Australian Plants Society NSWHow to grow Australian orchids for a stunning display

I have been growing Australian orchids in my Sydney native garden for nearly 30 years. Every year, I get a stunning display that wows everyone who sees it.

Our front courtyard filled with Australian native plants, including many orchids

Our front courtyard filled with Australian plants, including many orchids

Orchids in history
I’m not the only one fascinated by orchids. Apparently, the world’s first book on orchids was published in China in 1228 and the second in 1247. Orchids were used to treat venereal diseases, diarrhoea, boils, neuralgia and sick elephants!

Orchids are still being used today for medicinal reasons. Not sure about the elephants though!

Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, Qian Gu (Chinese, 1508–ca. 1578) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion, Qian Gu (Chinese, 1508–ca. 1578) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Charles Darrow who invented the game of Monopoly, retired with all his Monopoly money at the age of 46 and devoted himself to gathering and breeding wild orchids.

The name orchid derives from the Latin orchis which means testicle – referring to the testicle shaped tubers of the plants roots and the long-held idea that orchids sprang from the spilled semen of mating animals.

Close up of Thelychiton speciosus, growing under trees in the Hunter Valley. Photo Heather Miles

Close up of Thelychiton speciosus, growing under trees in the Hunter Valley. Photo Heather Miles

But enough of that! Onto more prosaic matters.

Hardy Australian orchids
In Australia, we have over 800 species of orchids in 107 genera, all belonging to the Orchidaceae family.

My favourites are the Thelychiton, formerly called Dendrobium. These orchids are very hardy and can endure extreme drying out. In fact, many are killed by too much kindness and water.

They flower best in full sun to one quarter shade.

Native orchids thriving on rocks in Sydney backyard, with a backdrop of Grevillea ‘Misty Pink’, Banksia and Senna artermisoides, the yellow flowering shrub. Photo: Jeff Howes

Native orchids thriving on rocks in Sydney backyard, with a backdrop of Grevillea ‘Misty Pink’, Banksia and Senna artermisoides, the yellow flowering shrub. Photo: Jeff Howes

How to grow Thelychiton
One of most frequent questions I receive is how do I manage to grow Thelychiton kingianus and Thelychiton speciosus orchids on my rocks and ‘apparently’ in the ground?

Thelychiton speciosus, formerly Dendrobium speciosum, growing happily in the courtyard of our Westleigh home. Photo: Jeff Howes

Thelychiton speciosus, formerly Dendrobium speciosum, growing happily in the courtyard of our Westleigh home. Photo: Jeff Howes

To establish them on large rocks, follow these simple steps:

1.Obtain some shoots that have been removed from existing orchids or cut off from existing clumps. These are called aerial roots and ideally have three or four pseudo-bulbs.
2.Hold them down with small rocks (or even tie them down with old stockings) and surround them with plenty of old leaf litter. Use an open, friable litter that does not hold too much moisture and drains well.
3.Keep the orchids moist (not wet) until new growth commences and then only water occasionally and apply more mulch as they grow.
4.You can apply liquid fertilizer monthly during spring and summer at half strength if you wish, but this is not really necessary, as they get enough nutrients from the decaying leaf litter.

To appear to get them growing in the ground (which they won’t), place a few 50 mm thick paving blocks on the ground and follow the above method. In no time at all, they will multiply and reward you with an abundance of flowers.

Thelychiton kingianus (formerly Dendrobium kingianum), is commonly known as the Pink Rock Orchid. It has masses of beautiful regally coloured flowers in late winter and early spring. Photo: Jeff Howes

Thelychiton kingianus (formerly Dendrobium kingianum), is commonly known as the Pink Rock Orchid. It has masses of beautiful regally coloured flowers in late winter and early spring. Photo: Jeff Howes

Bugs in orchids
Do any bugs attack orchids? Unfortunately yes!

An import from Queensland, these orange and black beetles grow to about 10 mm long and can fly. In summer months, the adult beetle eats the new leaves of orchids. They then lay eggs in the soft, new stems and the larva, a soft white maggot-like grub hatches, then eats and destroys the stem and growing tip. At their worst, they will destroy all the new seasons’ growth on your orchids.

Dendrobium beetles (Stethopachys formosa), photo Jeff Howes

Dendrobium beetles (Stethopachys formosa), photo Jeff Howes

You can control by spraying an insecticide when you see them. The easier and more challenging way is to sneak up on them (there is always two of them), place your hand slowly below the leaves being eaten by the buggers and then, with your other hand, try to grab them. If you miss, they will hopefully drop into your other hand as their defence is to drop to the ground when disturbed. Now with a smile on your face, crush them.

Figuring out which plants work for you
Whenever people see my orchids, they ask: which ones do I grow, how do I grow them, how do to keep them healthy?

I start off by saying that Australia has over 20,000 unique plants, including the orchids. They grow from coast to desert, north to south, in many different conditions. So I suggest that people ask themselves a few simple questions, to better understand their microclimate. These include:
How much sun is present?
What type of soil is it? Is it well drained or does it retain water?
Will my plants compete for nutrients with other plants?

There are some great resources to draw on to help you with the answers to these questions including specialist orchid nurseries, a great book called Native Orchids of Australia, by David Jones, published by Reed Books and our Australian Plant Society website has some great information: Starting out with Native Orchids by Brian Walters and Les Nesbitt’s, Australian Native Orchids.

