvelous blossoms because they stay open for up to 4 days. It can reach over 10 inches (25cm) in diameter.


True Cacti -- Complete with Spines If You Just Look Hard Enough

Some people don't initially recognize epiphyllums as cacti because they lack the formidable arrays of spines often encountered in that family; however, if you look closely, you'll find many species and some of the hybrids have tiny hair-like spines at margins and joints.

Epiphyllums are indeed true cacti, but are more often labeled as "Epicacti" or "jungle cacti" to differentiate them from related desert flora. Many plant lovers also call them "orchid cacti" because of the very large and colorful flowers. The great size and shape of the flowers, as well as their often intoxicatingly sweet fragrance, comes from the wild Epiphyllum genes, but the amazing colors mostly come from other cactus genera that have been cross-bred into the hybrid epiphyllums.

The profusion of colors seen in hybrids (those created by horticulturalists through manual cross breeding of different species) is largely absent from the flowers of true species (the wild plants, true to their native form), which are very large and showy, but mostly white with a bit of yellow here and there. This is because these plants open at night, when their pollinators -- bats and large moths -- are active. In the darkness of the jungle, the plants wouldn't fare very well if they couldn't attract the attention of their pollinators. Light colored flowers help reflect moon and star light, making the flowers stand out against the dark rainforest foliage.... a glowing and inviting meal of nectar for some little winged creature flying by, and thus an opportunity to create seeds for the next generation of plants.

Cacti are found all around the globe, but they are especially well represented in the Americas. Epiphyllum species are found in the deciduous oak forests of Mexico, the lush landscapes of Caribbean islands, and the steaming rain forests of Central & South America.


Epiphyllum oxypetalum bud late in the afternoon. It has begun to "swell" ever so slightly, indicating it will open later that night, typically sometime between 8 and 10 pm.
Passengers, Not Parasites

Jungle cacti are at the pinnacle of cactus evolution... having left the mundane process of growing on the ground and moved into the treetops to exploit that unique environment -- the same one occupied by many orchids. Like orchids, epiphyllums have evolved into epiphytic plants which live on the surface of other plants. They are not parasites, merely passengers hitching a ride up out of the gloomy understory of the forest and into the bright light and clear air of the canopy.

"Epiphyllum" literally means "upon the leaf," in reference to their habit of growing in the crowns of tall rainforest trees.

They share this unique habitat with other epiphytes, such as orchids and bromeliads, and serve as a home to all manner of small vertebrates and invertebrates. Long stems ("runners") can snake through the forest canopy, producing flattened blade-like "leaves" along their length. If severed, the runners have the ability to form new independent plants, provided some portion of them is gripping the host tree (and there is adequate moisture and nutrients).

Like all true epiphytes, they take their nourishment from the environment and not from their host plant (which would make them a parasite, not an epiphyte). Falling leaves, bird droppings, dead insects, etc. are trapped by the tangled root masses of epiphytes, or collect in catchments of moss and other plants at the crotch of large branches. This becomes the source of nutrients for the epiphytes.

The leaves of epiphytic cacti are actually modified stems, adapted to cling to their host tree, as well as to serve photosynthetic and storage functions. Flowers are produced from the nodes near the ends of these leaves. The flowers are quite large when compared to the leaves that support them. An image of an Epiphyllum flower bud is shown at right, a little smaller than true life size. The buds can be as large as a man's hand in some species, a bit smaller in others (in other, closely related genera, such as Hylocereus, the buds are even bigger and the flowers may be as large as a man's head).

Wonderful Addition to Any Home or Garden

These atypical cacti are popular houseplants (or garden additions in warmer climates -- typically Zone 10 or warmer) because of their impressive flowers and pleasing tropical foliage. Most of the true species bloom at night, since they are predominantly pollinated by bats and large moths. They have large white flowers to help their pollinators locate the blossoms by moon or star light, and many have very lovely fragrances. The flowers of the true species typically last only one night (on occasion they may persist into the following day). To me, this transience only adds to their appeal and mystique.

