How to Plant, Grow and Care For Epidendrum Orchids
Thinking of growing epidendrum orchids but aren't quite sure where to start? These beautiful flowers have lovely blooms and are a favorite for many gardeners. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss takes you through all you need to know about growing epidendrum orchids and their maintenance needs.
The epidendrum genus of orchids is one of, if not the largest genera of orchids, encompassing more than 1,000 separate species, and a plethora of hybrid varieties to choose from. They are among the easiest orchids to propagate and care for.
Epidendrum orchids have small flowers that typically grow in clusters, so they tend not to be as popular among florists, but they make wonderful houseplants because of their relative ease of care and blooming habits.
If you’ve decided to add one of these beautiful plants to your orchid collection, you may not be sure where to start when it comes to their care. Keep on reading to learn all you need to know about growing epidendrum orchids and their care.
Epidendrum Orchid Overview
Plant Type Epiphytic and Terrestrial Perennials
Season Spring and Summer
Pests Hard Brown Scale, Aphids
Exposure Bright Indirect Sunlight
Disease Water Mold, Root Rot, fungus
Plant Spacing Individual Containers
Species More than 1,000
Planting Depth Shallow
Soil Type Bark Mix with Sphagnum Moss
Native Area Central and South America
Height up to 6’ tall
Plant With Palms and Succulents
Hardiness Zones 10-11
Watering Needs Once Per Week
Attracts Hummingbirds, Butterflies
About Epidendrum Orchids
The name Epidendrum comes from the Greek words “epi” and “dendron” meaning upon trees. With so many species, the characteristics of epidendrum orchids can vary widely. While some are small and delicate, others can grow up to 6 feet tall. Some grow in trees, as their name implies, while still others are happiest in the ground.
Native predominantly to Central and South America, epidendrums are commonly referred to as Reed Orchids or Crucifix Orchids. Both nicknames refer to the general appearance of the plants.
The first epidendrum orchid to bloom in captivity, Epidendrum cochleatum, bloomed in England in 1787. They are a widely cultivated and studied genus.
Epidendrum orchids bloom in many colors, the most common being yellow, orange, white, red, and purple. A wonderful characteristic of this genus is that they can bloom at almost any time of year. If they are properly cared for, a plant can even bloom more than once per year which is a rarity among orchids.
Epidendrum orchids tend to be hardier and more resilient than most types of orchids, making them a great orchid for novice enthusiasts. They can endure a wide range of climates and conditions, as they tend to grow quite prolifically in their native habitat.
Epidendrum orchids are native to the Americas, and the genus encompasses a wide variety of species. They are mainly classified as epiphytic, meaning they grow on trees, taking in water and nutrients from the air.
There are a handful of species that are terrestrial, meaning that they grow best in the ground. Still, some others are classified as lithophytes, which means that they grow on rocks.
Epidendrum orchids can be sympodial or monopodial, which refers to their growth habits. Reed epidendrums are monopodial, meaning that they grow continuously upwards, along a central rhizome (main stem), and continue to bloom from the top of the stems throughout the lifespan of the plant. These orchids are recognizable by their long reed-like stems.
Some epidendrum orchids are sympodial, meaning that they grow horizontally along their rhizome, sending up pseudobulbs that produce leaves and flower spikes. Each pseudobulb will only produce one flower spike in its lifetime and then will spend the remaining retained nutrients supporting the new growth of the plant.
Most epidendrum orchids produce flower spikes topped with clusters of tiny individual flowers. Each flower is made up of three sepals and two upper petals, which are relatively proportionate in shape, size, and color.
The column which holds the plant’s reproductive system is partially covered by an anther cap, which is attached to the labellum or lip of the flower. The labellum of this genus ranges from small and inconspicuous to large, showy, and flamboyant. This acts as a landing pad for pollinators.
There are three methods by which epidendrum orchids can be propagated. Propagating orchids from seed is far from the most efficient method. It takes years to get a mature flowering plant and requires a lot of equipment and a sterile environment, so it is rarely done by home gardeners.
