Even though the days are beginning to get longer, many like to brighten up their home with bouquets of colorful cut flowers. For most kamaaina, flowering plants are another option. Instead of lasting a few days, flowering plants — referred to as “air plants” — can last for years and are an easy way for interior or exterior gardening.
This group of unusual tropicals is technically referred to as epiphytes. The group includes many ferns, orchids, bromeliads and even some cacti. 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. Hawaii’s tropical climate is ideal for air plants that are virtually impossible to grow outdoors anywhere else in the United States except in the warmest parts of California and Florida.
Orchids and bromeliads are probably the most well known of the epiphytes and there are many species available. If you have a tree or lanai to hang the pots, you can have flowers 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 preferably any type of rough barked trees like paperbark, monkeypod, calabash and the African tulip.
The epiphytic ferns and cacti may also be grown in pots or on trees by making sure they have good drainage. To do so, fertilize lightly every two to three months to keep plants in active growth. This action is not required if plants are attached to trees. Several brands of orchid fertilizer are available and satisfactory for the air plants. These are specially formulated, will give excellent results, and limit any disease or insect problems. Yet, if problems do occur, our local garden supply dealers have 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. Other plants like 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 — like mosquitoes — may breed in the center of bromeliads. These insects can be more than a nuisance since they may be vector for dengue fever and other diseases. That is why it is important for natural insect control with lizards, amphibians and birds. It also makes the garden more interesting.
Anole lizards, Jacksons chameleons and geckos — especially the gold dust day gecko — 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. To keep your bromeliads free of mosquitos, use a biological control that only kills the larvae. The tongue twister name is bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis. The easiest to use is granule form and sprinkling a few grains in the center every few weeks eliminates those pesky buggers. Flushing with water every two weeks or using natural insecticides like neem will also help keep your garden free of mosquitoes.
For further information contact the UH master gardener helpline. The Kona number is 322-4893 and Hilo is 981-5199.