In cultivation, they can be grown in large hanging baskets or supported in a large pot. Potted plants need to be supported with stakes or a trellis because of their natural climbing (and subsequently drooping) habit. Many large and colorful hybrids have been created over the years. They come in a wide array of colors, which have been attained through intergeneric hybridization with cacti from the Aporophyllum, Heliocereus, and Nopalxochia genera. These day-blooming cacti have passed their wide array of yellows, pinks, reds and oranges to their hybrid offspring, and in many cases have also imparted the day-blooming characteristic or increased the longevity of the blossoms so that they may last several days.

Epiphyllums are very easy to grow.
Propagation is primarily by vegetative cuttings, though new hybrids are produced from seed. Most epiphyllums produce long, arching stems that are flat and notched along the margins. The flowers can be up to 10 inches across and are available in nearly every color. If you are interested in obtaining some epiphyllums, you should visit my sale page.

(including those that have been reassigned to other genera)

Valid species names are in bold.


Epiphyllum anguliger (Lem.) D. Don

Synonyms: Phyllocactus anguliger, Epiphyllum darrahii, Phyllocactus darrahii

Commonly known as the Ric-Rac cactus. It is also variously called Moon Cactus, Queen of the Night (a misnomer), Fishbone Cactus, Rick-Rack Cactus, and also Zig-Zag Cactus. You can see why when you look at the foliage. The lobes are more lunate than those of Selenicereus anthonyanus, which is the other night-bloomer that goes by these common names.

This popular species is endemic to the subtropical states of Nayarit and Jalisco in southwestern Mexico. It lives in a very humid atmosphere from near sea level to 914 meters (3000 feet). The precipitation in this region is heaviest from May to October.

The leaves are comprised of a series of deeply cut lobes, with rounded margins, which creates a saw tooth effect. The pure white 8 centimeter (3½ inch) blooms are backed by orange-bronze sepals and petals. Mature plants produce many buds, which open over many weeks. Each flower lasts two to three days. The bright green stems branch frequently. The inflorescence is scented like lemon -white flowers with white tubes more than in length. The style and stigma lobes are also white. If you are interested in obtaining a cutting, you should visit my sale page.


Epiphyllum cartagense (FAC Weber) Britton & Rose

Synonym: Phyllocactus cartagensis

A beautiful species, dear to my heart because it is endemic to Costa Rica, where it occurs on both slopes from Cordillera Guanacaste to Cordillera Talamanca in wet tropical forest, 700-1700 m. Described initially from a specimen collected near Cartago, hence the name. In this area, the rainy season lasts from April or May to December.

Ticos call this plant Plananillo de Monte ("little mountain banana").

Quite rare in collections, but the highly fragrant flowers and edible fruits make it an excellent plant for warmer gardens and indoor growing. Night blooming, though flowers often persist into morning (as seen in the photo above). Extremely fragrant.

If you are interested in obtaining a cutting, you should visit my sale page.


Epiphyllum caudatum Britton & Rose

Synonym: Phyllocactus caudatus

Endemic to the region surrounding the city of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. Oaxaca has a tropical montane type of climate.

Originally, this cactus starts with cylindrical stems; later they flatten, and are only 4 centimeters wide with a wavy edge. These stems branch densely, and become more cylindrical with age. The flower has a tube that is 7 centimeters long, ending in white petals that are 6 centimeters long.

If you are interested in obtaining a cutting, you should visit my sale page.


Epiphyllum columbiense (F.A.C.Weber) Dodson & A.H.Gentry

Synonyms: Phyllocactus phyllanthus var. columbiensis, Epiphyllum phyllanthus var. columbiense

Native to the tropical rain forests of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.


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Epiphyllum costaricense (F.A.C.Weber) Britton & Rose

Synonym: Phyllocactus costaricensis, Epiphyllum thomasianum var. costaricense, Epiphyllum macrocarpum, Phyllocactus macrocarpus

Native to the rain forests of Costa Rica and Panama.


