Look, ma, no roots! Learn to grow your own orchids, bromeliads & other “air plants”

It’s that time of year again: the long cold of winter is lifting, and we can see spring around the corner. Here at HMNS we ring in spring with a BLOOM — with our horticulture adult education classes. Kicking off the season on Mar. 8, we’re offering a class on growing orchids and other epiphytes!

“Other epiphytes?” you may ask, wondering, “I just thought orchids were flowers.” While they are flowering plants, there’s so much more that makes them really incredible. You see orchids, and epiphytes in general, distinguish themselves from other plants in that they do not need to grow in soil. They actually prefer not to. They have amazingly adapted so that their roots can suck moisture directly out of the air. By attaching to a tree, high off the ground, they can also avoid getting gobbled up by most herbivores.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic, meaning that they do not steal any nutrients from the plant they grow on, creating their energy through photosynthesis (although some species like the strangler fig can eventually overtake their host). Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the South is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

If you have ever strolled through the Cockrell Butterfly Center you have surely seen our stunning epiphytes clinging on nearly every nook and cranny of the larger trees and struts in the center.

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class “How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other ‘Air Plants'” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sat., Mar. 8 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class in which attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid or bromeliad to start (or add to) their collection.

Stage-five clingers: Learn to grow epiphytes with Zac Saturday, March 24

As the horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center conservatory, I get asked a plethora of gardening questions. The most frequently asked question (other than “How’s Lois?”) has got to be “How do you get your orchids to grow on trees?”

Orchid Show at HMNS!

I explain to visitors that most orchids are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the trunk and branches of larger trees. To do this, they have developed ingenious ways to obtain water and nutrients without the need of soil. Not to be confused with parasites, epiphytes take nothing from the tree they attach themselves to. Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the south is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

There seems to be a common misconception that growing orchids is reserved for only the most experienced gardeners, but from my experience, this is not always the case. In fact, orchids seem to thrive on neglect; the most common cause of orchid death is over-watering.

epiphyte orchid

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other “Air Plants”  from 9 to 11 a.m. this Saturday the 24th in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class where attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid to start (or add to) their collection!

Photo Show in the Butterfly Center

A couple of years ago we installed a small “Artists’ Corner” gallery in a corner of the lower level lobby in the Butterfly Center.  It opened with an exhibition of moth paintings from art students at SFASU, followed by a collection of monarch butterfly photos from a Houston naturelover, then drawings from 6-10th grade YES Prep students.  For the next few months the corner will showcase a fabulous display of nature photographs put together by Zac Stayton, horticulturist for the Butterfly Center.

Zac is a Houston native.  He received a degree in horticulture from Sam Houston State College in 2007, and subsequently worked at Newton Nurseries here in Houston.  Then, inspired by a trip to Costa Rica, he picked up stakes and moved to Hawaii, where he spent a year working for a bromeliad grower.  Luckily for us, he returned to Texas last year so we could hire him to join our team. 

Zac is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable plantophile, and is especially fond of epiphytes such as orchids, Nepenthes pitcher plants, and of course, bromeliads.  He is also an accomplished nature photographer, and has his own website where you can see his work:  BanyamImages.com.  The photos on display in the gallery include a series of photos taken in Hawaii and Costa Rica, featuring plants (of course) as well as insects, other animals, and scenics.  On the other side of the display wall are photos of plants and butterflies he has taken in the Butterfly Center since starting work here last January. 

Be sure to stop by to see Zac’s photos when you next visit the Butterfly Center.  Professionals and amateurs alike will be inspired to see the beauty of the Center seen through a photographer’s eye! 

Insects and Orchids: An Evolutionary Journey

I absolutely love orchids! I mean who doesn’t, really? They are my very favorite flower in the whole world. I can literally stare at them for hours and not get tired of them. I love to photograph them; I even had them in my wedding! I love their colors, their shapes, there is really no flower quite like the orchid.

Well, if you love these flowers as I do, I’ve thought of another reason for you to love insects! We would not have the amazing shapes, the striking colors, or the unique fragrances from orchids if it weren’t from our amazing little friends!

