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Growing orchids in trees

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Sep 23, 2021

A colorful orchid growing attached to one of Cathy Dunn’s palm trees.

I have always loved growing orchids but living in northern climates I was confined to maintaining my plants in pots indoors. When I moved to Southwest Florida, I thought my orchids would thrive effortlessly outside on the lanai, but about six months after I arrived several of my plants looked truly pathetic. In desperation, I decided to place the failing orchids on trees in my garden thinking I had nothing to lose, and those initial orchids have now bloomed twice!

I knew that orchids were Epiphytes or air plants that grow on plant surfaces, deriving moisture and nutrients from air, rain and debris in the surrounding environment. Through my research I discovered that the best trees for growing orchids are those with textured bark, and I was concerned because the only trees in my gardens were palms, which have primarily smooth trunks. Since I had no other option, I proceeded with attaching the orchids to several palms, and based on my initial success, I now have more than 20 orchids happily growing on palm trunks.

Even novice gardeners can grow orchids in trees, and I will outline the basic steps that will ensure your success. The first consideration for placing your orchid is to match the plant to the appropriate light environment. The most common orchid variety sold in garden centers is Phalaenopsis, which prefers shade; other familiar varieties such as Vandas and Cattleyas prefer more sun. Areas that receive morning sun are preferable since the afternoon heat and bright sun are less forgiving.

If possible, when placing your orchid choose a location where the blooms will be visible from your lanai or walkway. Once you have chosen a spot for your orchid, carefully remove the plant from its pot and discard all the potting materials. I use Vigoro “Sturdy Stretch Tie” plastic tape to secure the orchid to the tree; this tape is available in several widths at garden centers and will stretch to accommodate plant growth. I have read recommendations for using panty hose or old T-shirts, but I find these to be quite unattractive! You should also avoid using stiff plastic tie wraps as they are inflexible and could strangle the plant as it grows.

Do not apply sphagnum moss or any other growing medium to the roots as this could lead to rot and will inhibit the roots from adhering directly to the tree surface. If you look carefully at the orchid, you will see a natural “fit” for the leaves against the tree that will also bring the roots closest to the trunk surface; hold your orchid in this position and tie the first tape over the plant where the leaves are attached to the roots. I like to add another tape across the roots to orient them to the tree trunk. Tall orchid varieties, such as Dendrobium and Cattleya, may require another tie to keep them upright against the trunk. (Although I do have one orchid that turned upside down once it was affixed to the palm trunk and it is thriving and blooming!)

If you are attaching your orchid to a palm, be sure to allow sufficient space beneath the crown shaft so that spent fronds can be removed without harming the orchid.

Now you are ready to observe your orchids for a few months until their roots adhere to the tree trunk. It usually takes about six months for the first roots to form on the tree surface; once this process begins the roots will rapidly expand and even circle the tree! At this point you can safely remove the stretch tie tape. During the dry season you should mist the plants a couple of times a week to ensure they have enough moisture. I occasionally mist the plants with orchid food, but the orchids seem to obtain enough nutrients without this step, just as they would in the wild. Once established, orchids are almost maintenance free and will grow and expand, rewarding you for many years with their beautiful blooms. Most orchids will bloom annually, and the blooms will last for 2 months or longer; some varieties like vandas will bloom 2 or 3 times a year.

To me, nothing says tropical paradise more than orchids blooming outside on trees. And now that you know how simple it is to attach orchids to trees, I hope that you will use these easy techniques to achieve your own beautiful orchid garden!

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