Look up to epiphytes!

Sunday, 05 September 2010

Billbergia growing in a tree fork

One of my more recent gardening experiments has been to try growing epiphytic plants in trees. Epiphytic plants are those which grow above the ground surface, using other plants or objects for support - this allows them to reach positions where light is better. They are not rooted in the soil and nor are they parasitic. They have various adaptations to reduce water loss, and they obtain moisture from dew, air or rainwater. Nutrients come from the dust washed off the tree's leaves by rainwater, or from plant debris that collects around the epiphyte. In a garden where I am rapidly running out of spots to put in new plants, trees have offered a new opportunity for me.

Platycerium species

Epiphytic plants include many bromeliads, ferns and orchids, as well as mosses and lichens. A walk through an Australian rainforest will show a variety of epiphytes firmly attached to trees, including bird's nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum), staghorn and elkhorn ferns (Platycerium species) and native orchids.

Schlumbergia hybrid growing in a tree

Other less commonly known epiphytes include Philodendron, Syngonium, Aeschynanthus (sometimes known as lipstick plants), zygocactus (Schlumbergera hybrids), orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) and crucifix orchids (Epidendrum.

Billbergia vittata growing in a maple tree

So far, I have tried a couple of orchids, some zygocactus, Syngonium and a variety of bromeliads to decorate some of my trees. Bromeliads with pendulous flowers - such as many Billbergia and Aechmea species and cultivars - are particularly effective, but Vriesea, Neoregelia and Tillandsia (including Spanish moss) are also good candidates. They can be wedged into the branch point of a tree or tied to the trunk with pantyhose.

In fact, I use pantyhose for all my epiphytes, filling the middle of a cut-up length of it with a handful of rough, open compost then inserting the roots of my plant into a slit cut in the top of the stocking where the compost is. I then tie the plant onto its host with the rest of the stocking. The stocking can be covered with Spanish moss or pieces of soft paperbark to disguise it. Eventually, the stocking will rot away and by that time, the plant should have attached itself to the tree. I give the plants an occasional hosing, and an even more occasional liquid feed.

Dendrobium speciosum growing on a tree nearby Salvia fallax

I hadn't been quite sure whether the experiment was going to work, but I finally feel able to claim some success, with the recent flowering of a king orchid (Dendrobium speciosum). This has taken a few years to graft itself onto the trunk of a big oak tree in my garden and finally is blooming, with six beautiful spikes of creamy yellow flowers, nearby similarly coloured Clivia and a pale blue cloud that is Salvia fallax at this time of year. Earlier in winter, some of my zygocactus also bloomed, and another much smaller orchid of unknown origin is in bud. I am excited to discover more orchids I might be able to grow in this way.

Epiphytic gardening is an exciting way to add interest to trees and provide a new element on a vertical level to my garden. For those running out of space in their garden beds, look up to epiphytes!