Propagating orchids by division is the most common and effective way to produce more plants. It’s simple and straightforward, and any gardener can carry this out at home. Epidendrum orchids, however, are even easier to propagate. In fact, to say they do it themselves would be quite accurate.
Epidendrums are one of three varieties of orchids that produce keikis (KAY-kee). Such a funny little word, but what it means is that these orchids produce offshoots that are their own separate plants. This is considered asexual reproduction.
The word keiki is the Hawaiian word for “little one.” Keikis are good and bad, as they can indicate that there is a health issue with the mother plant that is causing it to redirect nutrients to a new plant system. However, if your parent plant is thriving, keikis are a great way to propagate.
Keikis will draw nutrients from the parent plant, so it is best to remove them to their own pot at an early stage. Simply cut the new plant away from the parent plant using a clean, sharp blade. The keiki can be potted on its own and will grow into an exact replica of the parent plant.
Because there are both sympodial and monopodial epidendrum orchids, we will discuss the process of division for both types, as the process is uncomplicated but differs between them.
For monopodial, or reed epidendrum orchids, the rhizome (central stem) grows vertically and produces leaves along the reed and flowers at the top. These orchids will also produce aerial roots or roots that grow along the stem of the plant. These roots are used by the plant for attaching to structures in a climbing fashion.
Using a sterile, sharp blade, slice through the rhizome in such a way that the detached portion has several leaves and, preferably, some aerial roots. This cutting can then be potted in damp (but not wet) sphagnum moss for about a month or until it begins to develop its own root system.
The parent plant will continue to grow from the top and can be left in its original pot.
Dividing sympodial orchids is different from monopodial types, but it is no less straightforward. A sympodial orchid can be identified by its horizontal growth habit. The roots tend to grow primarily beneath the potting medium, and the rhizome is at the bottom of the plant. From this rhizome, pseudobulbs are produced.
Each pseudobulb stores nutrients to nourish the plant. They help it produce flowers but also produce new pseudobulbs. Each one only produces a single flower spike, but its life doesn’t end when the flowers fall. A spent pseudobulb takes on the responsibility of directing its nutrient stores to successive pseudobulbs.
It is important to leave pseudobulbs intact when tending to a sympodial orchid so that they can continue to nourish the plant as a whole. When dividing a sympodial orchid, you will slice through the rhizome in a position that allows both divisions to have at least 4 pseudobulbs, ideally.
Never remove a new pseudobulb without keeping it attached to at least one supporting spent bulb. The two plants can now be repotted and will continue to grow as replicas.
I address propagation by seed only to say that it is rather impractical and difficult, as well as being very time-consuming. Orchid seeds are extremely small, so they have no endosperm and cannot germinate independently.
They are also highly vulnerable to fungus and bacteria, so they require a sterile environment when germinated in captivity.
If you are wondering just how tiny an orchid seed is, break open a vanilla bean pod. This is the seed pod of the vanilla orchid. The tiny black specks inside are the seeds.
Although difficult and time consuming, growing an orchid from seed can be done in one of two ways, symbiotic and asymbiotic germination.
Because orchid seeds do not store their own nutrients, they rely on an external source to provide the nutrients they need to germinate. In nature, orchid seeds form a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which attach to the orchid seeds and are able to absorb the nutrients needed and make them useful for the seeds.
As this process is impossible to replicate outside of a sterile, laboratory environment, I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that it takes many years to produce a blooming orchid in this fashion.
While equally as time-consuming, asymbiotic germination can be performed by any gardener with the space and determination to make it happen. This is done through a method called flasking because the seeds are germinated inside of a glass bottle or flask.
Flasking is the in vitro fertilization of orchid propagation. Because orchid seeds have no stored energy, they are placed in a sterile flask with a nutrient-rich substance that is bioavailable for the seeds. This provides the seeds with the nutrients needed to germinate.
The orchids will need to remain in the flask for up to 2 years before they can survive on their own, and then it will take several more years before they become mature plants capable of producing flowers.
