By Norman C. Bezona
Cooperative Extension Service University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources
If you like gardening the easy way, then you might consider growing a group of easy care plants referred to as air plants. This group of unusual tropicals is technically referred to as epiphytes. The group includes many ferns, orchids, bromeliads, cactus and even rhododendrons.
Although epiphytes grow attached to shrubs and trees, they are not parasites, since they do not take their nutrients from the plants on which they grow. Air plants have some of the most beautiful flowers and unique foliage in the plant kingdom. They generally require less care than most other ornamentals. Many folks think air plants are difficult to grow, but this is not the case. Our tropical climate is ideal for air plants that are virtually impossible to grow outdoors anywhere else in the United States. Here, many grow with almost no care.
Most kamaaina are familiar with orchids and bromeliads, but even if they know about out tropical vireya rhododendrons, they may not know that many species are found as epiphytes in the forest of south east 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 rainforests of the Big Island, especially where hapu‘u are present.
If you want to learn more about vireyas, join the Hawaii Chapter of the Rhododendron Society on Sunday, March 17, at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka. It is just 3 miles up Kaloko Drive at the third intersection of Hao Street. Take a right on Hao and park just beyond the second drive on the right. If you go a little too far, you will come to the highest commercial coffee plantation in the United States. There you can have a free tour and cup of Mountain Thunder Coffee, but come to the sanctuary first.
For details, you may RSVP to Sherla Bertelmon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 nineteenth 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 written by Rachel Leyva. It is available at some local nurseries and garden shops. She will also be at the March meeting to share her knowledge and have this informative booklet for sale.
Now let’s touch on some other epiphytes.
Orchids 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 nurseryman 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 paperbark, monkeypod, calabash and African tulip 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 to 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 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.