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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

The orchid cactus' fleeting fancies

With a brief window for blossoms, the hanging plant still enchants admirers.

May 15, 2008|Ellen Hoffs | Special to The Times

The ORCHID cactus might be called the Cinderella of the garden world. Most of the year the plant, with disheveled, arched, trailing branches, is easy to ignore. But from February through June, magnificent flowers, some as large as 13 inches across, pop from the notched branches in brilliant shades of red, orange, violet, yellow and gold.

Nature's clock runs out after four days at most, and the blooms close and die. But happily the show continues. The plants, called epiphyllum, are often loaded with buds that extend the blooming period to several weeks as long as night temperatures remain below 50 degrees. With warmer nights, buds may open all at once, shortening the season.

The flashy flowers have long had their admirers. Ganna Walska bought an epiphyllum collection and was soon hanging them in oak trees at her Lotusland estate in Montecito. In one photograph, the Polish soprano is seen wearing a flower behind her ear. In the late 1950s, Bauer Pottery featured a line of dishes called Epiphyllum Spray. And today, hundreds of the plants are auctioned on EBay every month, often bought by epi-holics, as devotees jokingly call themselves.

There are 13,000 hybrids registered by the Epiphyllum Society of America. Fifteen hundred make their home at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, where society volunteers lovingly care for them.

But mention epiphyllum and most people's eyes glaze over, even those who work at nurseries. It's somewhat understandable, because nurseries seldom stock the plants, and the flowers don't last long enough to be sold by florists.

"They're not really showy plants unless they're blooming, and most of the time they're not," says Rex Yarwood, nursery buyer for Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar.

"Cactus growers don't grow it, because it's not commonly requested," Chris Livingston, assistant manager at Green Arrow Nursery in North Hills says. "It's a plant passed over the backyard fence. People trade among themselves. You just break off a piece and put it in potting soil. It's really easy to grow."

Richard Kohlschreiber, former president of the society, explains that epiphyllum are not what people usually think of as cactuses. They may have small hair-like thorns, but these cactuses are from the jungle, not from the desert. Epiphyllum are at home in the crotches of trees, hence they are epiphytic (live on trees), not parasitic.

Today, gardeners try to mimic the jungle environment. Pampered hybrids nest in hanging baskets rather than in trees. Well-draining soil and fertilizer have replaced the jungle's decomposing leaves and bird droppings. Galen Pittman, the society's current president, says the plants can be grown in the ground but fare better in pots because of their vulnerability to nematodes in the soil as well as snails and slugs. Plants started from cuttings usually bloom in two or three years.

The hybrids are made up of a number of species, only one being epiphyllum. "The present name epiphyllum is a misnomer," Kohlschreiber says, "because most of the hybrids sold today are not epiphyllum. The name has persisted so long that nothing is going to change it." He calls his plants "epicactus," the preferred name coined by an English botanist. Pittman uses the more descriptive "hybrid epiphytic cactus." Others just use "epi."

Then there's the common name, "orchid cactus." The plants have nothing in common with orchids except for gorgeous flowers, but were likely given the name because many orchids are epiphytes and live on tree branches.

Epiphytic cactuses can still be found in shady areas of lowland jungle and misty cloud forests in Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. Most are fragrant night bloomers. The challenge to plant-hunters in the early 1800s was to find day bloomers, fragrant or not.

Hybridizers continue to crossbreed flowers, always hunting for new forms, colors, staying power and fragrance. Still, they've only managed to find a few that will fill a garden with fragrance during the day.

Evelyn Shiraki, a Los Angeles hybridizer who has registered 20 hybrids, suggests Epiphyllum 'Evening Delight' as her choice for the most fragrant day bloomer. E. 'William Clark' is another, according to Pittman. Many of the smaller flowers give off a scent during the day, he adds.

Society members agree that once an epiphyllum changes hands, whether it's a cutting from a friend or a collection inherited from the family, there's a good chance that the new owner will be hooked. But there are those who are not seduced by the ravishing flowers.

Pittman says, "There is a disdain among many cactus growers that epiphytic cactus are somehow less [worthy], possibly because we don't grow our plants for their form, while their thing is the shape and color of the plant and how it looks in the pot."

As Naomi Siplin, an epiphyllum collector with 1,000 hanging plants, puts it, "You can't have the flower without the plant."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to plant a cutting

The offers an extensive list of plants, resources and other information at www.epiphyllumsociety.org. Its annual show and sale is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia ( www.arboretum.org). A plant can be started from a cutting by following these steps:

Prepping: Dip the cut end in rooting hormone, such as Rootone. Let a callus form over the cut, which takes about 10 days.

Soil: Fill a small container, about 4 inches wide, with one-third potting mix or azalea/camellia mix, one-third perlite, and one-third orchid bark . Or use cactus mix instead.

Plant: Place the cutting in the soil deep enough to cover one or two areoles or notches. Add slightly damp soil (try not to compress it), until the cutting stands on its own.

Water: Don't water for a week or two. Then mist lightly. When roots form, begin watering gradually, never letting the soil dry out.

Light: Filtered light is best.

-- Ellen Hoffs

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