Gardening in Hawaii is a sociable experience. Neighbors are almost always warm and friendly, especially if they have a common interest in gardening. Friends shower them with crotons, hibiscus, trees and an assortment of other plants. Then there comes a point of saturation when there just isn’t another spot to plant … until they discover “air plants.”
This group of tropicals, technically referred to as “epiphytes,” includes many ferns, orchids, bromeliads, cactuses and just about any plant that grows on another plants to reach a little light. They don’t take any nutrients from the plants they use but merely anchor themselves and receive most nutrients from the air, precipitation and organic particles in their general vicinity.
Air plants have some of the most beautiful flowers and unique foliage in the plant kingdom. They generally require less care than most other ornamentals. Our tropical climate is ideal for air plants that are almost impossible to grow outdoors anywhere else in the United States. Here many epiphytes are adapted to most of our microclimates excluding elevations above 4,000 feet.
Orchids are the most well-known epiphytes. Some species grow wild in Hawaii, and many more have been introduced by orchid enthusiasts. If you have a tree or lanai from which to hang pots, you can have flowers all year. All it takes is common sense, water and fertilizer. When buying orchids, it is important to get healthy plants. Ask the grower or nursery worker about the particular species and its care. Most will require repotting every two or three years. To avoid the hassle of repotting, many gardeners remove the plants from the pot and attach them to the branches of a tree. Rough-barked trees such as ohia, monkey pod and calabash are among best.
The epiphytic ferns and bromeliads may also grow in pots or on trees. The secret of success is to be sure they have good drainage. Use coconut fiber or other coarse material so that even heavy rains won’t cause soggy conditions. Fertilize lightly every six to eight weeks to keep plants in active growth. If plants are attached to trees, this is not required. Several brands of orchid fertilizer are available. These are specially formulated and when used according to directions will give excellent results. Disease and insect problems are few. If they do occur, area garden supply dealers have fungicides and insecticides to quickly control the situation.
Start with easy types such as bromeliads, including Tillandsia, Billbergia and Aechmea. If you are worried about mosquitoes breeding in some types of bromeliads, there is a biological control that kills mosquito larvae and nothing else. Check out your local garden supply store for products containing Bacillus thurengiensis var. israelensis. Diluted soap solutions also work but care must be taken not to damage plants. The same applies to neem products that are also considered environmentally safe.
Stag horn and resurrection ferns are easy. Dendrobium, Epidendrum and Oncidium orchids will thrive with minimum care. From there, go to the more exotic Cattleya and moth orchids. Carnivorous pitcher plants or Nepenthes species from Southeast Asia are something new with which to experiment. Nursery workers can share ideas on the types to grow and ways to grow them. We are fortunate to have a nursery on the Big Island that collects, propagates and sells Nepenthes all over the world.
If you want to expand your hanging project, almost any small plant can be trained into a high-flying act.
Hawaii is ideal for this kind of gardening since our humidity is high and containers do not dry out too fast. Some succulent plants may almost never need watering. These plants often do better in hanging baskets than they do planted in the ground.
Hanging baskets come in all shapes and sizes as well as types of materials. Smaller baskets dry out faster than larger ones. Wire baskets are good containers for hanging plants. They are light and highly porous, which allow fast, complete drainage. Roots can grow into and through the moss liner, so a large root system is possible without the extra weight of a solid container. Wooden containers are attractive but heavy and may decay quickly. Plastic or wire baskets are the most common.
This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.