After reading my column on the Hilo Orchid Show, many people asked for information on the carnivorous pitcher plants I mentioned. Although the focus for the show is orchids, I wrote that a Nepenthes pitcher plant would make a great addition to an orchid garden. Today is the last day of the show at Edith Kanakaole Stadium, so you can still get the scoop on Nepenthes if you get there in time to visit with Sam Estes, who specializes in these amazing plants.
My limited experience with Nepenthes proves they are easy to grow in the Kona Cloud Forest, but to learn more, I visited with Estes in Leilani Estates to see what I could learn to share with others.
Simply put, there are high elevation species that grow above 3,000 feet and prefer cool temperatures and there are lowland species that do well below that elevation. Most hybrids thrive in temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees.
They are easy to grow, but prefer a moist well-drained medium such as sphagnum, hapuu or coconut husks. They won’t tolerate a poorly drained medium, but they should not be allowed to dry out.
Chemical fertilizers are to be avoided. Diluted organic types are better. Insect pests are few — they usually get eaten by the plant.
Estes showed me hundreds of hybrids including one giant capable of digesting lizards, frogs and even mice. If you don’t get to the orchid show, you can find more information at leilaninepenthes.com.
Now back to orchids and other “air plants,” including ferns, bromeliads and even cactus that grow on trees.
This group of unusual tropicals is technically referred to as epiphytes. In wet, tropical regions, almost any plant can grow on trees. Many Ficus or banyan types, vireya rhododendrons, Clusias and even gingers may start their life as epiphytes. Although epiphytes grow attached to shrubs and trees, they are not parasites, since the do not take their nutrients from the plants on which they grow. Air plants have some of the most beautiful flowers and unique foliage in the plant kingdom. They generally require less care than other ornamentals. Many folks think air plants are difficult to grow, but our climate is ideal. Many grow here with almost no care.
Orchids and bromeliads are probably the most well known epiphytes. Many species have been introduced. If you have a tree or lanai from which to hang pots, you can have flowers year-round. All it takes is common sense, water and fertilizer. When buying orchids and bromeliads, get healthy plants. Ask the grower or nursery worker about the particular species and its care. When grown in containers, they will require repotting every two to three years. To avoid repotting, many gardeners remove the plants from the pot and attach them to tree branches. Rough barked trees such as paperbark, monkeypod, calabash, ohia and African tulip are well-suited to epiphytes.
The epiphytic ferns and cactuses may also be grown in pots or on trees.
The secret to success is to be sure they have good drainage. Fertilize lightly every two to three months to keep plants in active growth. If plants are attached to trees, this is not required. Several brands of orchid fertilizer are available and satisfactory for other air plants. When used according to directions, they will give excellent results. Disease and insect problems are few. If they do occur, garden supply dealers have fungicides and insecticides to quickly control the situation.
Give the air plants a try. Start with easy types such as bromeliads, including tillandias, billbergias, guzmanias and aechmeas. Staghorn and resurrection ferns are easy. Dendrobium, Epidendrum and Oncidium orchids thrive on a minimum of care. From there, go to the more exotic Cattleya and moth orchids.
Bromeliads, cactuses and succulents may do with very little water or fertilizer. Ferns and orchids should be watered every few days and fertilized about once a month.
Some folks worry that insects may breed in the center of bromeliads, especially mosquitoes. That is why natural insect control with lizards, amphibians and birds makes good sense. It also makes the garden more interesting. Anole lizards, Jackson’s chameleons, and geckos, especially the gold dust day gecko add to the tropical magic of our gardens. Many common birds feed on insects, so including a bird feeder in the garden also adds benefit and beauty. Flushing the center of bromeliads with water occasionally washes out potential mosquito homes. A few hungry Nepenthes pitcher plants in the mix could help finish off unwanted pests.
There are many books on orchids and their culture. You might also consider joining one of the local orchid clubs to learn from other enthusiasts.
The Kona Outdoor Circle has a great horticultural library open to the public. For further information on air gardening, contact the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources office in Hilo or Kona.