Plants I love

Growing orchids in trees

Singapore is the only country in the world to have chosen a hybrid as its national flower. It’s an orchid called ‘Miss Joaquim’, after Miss Agnes Joaquim, who in 1983 crossed the Burmese Vanda teres and the Malayan Vanda hookeriana to create the world’s first vanda hybrid. It’s a tough plant that grows as a dense clump of thin branching stems to about head height, which is where the rosy-violet flowers bloom.

Orchid 'Miss Joaquim'

Here’s ‘Miss Joaquim’ grown as a sort of hedge in the National Orchid Garden in Singapore. If you’ve been to Hawaii you will have seen her growing on the side of the road, her flowers picked and placed into leis. And in tropical Queensland she’s a hardy roundabout plant!

Commercial orchid culture took off in Singapore the 1920s and the island became synonymous with orchids. It’s still the place to go to see orchids, especially every second year in late July when the Singapore Garden Festival sets up in the Gardens by the Bay. This year I marvelled at baskets of impeccable moth orchids, hung from tall stands, each with multiple arching canes studded with dozens of perfect white blooms, and pots of modern vanda hybrids packed into shallow wooden trays and suspended overhead, the supporting structure disguised with trailing curtains of Spanish moss.

Orchid, white moth orchid, pic Robin Powell

Much as I wanted to take all these home, it was the idea of growing more orchids in the garden that I ended up souveniring. Almost everywhere you look in Singapore there’s an orchid growing in a tree, along with shaggy ferns on the trunk and a birds nest fern squatting happy in the elbow of a bough. I loved this festooning of trees with plants.

One reason all the trees are host to so many plants – all that rain!

In Singapore the go-to orchids for this kind of treatment are the vandas, but they’re not for Sydney’s great outdoors. So I asked advice of Ian Slade, from Kawana Gardens Nursery, who grows a bountiful array of orchids in a mature jacaranda at his Peats Ridge property. He recommended Dockrillia teretifolium, the pencil orchid or bridal veil orchid, which naturally grows on casuarinas up and down the coast. Dendrobium speciosum var. Hillii, with its big fat spikes of fragrant creamy blooms “gets pretty big but takes a while to get there”, he says, and lots of the coelogyne orchids also do well in trees. Another reliable choice is the Mexican orchid Laelia anceps, which comes in a variety of colours and doesn’t mind cold winters as long as there’s no frost.

Orchids in frangipani, pic Robin Powell

Vandas in a frangipani.

To establish an orchid in a tree, simply tie it on with something soft and stretchy like pantyhose (cable ties or fishing line will cut into the tree as it grows). Pack some damp sphagnum moss around the roots to protect them until they get a hold around the tree. Position the orchid to get a good amount of light or morning sun to encourage flowering.

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The dead tree look-alike is actually concrete. A DIY project for the weekend?

No tree? No problem. In the National Orchid Garden of the Singapore Botanic Gardens what looked at a distance to be dead tree trunks sporting masses of orchids on closer inspection turned out to be concrete arms wrapped in black coconut fibre sprouting orchids tied on with cable ties. Behind them waved a tall hedge of ‘Miss Joaquim’. Perfectly Singapore.

Find specialist orchids and other interesting plants at Plant Lovers Fair, Kariong, September 24-25, www.plantloversfair.com.au.

It’s time to:

Get to Bronte House
This inspiring garden is open tomorrow, Sunday 18 September, from 10am – 2pm. 470 Bronte Road, Bronte. Entry $2.

Prune
Cut back shrubby tibouchinas ready for a burst of spring growth.

Feed
Now that the weather is warming the whole garden can be fed with all-purpose fertiliser.

Make a list
Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast on September 24 and 25 promises to fill your garden with new treasures. More than 40 specialist growers will bring their wares, and there’s a free speakers program.. Go to Plant Lovers Fair for details.

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