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Ground orchids in Southwest Florida

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Sep 2, 2021

Reed stem ground orchid blooms. PHOTO PROVIDED

Are you a gardener who is intimidated by the thought of growing orchids? If so, I have a beautiful suggestion for your gardens — ground, or terrestrial orchids. While they don’t closely resemble the typical orchids you are accustomed to seeing, they flower more frequently and are easy to grow if provided with the right environment. Most orchids are “epiphytes,” or organisms that grow on the surface of a plant (such as a tree trunk or branch) and derive moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Although most orchids that we encounter are potted in a special orchid “mix” of bark, charcoal and coconut chips, they can be successfully grown without any soil, on trees; I will detail that process in a future article. Ground orchids actually thrive outside in your garden – planted directly in the soil!

I will introduce you to two of the most common ground orchids that are easy to grow.

The “Philippine Ground Orchid” (Spathoglottis plicata) prefers part to full shade (bright indirect light). This plant is slow-growing and will reach a height of about one foot; it originated in tropical Asia and the Western Pacific. The orchid’s pleated leaves resemble small palm fronds and grow in a cluster of 4-7 leaves from a “pseudobulb,” or thickened stem that serves as a storage organ for the plant. The small blossoms are usually deep purple, but can be mauve, pink or rarely white, and emerge during the warm months of the year. This orchid prefers moisture but doesn’t want its roots in standing water. In a protected area you should water this plant twice weekly; during our summer rainy season supplemental watering is not required. Ground orchids are relatively heavy feeders, and the optimal fertilizer is a granular time-released orchid fertilizer applied every 3-4 months. Maintenance is minimal; browned leaves can be trimmed off if you’re a perfectionist like me, but otherwise these plants need very little care.

The most familiar ground orchid that you may have encountered is the “Reed-Stem Orchid” or Epidendrum radicans. These orchids are sometimes available at garden centers or plant sales and are a wonderful addition to any tropical landscape. This orchid originated in Central America and Mexico and will grow up to three feet tall with multiple stems and white roots visible along the stems; mature plants can have up to 40 stems, filled with long-lasting orange and yellow (or less commonly red and purple) flowers. When planting this orchid, allow for expansion but it won’t crowd your plants – instead it will happily climb over them!

Partial sun is ideal for this orchid; an eastern exposure or an area with shade from midday through mid-afternoon is preferable. These orchids are easily propagated with stem cuttings or plantlets called “keikis’ (pronounced key-keys).

A ground orchid “keiki.” PHOTO PROVIDED

For stem cuttings, use a sterile knife to cut a 12-inch piece of healthy stem; cut just above a leaf node. You can then divide this stem into 3 or 4 cuttings that have at least one leaf node. Press the cuttings into pots with moist potting mix or sphagnum moss and place the pot in a shaded area (near the mother plant if possible). If your plant has keikis, or small plantlets with roots, on its stem, you can just pull these off and gently plant them in individual pots with moist potting mix or sphagnum moss.

Ground orchids present a wonderful opportunity for you to enjoy orchids in your landscape with a minimum of specialized care or maintenance. Growing these beauties is not challenging, and you will be rewarded with brightly colored blooms consistently throughout the growing season. The ease of propagation ensures that you can share your ground orchids with friends and fellow gardeners. Ground orchids are truly a win-win proposition for the tropical gardener!

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and Garden Club of Cape Coral member.