"My epiphytic stump"

A stump has been planted with epiphytes.
Sunday, 04 April 2021     

View of my epiphytic stump

Last year, we had to get a Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) tree cut down that had been badly damaged in a storm and which was dangerously close to the garage. Instead of getting the stump ground out, I decided to keep it at around 2 m tall and plant it with epiphytic plants, held onto the trunk in pockets of orchid bark contained in old stocking lengths, tucked into a mesh of chicken wire stretched over the surface. Twelve months on, my epiphytic stump is gradually filling in. I have always been intrigued with epiphytes - plants that grow upon another plant, without being parasitic on their host. Most epiphytes are found in moist tropical areas, where growing above ground level gives then access to a bit more sunlight in dense shaded forests and allows them to garner the nutrients available from leaf and other organic debris that collects in the tree canopy. I find them mysterious and fascinating; I often discover that it is plants I don't really understand that turn out to be epiphytes!

One such specimen is the lipstick plant, Aeschynanthus speciosus, which a kind friend gave to me a number of years ago. I never really knew what to do with this small shrub, though I had seen it grow in hanging baskets. Now firmly affixed to my stump, it has just started flowering with clustered orange and red curved flowers appearing at the ends of long, arching stems of glossy, dark green leaves. In the wild, in Borneo, it grows in the forks of trees, thriving in dappled shade. The lipstick plant belongs to the Gesneriaceae family, which includes the non-epiphytic African violet, Streptocarpus and Gloxinia; however, a number of Columnea and Nematanthus species are also epiphytic Gesneriaceae members, including Nematanthus gregarius, the so-called goldfish plant, another specimen I have never really understood until now!

I had known for quite a while that many bromeliads are epiphytic and have grown some on other trees quite successfully. I have added a number of clumps to my stump, and they seem to have taken. I particularly like the ones that grow out along a surface rather than simply forming a clump. Not all bromeliads are epiphytic, so it is a matter of trial and error to find those that 'take'. Those with colourful or spiky leaves can give interest, as of course can those with an interesting inflorescence, especially ones with a pendulous form, such as Billbergia species and cultivars. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an unusual type of bromeliad and I use its silvery strands to cover up my planting pockets on the stump.

Orchids contain many epiphytic examples. I have had good success growing the lovely Dendrobium nobile hybrids on trees elsewhere in my garden, so I added some to my stump and they are doing well. The large, rounded flowers appear in spring at the tips of the fleshy canes. A very unusual epiphytic orchid is Zygopetalum, a genus from Central and South America which contains around 15 species. The exotic-looking flowers are fragrant and marked with intriguing spots and stripes of maroon or purple, and they appear in flushes up to six times a year, but particularly in autumn or early winter. As an experiment, I have also attached a Phalaenopsis orchid to the stump as well: one of those plants normally received as a gift because of its exquisite butterfly-like flowers, but which then gradually fades away and ends up being thrown onto the compost heap. It is now quite firmly attached to the stump and I will follow its progress with curiosity! I doubt Sydney's climate is warm enough for it in winter but it will be interesting to see.

A further experiment is growing a Hoya vine on the stump. Another plant that I don't really yet understand, the Hoya has epiphytic forms, and the one I have trialled (species unknown) is now quite well 'glued' to the stump now and looking quite healthy and starting to cascade down the trunk.

I planned to have a bird's nest fern (Asplenium australasicum), atop the stump as a sort of dramatic crown, but the stump has started to re-sprout there, so I am not quite sure what to do about that! Other Australian native epiphytic ferns that could be used on a stump or tree are the sculptural-looking stag horn fern (Platycerium hillii) and elk horn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum). They have neatly folded sterile leaves that catch the organic litter that sustains them and pendulous fertile fronds that are forked like the antlers of a deer. I plan to try other ferns to see if they 'stick' on to my stump!

I haven't yet added any cacti forms of epiphytes to my stump, but possibilities include the zygocactus (Schlumbergera) and the orchid cactus (Epiphyllum), which would both give a cascading form and pretty blooms; and the strange Rhipsalis species, which have freely branching, long, rope-like stems that could provide an interesting texture and pendulous effect.

