Wednesday | December 07, 2016
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Hawaii Rhododendron Society sponsors Feb. 21-22 seminar

Folks on the mainland are looking for the first hint of spring.

Good luck! Here we see signs of spring with the Waimea cherry blossoms and the tropical vireya rhododendrons showing color. Even some hardy rhododendrons from the Pacific Northwest will burst into bloom where they are grown above 3,000 feet in elevation.

Most kamaaina are familiar with orchids and bromeliads, but even if they know about our tropical vireya rhododendrons, they may not know that many species are found as epiphytes in the forests of Southeast Asia. The most spectacular display I have ever seen was while climbing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo.

The trees were festooned with red flowers. On closer examination it was not the trees in bloom, but epiphytic rhododendrons! The advantage to vireyas is that they may also be grown in moist, organic media like the types found in the cloud forests and rain forests of the Big Island, especially where hapu‘u are present. Many vireyas also grow in well-drained volcanic soils.

If you want to learn more about vireyas and their relatives, join the Hawaii Chapter of the Rhododendron Society at its spring seminar starting from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Keaau Community Center. Deadline for registration is Feb. 7. The two-day workshop will have speakers from Washington state, Australia and California. It will give you a great opportunity to learn about this amazing group of plants from local growers and enthusiasts as well. The workshop includes a tour of gardens featuring vireyas. Both days include lunch and a dinner barbecue. Topics covered include plant hunting in the jungles of Southeast Asia, propagation, growing and conservation of species. For registration details, you may call Sherla Bertelmann at 966-9225 or email

Vireya are native all the way from Taiwan, the Malay Archipelago, New Guinea, the Philippines and Indonesia, stretching as far south as Northern Australia. Vireya were named in honor of Julien Joseph Virey, French pharmacist and natural historian. However, it was John Veitch who became one of the earliest and most prolific collectors and hybridizers in the 19th century. Some hybrids are small plants and other will grow into large shrubs. Flower colors vary from white, pink and red to yellow and orange. There is a good local booklet guide to growing these magnificent plants by Rachel Leyva. It is available at some local nurseries and garden shops.

Now let’s touch on some other epiphytes you can incorporate into your colorful air garden. Orchids, fern and bromeliads are probably the most well known of the epiphytes. Many species have been introduced. If you have a tree or lanai in which to hang pots, you can have flowers the year round. All it takes is common sense, water and fertilizer. When buying orchids and bromeliads, it is important to get healthy plants. Ask the grower or nurserymen about the particular species and its care. When grown in containers, they will require repotting every two or three years. To avoid the problem of repotting, many gardeners remove the plants from the pot and attach them to the branches of a tree. Rough-barked trees like ohia, paperbark, monkeypod and calabash are usually best.

The epiphytic ferns and cactus may be also grown in pots or on trees. The secret of success is to be sure they have good drainage. Fertilize lightly every two or three months to keep plants in active growth. But if plants are attached to trees, this is not required. Several brands of orchid fertilizer are available. They are satisfactory for other air plants as well. These are specially formulated and when used according to directions will give excellent results. Disease and insect problems are few. If they do occur, our local garden supply dealers have natural fungicides and insecticides to quickly control the situation.

Give the air plants a try in your garden. Start with easy types such as bromeliads, like Tillandias, Billbergias and Aechmeas. Staghorn and resurrection ferns are easy. Dendrobiums, epidendrum and oncidium orchids will thrive on a minimum of care. From there, go to the more exotic cattleya and moth orchids. Local nurserymen can give you quite a few ideas on the types to grow and ways to grow them.

Bromeliads, cactus 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. These insects can be more than a nuisance since one species of mosquito is even a vector for dengue fever. That is why natural insect control with lizards, amphibians and birds makes good sense. Bacillus thurengiensis, var. israelensis, a very specific natural control for mosquitoes may be also be used. Encouraging mosquito eaters also makes the garden more interesting. Anole lizards, Jackson chameleons, geckos, especially the gold dust day gecko common in Kona add to the tropical magic of our gardens. Many common birds feed on insects, so including a bird feeder in the garden to attract them also adds benefit and beauty.

At the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka at 3,000 feet, we have found that turning on a sprinkler during a dry winter day attracts native honeycreepers like apapane looking for a bath. It will also attract Japanese bush warblers, cardinals, finches and other non-natives that all come together for a colorful garden show.


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