Orchids are an ancient flower – appearing some 80 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs – much older than scientists first believed. They flourished, as many organisms did, after the big extinction and began to figure out how to best survive in this new world. They can grow on every continent except for Antarctica and in almost every type of habitat. They can grow as epiphytes, attached to trees or shrubs, lithophytes, attached to rocks, or they can be terrestrial like most other flowers. They also figured out, because plants are very smart you know, that cross pollination, as opposed to self pollination, is the best way to survive. What is the best way to cross pollinate? With insects of course. So began an intricate process of co-evolution between these amazing flowers and their insect counter-parts.

Co-evolution can be defined simply as the change of a biological object over time that is triggered by the change of a related object. So, as the insects changed, so did the orchids which were dependent upon them. This has led to an incredible amount of diversity in the 25-30,000 species of orchids that exist today. Charles Darwin studied orchids and their relationship with insects; he developed this theory of co-evolution based on his findings. He introduced the theory of plant and insect interactions in his book, On the Origin of Species. Later, he published Fertilisation of Orchids, which explained in detail the complex relationships between these flowers and the insects that pollinate them and how this led to their co-evolution.

A Cocytius antaeus, the new world equivilant of the
Xanthopan morgani.

Today, this can be seen more than ever with some extremely unique orchids and their very interesting, and sometimes weird, ways of attracting insects. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence of this co-evolution is Angraecum sesquipedale or, Darwin’s Orchid in Madagascar. Darwin noticed that this orchid had an extremely long spur, so long that only an insect with a very long proboscis could reach the nectar inside. He actually predicted that there was an undiscovered moth out there with a foot-long proboscis that could pollinate this orchid. Well, he was right, and now we have Xanthopan morgani or the Morgan’s sphinx moth. This incredible moth was not discovered until 1903, but proved Darwin’s theory and was originally named Xanthopan morgani praedicta in honor of his prediction. The moth has an unbelievably long proboscis which can reach down into the flower to retrieve the precious nectar. In doing so, the moth rubs its head against the pollen producing organ of the plant and transfers the pollen to the next flower it drinks from.

(un)natural encounter
Creative Commons License photo credit: avmaier

Many other orchids use specific fragrances to lure insects. Some use sweet fragrances to attract certain bees and wasps, and others, putrid smells to attract flies. These happy insects are rewarded for their pollination with yummy nectar. Others use striking colors that flying insects can’t resist. Still others, about 1/3 of all orchids, produce no nectar. These have come up with some pretty tricky methods of attracting insects. These are some of the most specialized orchids of all. Some mimic the smell of food. Flying insects approach the flower and crawl all over it looking for the nectar. It is not until they are covered in pollen that they give up and move on to the next one, transferring the pollen in their search for food.

Even more deceiving are the orchids that use sex pheremones to attract unsuspecting pollinators. These orchids are amazing. They actually mimic the female bee or wasp visually, often using the same colors and tufts of hair. They give off a chemical that smells identical to the pheremone that the female insect would give off. The poor males climb on the flower, actually try to mate with it (sometimes leaving behind sperm) and move on to the next, spreading the pollen. What a smart flower! Watch this video to see a great example of this type of orchid.

Stemless Lady-slipper
Creative Commons License photo credit: *Micky

One last amazing orchid/insect relationship. The lady’s slipper orchid is a very unique looking flower. With a pouch-like structure, it resembles a pitcher plant, which is a known insect-eating plant. The pitcher plant uses its pouch to lure in insects which fall in and are digested inside. The slipper orchid, however, has a much more benevolent agenda. The pouch does lure insects, they do fall down inside, but they do not meet their doom there. The pouch is too small for the insect to stretch its wings so they cannot fly out. The only way out is to climb a ladder of hairs on the back. The insect must squeeze past where the pollen is kept to get away. They either leave with the pollen, or leave another plant’s pollen there, tricky tricky!

So, you see, if you’ve never thought of plants as intelligent, you may want to think again. Exquisite, exotic, luxurious, stunning, elegant, whatever term you use to decribe orchids, you can now add intelligent and highly evolved. I hope this gives you a whole new respect for these famous flowers, and the bugs that make them what they are!

If you like orchids and want to learn more about them, don’t miss the Houston Orchid Society’s upcoming Show and Sale, which will be held at the museum this year. It’s free! Saturday and Sunday only, April 17 & 18. For more info, visit our web site.