Epiphyllum crenatumEpiphyllum crenatum (Lem.) H.P. Kelsey & Dayton


Epiphyllum crenatumThis species grows as an epiphyte in the tropical rainforests of Guatemala and Honduras. These rainforests have high humidity, and temperatures that are constant throughout the year.This species has thick bluish-green branches that are stiff, strong, and upright growing. Also, they have deep notches at the areoles, and crenate margins. On these branches grow strongly perfumed flowers that are creamy-white to greenish-yellow, expanding from 12 to 15 centimeters (5 to 6 inches) wide, opening at night, and flowering for many days. This is a very popular, and well-known species. It has been used in cross pollination with many other genera to produce countless fine hybrids.

Epi. crenatum var. kimnachii has flowers that grow from 22 to 29 centimeters (8½ to 11½ inches) long, and 14 to 20 centimeters (5½ to 8 inches) across, with creamy-white petals, and bristly spines on the fruit. This epiphyte is indigenous to the montane forest valleys in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico. In this area, the climate is hot and wet for most of the year.

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Epiphyllum floribundum (Lem.) H.P.Kelsey & Dayton

Discovered by Dr. Mildred Matthias near Yanamono, approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Inquitos in the Amazon region of Peru. Accordingly the plants grow in extremely hot and humid rainforest conditions. This area has an annual rainfall with as much as 3810 millimeters (150 inches), and is heaviest between November and April.

The bristly, soft stems grow to a length of 50 centimeters (20 in), with a width of 3 to 5 centimeters (1¼ to 2 inches). Also, these stems have serrate margins with bristly areoles. From these areoles are produced blooms that grow from 9 to 12 centimeters (3½ to 4¾ inches) long, and 8 to 10 centimeters (3¼ to 4 inches) in diameter. The cream to yellow blooms are very profuse. Although opening at night, it does last for several days, and flowers more than once a year.


Epiphyllum gertrudianus
This is a questionable species that is reportedly very similar to Epiphyllum anguliger and might be a synonym. The range of this plant reportedly extends from subtropical to the tropical rainforests of Mexico.


Epiphyllum grandilobum Britton & Rose

Synonyms: Phyllocactus grandilobus, Epiphyllum gigas

Very large branches are produced by this plant. They can be 25 centimeters (10 inches) wide, with deeply crenate margins. The flower is also huge, white, and nocturnal. These develop on a curved tube to about 26 centimeters (10¼ inches) wide, the style protruding beyond the stamens with many yellow stigma lobes.
This species is very difficult to flower outside its natural habitat.

Native to the rainforests of Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as the southernmost Caribbean islands (eastward to Trinidad and Tobago). The average monthly temperatures range from 23° to 27° Celsius (73° to 81° Fahrenheit). The rainy season extends from April to December.

Epiphyllum guatemalense Britton & Rose

Synonym: Epiphyllum phyllanthus var. guatemalense, Phyllocactus guatemalensis

Occurs from Mexico to Honduras.

Epiphyllum guatemalense var. monstrosa: A special "monstrose" growth form, highly prized by collectors and quite rare in cultivation.

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Epiphyllum hookeri (Link & Otto) Haw. 1829

Their natural distribution is over a large area of the northern part of South America, Trinidad, and Tobago, Guyana, and Venezuela. The mean annual temperature of this tropical area is 27° Celsius (81° Fahrenheit). This species forms a large bush with thin, light green stems growing to about 3 meters (120 inches) long. Occasionally, it will grow up to 7 meters (23 feet) long, with ladder-like incisions at the margins. The nocturnal flowers are white, but not scented. Each is up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. From the center protrudes an extended carmine style. Following the faded blooms, red oblong fruits appear.

This plant is often traded under the name Epi. strictum, one of its common synonyms.

E. hookeri var. ruestii: This variety (sometimes sold as a separate species, but that is not taxonomically valid) has a shrubby body that is strong, and upright growing. The main stem is irregularly flat to three angled. It has dark green, narrow side shoots. The white flowers are funnel-shaped, growing from 25 to 30 centimeters (10 to 12 inches) long. Also, they have an angular, long, thin tube that is yellow, and narrow, with yellow sepals. The style is white with ten yellow stigma lobes.

