An epiphyte is a fascinating plant, almost otherworldly, like the star of “Little Shop of Horrors.” In their preferred habitat, these cactus that normally grow in the jungle attach their roots to the crotch of trees and dangle their branches downward. I have an Epiphyllum hybrid with scalloped paddle-like branches that sits in a clay pot attached to the fence. Its blooms are large, its petals long, its branches lanky.
Until I met Rhipsalis pilocarpa, also known as the mistletoe cactus, I presumed if you saw the growth pattern of one rainforest cactus, you'd seen them all. What a surprise as I watched the tiny plant with its light green erect stems that I purchased only a couple years ago burst into a mini bush of pendant cylindrical stems shooting out everywhere.
This spring I was amazed as these hairy stems branched into whorls and at the tips sprouted flowers. The buds and the blooms of this cactus are so tiny that you almost miss them. Less than an inch in diameter when fully opened, the flowers appear as single blooms or in pairs.
Rhipsalis pilocarpa, endemic to Brazil's subtropic and tropical forests located a third to a half-mile above sea level, grows best in partial shade. Research shows the species is classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss from urbanization and agricultural expansion. I feel blessed that my plant tolerates the shade of a patio cover during the Vacaville's hot summers and cool winters since this cactus is frost tender with a recommended low of only 50 degrees.
At the time I purchased this mistletoe cactus, I planted it inside a large ceramic pot elevated on a plant stand using potting soil, which I now know from hindsight was a good choice as this cactus drops blooms if moved, prefers organic material and its branches can drape down over 20 inches. Frankly, I dread the day I need to relocate this epiphyte to a hanging pot. But as all real gardeners know, risks accompany rewards.
Young plant with light green erect stems. photos by Launa Herrmann
Pendent cylindrical stems
Hairy stems branched into whorls
Buds and blooms on tips of stems
Closeup of flower