Thelychiton x delicatum is the pink orchid at the front of the photo. This orchid is a cross between T. kingianus and T. speciosus and has a stunning fragrance that you can smell as soon as you enter the courtyard. Photo: Jeff Howes

Thelychiton x delicatum is the pink orchid at the front of the photo. This orchid is a cross between Thelychiton kingianus and Thelychiton speciosus and has a stunning fragrance that you can smell as soon as you enter the courtyard. Photo: Jeff Howes

Addiction
Why not give these beautiful orchids a go in your garden? You’ll be amply rewarded for many years with exquisite, fragrant blooms.

Just a word of warning…

‘Beauty can be painfully tantalizing, but orchids are not simply beautiful. Many are strange-looking or bizarre, and all of them are ugly when they aren’t flowering. They are ancient, intricate living things that have adapted to every environment on earth. They have outlived dinosaurs; they might outlive human beings. They can be hybridized, mutated, crossbred, and cloned. They are at once architectural and fanciful and tough and dainty, a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant…To desire orchids is to have a desire that will never be, can never be, fully requited.’

Susan Orlean 2011,
The Orchid Thief, A True Story of Beauty and Obsession,
Random House

Thelychiton speciosus loving full sun and part shade. Photo: Jeff Howes

Thelychiton speciosus loving full sun and part shade. Photo: Jeff Howes

[This post is by Jeff Howes, member of the Australian Plant Society NSW]

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14 thoughts on “How to grow Australian orchids for a stunning display

  1. Adele on said:

    Beautiful, and growing in a stunningly designed space. I assume all of them are frost tender?

    • Jeff Howes on said:

      Thanks,
      Yes assume they would be, unless growing under overhead tree canopy protection. I get an occasional winter frost but not where I have them growing.
      Jeff

  2. Spectacular plants Jeff. Are they slow growing? For example if I buy a small Sydney rock orchid in a pot, or obtain some aerial roots + pseudobulbs as you describe, how long will it take to form a clump like the one in your garden? Is this a 10 year plan?

    • Jeff Howes on said:

      Now that is an interesting question and one that I have not been asked before.
      Assuming the purchased orchid is growing well, you should get 1 to 3 new shoots a season. Then next season those shoots should grow 1 to 3 more shoots etc. So growth is exponential, sort of.
      I would expect in 5 years you should have a suitable size clump if growing outside with plenty of mulch and room to expand, all going well.

  3. sandra on said:

    Hi Jeff, very envious. My Den. speciosum hybrid flowered magnificently two springs ago in (just) sub-tropical NZ, but alas not since. It has put on new canes though so am hopeful that it will ‘trigger’ again. However, I will stop picking the leaves out of the pot!

    • Jeff Howes on said:

      perhaps growing it in a pot it has run out of nutriments and needs some half strength liquid fertiliser in spring.
      I have found that D. speciosum does not flower well ever year. They will flower really well one year and the next year I will only get a few flowers. I suspect it is something to do with the overwinter conditions.

      • sandra on said:

        Don’t worry I am feeding and watering regularly, keeping it a bit on the dry side in winter. I repotted with fresh bark last year so will be patient. It helps that I know it *can* flower.

  4. Great article Jeff!
    I have seen your lovely garden and been inspired to be more adventurous with orchid plantings in my Confetti Gardens! They are everywhere and so easy to grow except for the dreaded Dendrobium beetle-I too take extreme delight in the methods you use to eradicate them before they ruin certain species of my Dendrobiums.
    “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orleans is a great collection of incredible short stories that I never tire of reading.
    You might also like to find “Orchid Fever” by Eric Hansen (Methuen 2000) prefaced as a “Horticultural tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy”!!
    I am willing to lend it to you if you can’t find it!
    You know me as Clare Bell from APS North Shore Group.

    • Jeff Howes on said:

      Thanks Clare for the kind words, they are indeed hardy and adaptable.
      Jeff

  5. Helen on said:

    Hi Jeff
    Now I know who owns that garden with the fabulous display of native orchids in late winter and spring. It stopped me in my tracks. Can I ask you what you use to spray dendrobium beetle (when you do spray?).

    • Jeff Howes on said:

      I do not spray for them as you would need a systemic poison to remain active on the leaves.
      Some other growers spray the beetles when they see them with Pyrethmum when they see them. I have not tried that and do not know if it works. I try to catch them and if I miss I don’t worry as they usually come back to the same leaf after a while.I then have a second go at catching them.
      I suppose I suffer up to 50% dead new growth to them in some years. Very frustrating.

  6. Joy on said:

    Just found this and very enlightening. Live across the Tasman and wondering about my purple and white orchids. Don’t have that yellow beetle luckily. Thanks for info and proper names for these little beauties. Love your rocky garden. I’m a petromaniac as well so now that I know we are dealing with ‘rock orchids’ I can improve their growing conditions with confidence.

  7. Guy wilkins on said:

    Need help. Motherinlaw has just been given an extreme cluster-comunity of about 50+ dendrobium bulbs growing in 1 pot. I nearly droped to my knees when i saw it.
    I’ve re potted orchids before but not like this.
    We live in mandurah western australia and im not sure how to divide them or if they should be divided.
    At the moment they are tightly packed but still sending out new growth and each bulb are about 50cm long.
    Please help, what to do

    • Jeff howes on said:

      If you really need to divide due to overcrowding etc, then cut the clump up into how many pieces you need with a hand saw. Clean up and cut away damaged bits of the plant and repot with fresh orchid compost/leaf litter/fine gravel-rock etc. Keep moist. The clumps will re-establish but will take time. Do not fertilizer for a while after that trauma and when you do use it half strength. Hope this helps?
      Jeff

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