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.
Painting with coleus
10 Oct 21
Coleus can make wonderful pictures in the garden.
03 Oct 21
Tough and undemanding plants from my parents' garden are favourites in my own.
The value of green spaces
26 Sep 21
Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.
19 Sep 21
Meet some of the ferns that grow well in Sydney,
A garland of daisies
12 Sep 21
Daisies seem to epitomise spring and there are lots to choose from for Sydney gardens.