Blooms each open around 8 p.m. and last until around noon the next day. They are fragrant and range in size from 5" to 7".

Cereus hookeri Link & Otto 1828
Epiphyllum hookeri (Link & Otto) Haw. 1829
Epiphyllum phyllanthus var. hookeri (Link & Otto) Kimnach 1964
Epiphyllum ruestii
Epiphyllum stenopetalum (C.F.Först.) Britton & Rose 1913
Epiphyllum strictum (Lem.) Britton & Rose 1913
Phyllocactus hookeri (Link & Otto) Salm-Dyck 1842
Phyllocactus stenopetalus C.F.Först. 1846
Phyllocactus strictus Lem. 1854



Epiphyllum laui M.Kimnach

This species was discovered by Dr. Alfred Lau, north of Tumbala in the state of Chiapas, Mexico growing at an altitude of 2200 meters (7200 feet). Because of the height above sea-level, this area becomes cold, especially at night. The average temperature range is 15° to 17° Celsius (59° to 63° Fahrenheit). The region gets a substantial rainy season from May to October.

A few specimens were collected near the time of this species' discovery, and most of the cuttings went to Huntington Botanical Gardens in Southern California, but were subsequently lost. A small number of advanced growers have plants, but this species is not widely available to the general public.

These vigorous, vine-like epiphytes have wide, soft stems, and the new growth has a reddish hue. The plant is unusual as it is day flowering with orange-yellow outer petals, and white inner ones. This is a shade loving species that is easy to flower under the right cultural conditions. It likes a humid, frost-free but cool growing area, that is moist all year. The large flowers are up to 18cm (about 7 inches) in diameter and last for several days. They are said to be sweetly fragrant.



Epiphyllum lepidocarpum (F.A.C.Weber) Britton & Rose

Synonym: Phyllocactus lepidocarpus

Another species possibly, endemic to Costa Rica, though some reports also say is might range into Nicaragua and/or Panama. The type specimens came from an isolated area, in wet cloud forests near Cartago, at an altitude of 1676 meters (5500 feet). At this altitude the climate is temperate, with average annual temperatures of 16.7° Celsius (62° Fahrenheit). The rainy season is from April or May to December.

Thick but narrow stems on this species reportedly have ladder-like notches on the edges. Often, they are three winged at first with hairy areoles. With age, the stems grow woody, and cylindrical. From deep in the notches the white flowers emerge, and expand to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long with white styles, and yellow stigma lobes. It is a nocturnal flowering species. This plant can be a little more difficult to grow than the average Epiphyllum, as it is native to cloud forests and needs a bit cooler temperatures than others. To survive, it needs excellent drainage, and protection from frost.


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Epiphyllum oxypetalum (DC.) Haw. 1829

Epiphyllum oxypetalum at full extension. It will remain open until early morning.

Epiphyllum oxypetalum (commonly known as Lady of the Night, Queen of the Night, Night blooming cereus, and Dutchman's Pipe) is by far and away the most popular and widely cultivated species from this genus.

This species grows in tropical

rainforests. It is common around Veracruz, Mexico, a coastal area that borders the Gulf of Mexico. In this area, the weather is extremely humid, and the temperatures vary quite broadly, from 15.6° to 48.9° Celsius (60° to 120° Fahrenheit). Also it has a rainy season that lasts from May to October.

Variety purpusii differs from the straight species oxypetalum by its smoother skin, and the sepals are purple to carmine; it also has a change in perfume.

It is truly one of those wondrous marvels of nature that you can bring into your home to keep the rainforest close to your heart. Poems and songs have been written about this species and the beauty of its transient blossoms. I first learned about this plant as a teenager when I read of it in a poem, and mentioned it in passing to my mother. She went out and tracked down a plant, and gave it to me as a gift. A couple years later I moved away to college, and my mom shepherded the plant for several years. It got quite large and many cuttings were made, which were distributed to various friends and family. Eventually, when I was done with my undergrad work, my mom gave me a piece of that original plant.

