Epiphyllum Trail at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The mission of the San Diego Epiphyllum Society (SDES) Collection at the Safari Park is to preserve the past and protect the future. We want to connect people to plants and wildlife. We do this via education about epiphytic cacti and cultivars and the environments where they grow. To facilitate this mission, we build relationships and collaboration with other people and organizations for mutual benefit.
As part of its mission SDES has maintained a display at the San Diego Safari Park since 1976, just after the park first opened. SDES has joined with the San Diego Zoo Global to educate people about the environment and habitat of the American tropics. The display is supported and maintained by SDES volunteers. The display has had many configurations and locations over the years; the Epiphyllum Trail is just the latest version. We hope you enjoy it!!
What are Epiphyllums?
Epiphyllums are cacti which grow in the rainforest. These cacti are "epiphytes", or plants that grow in humus pockets of trees. Other examples of epiphytic plants include orchids and bromeliads. Epiphyllums and related species range from Mexico and the Caribbean through Central and South America. Although they are cacti, epiphyllums don't grow on the ground, and often lack the numerous spines so commonly found on desert cacti.
The name “Epiphyllum” means literally “upon the leaf” referring to how the flowers emerge from the strap-like branches. However epiphyllums do not actually have any leaves -- the flowers form directly on the branches of the plant. Epiphyllum hybrids are commonly referred to as "Orchid Cacti" because of their luminous blossoms, reminiscent of tropical orchids.
Most of what you see in the display are hybrids or cultivars. The ancestors of these hybrids come from the tropical American rainforest. There are both night and day blooming jungle cacti. Perhaps you or a family member had a “Night Blooming Cereus” or a “Queen of the Night” -- common names for a night blooming cactus which might be the species Epiphyllum oxypetalum. Other epiphytic cacti found in the jungles are Disocactus, Hylocereus (dragon fruit), Lepismium, Pfeiffera, Rhipsalis, Schlumbergera (Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus), Selenicereus, and others.
You might be wondering about some of the hybrid names. These names are given upon registration of a hybrid. How does hybridization work? Someone took the pollen from one epi and put it onto another epi. Then they waited patiently for a seed pod to develop. Five to ten years after the seeds have been planted, the plants grow and produce flowers. The hybridizer then chooses the best of flowers to register and gives the flower a name.
How to Grow Epies
Wait to plant — Epi cuttings should be allowed to cure for one to two weeks after cutting and before planting. Store the cuttings in a cool, dry place. This helps prevent rot. If in doubt about when the cutting was made, wait a week. The succulent nature of the epi branches will keep the cutting viable for a month or more.
Start them right — Plant your cuttings in a 4” plastic pot. In a year or two, the plants may be moved to a 7-8” pt. It will take another year or two more to bloom. Epies usually don’t bloom until their roots are “pot bound.” They will grow to the size of their pot. Our favorite method is to plant at least 3 cuttings (of the same hybrid) in a 7-8” pot. This gives you a blooming plant faster, usually in two to three years. The potting mix should be barely damp – NOT WET. ***DO NOT WATER OR ALLOW YOUR CUTTINGS TO GET WET UNTIL THEY ARE WELL ROOTED***. They will only rot. If you do see rot at or near the soil line, un-pot, re-cut, allow cut to callous for a week and start the process over. Mark the hybrid name on a plant tag and keep it in the pot. Old mini blind slats make great tags. Use permanent marker on one side of the tag and lead pencil on the other. We also like to use metal tags attached to the pot wires.
Potting mixes — Remember, in the wild epies grow in trees. They do best with very good drainage around their roots. In a good mix, water will begin to drain from the bottom of pots within 15 seconds. “Off the shelf” potting mix (even cactus mix) is too dense and heavy. Epi soil mix should be three parts potting soil (we like Super Soil) and one part coarse non-organics that are 1/8 to 1/2 inch in diameter -- the best non-organic additive is perlite (sponge rock). A small amount of orchid bark (about 2-3 tablespoons per 8” pot) is also a good idea. This provides some nutrition to the plant as it breaks down. However too much bark can cause epi roots to rot over time. If you have some bone meal, add about 2 Tbsp. per 8” pot. This will help your plants get a faster start. Many growers make their own mix, adding ingredients such as charcoal, compost, peat moss or coir.
Filtered light — Epies grow best is filtered sunlight, under a tree or in a shade structure of lath or fabric. North or East facing walls or eaves are also good. Epies grown in deep shade grow thin branches and flower poorly. Epies like good air circulation, but protect them from strong winds. Epies love to be hung. This also helps protect from snails and slugs, their number one pests.
Keep soil damp, humidity high, & feed them well — Epi potting soil should never dry out completely but must never remain soaking wet. Occasional misting helps in dry weather. An easy way to fertilize is to use a time release fertilizer. Epies bloom best when you give them regular fertilizer (10-10-10).
Enjoy the flowers and learn more
- Attend a meeting of the SDES: we meet at the Casa del Prado (Room 101) in Balboa Park, on the 2nd Wednesday of each month at 7:30 p.m.
- There's an epi sale at the Safari Park the first weekend in May.
- SDES Mother's Day Show is the 2nd Sunday in May and the sale is on the second weekend in May, at the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park.
- Epi cuttings and rooted cuttings are on sale at the Safari Park at the Plant Trader.
- You can find SDES at some of the local garden festivals, where we'll be selling epi cuttings and plants.
- Become a member of SDES - annual membership is $15-Individual Member or $20-Dual Members and includes a monthly electronic newsletter.
Become a member of the San Diego Epiphyllum Society (SDES) so you can enjoy additional benefits offered only to members. Membership opens the door and allows you to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of these truly unique flowers.
SDES members have the opportunity to volunteer at Epiphyllum Trail helping to maintain it so others can enjoy it. Volunteers at the Epiphyllum Trail also receive all of the benefits of volunteers at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
If you enjoyed Epiphyllum Trail and would like to help maintain it we are alway more than pleased to accept donations