An Orchid Experiment (and the trusty Cabbage Palm)

tree mounted orchid

Did you know there are over 28,000 species of orchids? That’s twenty-eight thousand. Species. It’s nearly equal the number of bony fishes, more than twice the number of bird species, and roughly four times that of mammals. It’s crazy.

I didn’t know this either, but it’s one of the fascinating tidbits I gleaned while researching this post, which I thought would be quick and easy. Silly me.

By Ernst Haeckel – Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 74: Orchidae, Public Domain

These fascinating plants inspire such passion and are so prevalent here in South Florida they’re kind of impossible to avoid. So I thought a quick primer would be handy. An Orchids for Dummies or Intro to Orchids or, if I was any good at listicles, Ten Tips to Orgasmic Orchids. But several hours into my research, I realized my mistake.

There’s nothing quick about them. Orchids are complicated. To know even the basics of care (light, water, nutrients) sends you down a rabbit-hole of:  well, it depends what kind you have. And let’s remember, there are 28 thousand kinds. Fortunately the American Orchid Society has compiled encyclopedic knowledge on everything and anything you might want to know about orchids. So no reinventing the wheel for this girl…

What I will say is that orchids are so weird and varied because they’ve been around for so damn long. They’re technically prehistoric, dating back 80-100 million years. Plenty of time to become really interesting.

I’d had a few orchids in Oakland, a couple indoor varieties. And one cold-weather outdoor type we inherited with the house, which I thought a good omen. It sat beneath our apricot tree for years and produced massive sprigs of gorgeous fuscia flowers that lasted for nearly two months each spring. Sadly we left it behind – no cold weather plants here.

But strangely enough, we inherited an orchid with this house too, left on the kitchen counter by the previous owners, perhaps as a gift. I added it to the others on the sun porch, what was now clearly becoming my own little orchid collection. And even more orchids arrived the day of our long-overdue housewarming party in March. Here are a few pics…

white orchid flower leopard orchid flowers white and pink orchid flowers

Here in South Florida’s sub-tropics, these beauties grow everywhere. And I mean everywhere. They literally grow on trees. So I decided to take a stab at incorporating a few into our landscape… hence, the “experiment.”

But first, the Sabal Palmetto (aka Cabbage Palm), the state tree of Florida.

cabbage palm illustration
By Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794–1868), Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826), Public Domain

This wondrous palm can grow up to 80 feet tall, is resistant to fire, flood, salty coastal conditions, drought, cold, even hurricanes (standing proudly after oaks and pines have been snapped to pieces). A staple of the remaining hardwood forests in Florida, cabbage palms support an incredible variety of wildlife. Its small round fruit is eaten by birds, squirrels, raccoons, bears, and deer. The fibrous leaves provide habitat for a variety of creatures, and are used by birds for nest building. The fragrant flowers produce pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies. And beneath the dense canopy, often the trunk will be coated with the remaining stubby stalks of old fallen leaves, called “boots,” which provide the perfect habitat for a variety of other plants: ferns, climbing vines, and epiphytes.

Epiphytes are plants that grow harmlessly upon other plants (such as trees) and derive their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that accumulates nearby. And the majority of orchids are epiphytes.

We are fortunate to have two mature cabbage palms on our property, and when I had a native plant expert provide a consultation on our landscape shortly after we moved in, he marveled (nearly breathless with excitement) at the profusion of life embedded in our palms’ rugged boots. Shoe string ferns, whisk ferns, corky stem passion flower, and a creeper he said was invasive and should be removed. Here’s a shot of the base of one tree.

Cabbage Palm Boots

My plan was to incorporate a few orchids into the “boots,” tucked in among the ferns. I worked on instinct alone… winging it, you might say.

I have no idea if I chose the best type for this environment. I simply picked the smallest orchids I had since the space afforded by the “boots” was tight. I stuck a bit of peat moss deep in the crevice for added measure, but there was already quite a bit of organic material packed there. I popped my little orchids out of their plastic cups and tucked them into the gaps between the boots, tying them into place with some gardening wire. I gave them a good spritz, and Voila!

Orchids in Cabbage Palm boots

orchids mounted to cabbage palm

I don’t know how they’ll fare there. I can only hope. But we had a deep long rain last night which should help. And I imagine they’ll be content among the company of the whisk and shoe-string ferns, in the shade of the cabbage-y canopy and the larger sapodilla tree nearby, in whose branches the fiery male cardinal sings.

5 Comments

  1. What beautiful pictures. I can’t keep one alive for the life of me. Tried several times. I think its the climate. Thank you for sharing their beauty

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    1. Hey Kim, have you tried them inside? The ones they sell at Trader Joes are pretty easy to care for. I think they’re the “Moth” variety and are supposed to be the easiest. They just need bright light (but not direct sun) and you water them once a week, but be sure that they’re never setting in standing water for extended time, or they’ll rot. I used to soak mine in a bowl of warm water for an hour, then leave dry out the rest of the week. That seemed to work well. Saw your hummers visited recently. Yay!

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  2. Good luck! I tried once but it didn’t work. On the other hand, a lady at work has covered her oak tree with orchids. Your orchids and pictures are beautiful. And I have a book of Haeckel’s illustrations – they are gorgeous.l

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    1. Oooh, I’d love to see an oak tree covered in orchids. Sounds incredible. We have two large oaks in the front of our property (lucky us!) but so far they’ve just got some mosses attached. I too love Haeckel’s illustrations. Yes, gorgeous!

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