The stump is in a fairly shaded spot, which suits these plants that are used to growing in trees. There are large trees nearby that drop debris onto the stump, thus providing material for the nutrition of my plants. Every so often I water the plants with the hose to keep them reasonably moist. Occasionally I give them a spray of liquid fertiliser. No one else sees the stump as it is quite out of the way, at the back of the garage near my compost tumblers. But I enjoy looking at it every time I pass by, and observing its progress! Any of the plants mentioned can be grown in pots or hanging baskets, using orchid potting mix.

 Reader Comments

1/8  Rosemary - 2062 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 April 2021

I moved to Sydney from Tasmania a few years ago and brought some Tasmanian tree fern stumps...have attached orchids to the sides of one of them, (some died some starting to grow) and bird nest fern in the top of one of them...thanks for your post as it has given me some great ideas. Rosemary Those tree fern stumps are perfect for planting epiphytes onto! Deirdre

2/8  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 April 2021

Thanks for the info on the lipstick plant. I was given this as a cutting a couple of years ago and it's finally now flowering, never really knew much about it, so this was helpful. I have the large stump of an angophora which has a stag fern on it. Stumps can be made to look very interesting. Like Rosemary I use tree ferns (cyanthea) to grow orchids and other things on. Glad to hear your lipstick plant is flowering. I like the idea of a stag fern on my stump and plan to add one. Deirdre

3/8  Su - 2093 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 April 2021

Many street trees in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have Phalaenopsis orchids attached to the trunks. In October 2019 every one seemed to be in full bloom. They looked prettiest when in a fork or nestled with other plants - they did look a bit odd when single plants were tied onto palm trees in hotel entrances. I'd love to see those orchids. I agree that single epiphytes on a tree on their own would look a bit forlorn. They seem to need to be in a group! Deirdre

4/8  Lloyd - 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 05 April 2021

Re-growth of pruned stumps can be managed in some cases by rubbing off the shoots when they appear. A non-herbicide answer to that very invasive Chinese Elm. Persistence andd patience usually works. Unless your stump remainder is a little too high for that simple approach. Also, for the 'crown' you might consider attaching some staghorns/elkhorns around the top. My elkhorn has gradually surrounded a foxtail palm. Try billbergia hoelscheriana in the back of the 'horns' for a red hairy top? Thanks for those suggestions. I can reach the top of the stump by standing on a low wall nearby. I like the idea of the stag horn or elk horn ferns around the top. Deirdre

5/8  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 06 April 2021

Very impressed with your epiphytic stump, Deirdre - it looks great, and a very good use for the tree stump, rather than grinding it out. The Zygopetalum orchid would enjoy this situation, as well as some of the gesneriad family. Thanks, Margaret. I am pleased with how the Zygopetalum is going. I would like to add more gesneriads, as I am intrigued by them though I don't know much about them. Deirdre

6/8  Patty - 2087 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 06 April 2021

So pleased you have written about Aeschynanthus speciosus this week as mine, in a pot, is flowering for the first time. I love the orange and yellow flowers, they are very attractive. I have part of the original plant sitting in a jug of water while I decide what to do with it and it is also flowering. I will now find a home for it in a tree! Thanks for the article, Deirdre. Thanks, Patty. I put my plant in a pouch made from an old pair of pantyhose, with some orchid bark and tied this up so the bark wouldn't fall out, then used the ends of the pantyhose to tie the whole thing onto the stump. The plant eventually clings on to the stump and the pantyhose rots away! I often cover the pantyhose at first with Spanish moss. Deirdre

7/8  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 08 April 2021

Do give Epiphyllums a go! They are the ultimate easy care drought tolerant plants with large stunning flowers. There are literally thousands of hybrids & they strike easily from a cutting.I'm totally addicted to them & have a Facebook group Epiphyllum Buy Sell Swap Australia where we share photos info & buy sell & swap plants. Thanks, Kerrie. I am fascinated by these plants and plan to attach a few to my stump. Deirdre

8/8  Lloyd - 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Friday, 09 April 2021

Another 'crowning' idea would be to attach Oncidiums to the top of the stump - the common Dancing Lady form in yellow and brown, don't know the botanical name. They'd also go well tucked in to the back of the elk/stag horns.

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