That cutting has since grown into a monster that is over 8 feet tall (with the help of a supporting lattice) and has many, many side branches. The E. oxypetalum flowers illustrated on this page come from my plant. I brought it with me when I moved from California to Michigan, where it has to spend the frigid winters indoors (it is a real effort to move it in in the Fall and out in the Spring), but it has thrived even here, continuing to grow under lights in my basement during the cold months.

f you are interested in obtaining a cutting or even a larger established plant, you should visit my sale page.

Cereus oxypetalus DC. 1828
Cereus latifrons Pfeiff. 1837
Epiphyllum acuminatum K.Schum. 1890
Epiphyllum grande (Lem.) Britton & Rose 1913
Epiphyllum latifrons (Pfeiff.) Zucc. ex Pfeiff. 1837
Phyllocactus grandis Lem. 1847
Phyllocactus latifrons (Pfeiff.) Link 1843
Phyllocactus oxypetalus (DC.) Link 1843


More E. oxypetalum pictures:

Epiphyllum oxypetalum bud, early in the evening. It is just beginning to open, and once it starts it will rapidly expand to fully open. It moves so quickly you can almost see the motion.



The spent flower on the left opened one night, and the next night its sister flower opened.


Epiphyllum phyllanthus (L.) Haw.

Epiphyllum phyllanthus variety from Guyana.
Synonyms: Cactus phyllanthus, Phyllocactus phyllanthus, Rhipsalis phyllanthus, Cereus phyllanthus, Epiphyllum gaillardae, Phyllocactus gaillardae, Rhipsalis macrocarpa, Hariota macrocarpa
They are widely distributed in many parts of tropical Central, and South America, living high in the crowns of trees. Although they are dispersed over a large area, all grow in moist, tropical areas with warm to hot climates.
Growth of this plant becomes long, and large. It has a main stem that is slender, and cylindrical, sometimes three to four angled. Also, this stem produces branches that are mostly flat, thin, and light green, with very definite purplish margins. The branches grow as wide as 7 centimeters (2¾ inches). They have crenate margins that are deeply notched at the areoles. From the areoles, appear the flowers, growing to approximately 30 centimeters (12 inches) long. Each bloom is slender, and scented, consisting of a very long tube, and narrow, white petals. From the center, protrudes a long, slender, rose pink style with about ten white stigma lobes. These flowers are nocturnal, and 5 to 6 centimeters (2 to 2½ inches) across.
- Variety boliviense has flowers that are only 3 centimeters (1¼ inches) across, and the style is vivid red.
- Variety colombiense possesses a tube that is only 6 centimeters (2½ inches) long, and the style is red.
- Variety paraguayense boasts a style that is pale red to almost white, and the fruit is carmine.
- Variety rubrocoronatum exhibits branches that are a little wider than the type species, growing to about 9 centimeters (3½ inches) across. The flowers are 29 centimeters (11½ inches) long to 11 centimeters (4½ inches) broad.
Epiphyllum pittieri (F.A.C.Weber) Britton & Rose
Synonyms: Phyllocactus pittieri, Epiphyllum phyllanthus var. pittieri
Ranges from Nicaragua to Panama.

Epiphyllum rubrocoronatum (Kimnach) Dodson & A.H.Gentry
Synonym: Epiphyllum phyllanthus var. rubrocoronatum
This species is found in tropical rain forest from Panama to Ecuador.

Epiphyllum thomasianum (Schum.) Britton & Rose
Synonyms: Phyllocactus thomasianus, Epiphyllum macropterum var. thomasianum, Marniera macroptera, Phyllocactus macropterus, Epiphyllum macropterum

This species is native to southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. It is found growing in hot tropical rainforests that have a high rainfall.

Growing to 3 meters (118 inches) long, their weeping branches form a bushy body. The shoots are cylindrical below, widening above to a flattened section, 40 centimeters (16 inches) long, and 8-centimeters (3¼ inches) across. They are vivid green with small areole notches on the margins. From these areoles, bell-shaped flowers grow to 30 centimeters (12 inches) long. The backs of the sepals are red, and the front is yellowish with a red center stripe. Petals are white, and 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) broad, in the center of the flower is the white style with fourteen yellow stigma lobes.
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