Jungle Cacti Have Cladodes, But What Are They Doing For The Plant?

by | Aug 31, 2022 | 2 comments

Many jungle cacti are common plants and you may even have one. Examples of these cacti are Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus, epiphyllums, and Rhipsalis. These cacti grow as epiphytes on trees and other structures in the jungles of Central and South America. They have cladodes, but what are they and what are they doing for the plant? 

Cladodes or phylloclades

So, what is a cladode (also known as a phylloclade)? According to The Free Dictionary, “A photosynthetic branch or portion of a stem that functions as or resembles a leaf, as the pad of a prickly-pear cactus. Also called cladophyll. ” Though most plants have leaves that photosynthesize and produce food, these jungle cacti have cladodes, which are flattened stems. Some do resemble leaves but are not, yet they are photosynthesizing for the plant like leaves. 

Selenicereus chrysocardium

This is the cladode of the fern leaf cactus or Selenicereus chrysocardium

Holiday Cacti

The ubiquitous holiday cacti, available for sale near Thanksgiving, are true jungle cacti and their “leaves” are cladodes or flattened stems. The flowers emerge from the areoles at the ends of the cladodes and these are what set cacti apart from succulents. The Free Dictionary: Areole: “small, specialized, cushionlike area on a cactus from which hairs, glochids, spines, branches, or flowers may arise.” 

Here is a flower below, arising from the areole at the end of the cladode.

Thanksgiving cactus

Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera


Recently my Epiphyllum oxypetalum or queen of the night, bloomed and has two new buds right now. I can’t wait to see it bloom again. Their white flowers open at dusk and by dawn, have closed up. You can see the new bud below. The other pictures are of epiphyllums that have thicker cladodes and their colorful flowers open during the day. The night-blooming plant is white so its pollinators, bats, and moths, can find it and the day-bloomers have colorful flowers to attract their pollinators; hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. 

Below are the Epiphyllum oxypetalum that blooms white at night and the epiphyllum that blooms bright pink during the day. They attract different pollinators. 

Other plants

Another familiar plant, often used as a “filler” in our summer containers is the asparagus fern (not a true fern). Their leaves are flattened cladodes, as well. It isn’t a jungle cactus, but thought you might like to know. 

Asparagus fern

The small needles on the asparagus fern are cladodes


Cladodes are flattened stems, seen mostly on epiphytic jungle cactus, and they are photosynthesizing and making food for the plant like leaves. Aren’t plants amazing?!

Have a great week, plant friends!


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  1. Sheryl S.

    My two Thanksgiving cacti usually sit in a sunny eastern facing window. But this year, I moved them to another location because it seemed like their little branches were extremely red and I thought they were getting too much sun. Are you saying this coloration is normal for holiday cactus?

    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Hi Sheryl,
      It isn’t normal, but is from sun stress. It doens’t hurt the plant, but it isn’t the best for it.


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