Growing Epidendrum Orchids
Epidendrum orchids are native to Central and South America and some parts of Florida. Their main hardiness zones are 9-11, though they can also survive in zone 12 with a little extra shade and water. If you live in these climate zones, you’re one of the lucky folks who can grow orchids outdoors, year-round, where they tend to be happiest.
Fortunately for those of us living in colder climates, Epidendrum orchids do very well indoors as houseplants. It is also possible to keep orchids outdoors for the warmer months and bring them indoors when the temperatures drop.
This may actually help your orchids to produce more blooms, as they will get more light during their rapid growth period.
Growing epidendrum orchids indoors requires a balance of environmental factors, as well as keen powers of observation. The ability to head off problems early on is key to the longevity of your orchid plant.
Epiphytic orchids grow on trees with no soil to speak of and their roots exposed to the air. This means that orchids need a lot of air circulation around their roots to maintain good root health. They are good at absorbing and storing water in their roots and leaves, so they do not need to sit in a wet potting medium to be properly hydrated.
While some epidendrum orchids are terrestrial or lithophytic, they can be potted similarly, when kept as houseplants. The difference is that terrestrial orchids can be planted in the ground in tropical climates. If planting terrestrial orchids in the ground, aim for loose, sandy soil with good drainage.
The best potting mix for orchids is a loose mixture made up of predominantly bark mixed with a combination of perlite, sponge rock, charcoal, and pumice. Premixed orchid potting medium is widely available and is a great place to start.
If you like to mix your own medium, though, you want to achieve maximum air circulation around the plant’s roots. Terrestrial orchids need a bit more moisture, so adding some sphagnum moss to your potting medium will make these orchids the happiest.
The container an orchid is planted in is more important than the actual depth, so we will discuss the different types of pots here and how to properly pot an orchid. There are three popular types of commercially available orchid pots.
My preference for orchid containers is wooden orchid baskets. These open-weave baskets are made to hang, and they do a great job of simulating the orchid’s natural habitat. They are, however, very messy indoors. Any small pieces of potting mix will fall through the gaps when the container is jostled or when you water.
Terracotta orchid pots are wonderful because the pot naturally wicks water away from the roots of the plant, which orchids love. These look like typical terracotta pots, except that they have more and larger drainage holes, generally around the sides as well as in the bottom.
Decorative ceramic orchid pots are another option. These are nice for indoor orchids as they tend to be the most visually appealing. However, they do not wick water in the same fashion as terracotta, and many have attached dishes that can cause roots to sit in water, so be careful of these issues.
In terms of planting depth, orchids can technically be grown on a piece of bark, so there is no rule on this that is set in stone. Place your orchid in its container and loosely fill around the roots with a potting mix. Orchid clips or wire can be used to secure the plant in place while it establishes roots.
Epidendrum orchids like a fair amount of light. They prefer to have bright, indirect light for most of the day, though they will tolerate some direct sun. If you notice the leaves of your orchid turning a bronze color, this is sunburn. Simply move your orchid away from the direct sun.
Epidendrums will have excessive vertical growth and fail to flower when not given adequate light. This will lead to a very leggy, scraggly-looking plant. If you find that you can’t give your orchid enough light inside the house, moving it outdoors in the warmer months is a great option.
Orchids like to be watered well, but not often. They need their roots to dry in between waterings, as constantly soggy roots lead to root rot. The single greatest factor in the failure to maintain orchids indoors is overwatering.
During the warmer months when your orchid is experiencing rapid growth, you may want to water it every 4-5 days, especially if you keep it outdoors during this time. When the weather cools, decrease watering to once per week, allowing the plant to dry out between waterings.
When you water, make sure to give your orchid a good long drink. Whether by watering from the top down or immersing the pot, give your plant a few minutes to soak up the water.
Climate and Temperature
Epidendrum orchids are hardy where cooler temperatures are concerned. They can survive undamaged in 40° temperatures as long as they remain undercover. Much colder than this, and their leaves will suffer damage. They tend to be resilient in this event, however, and epidendrums are known for coming back from cold damage better than most orchids.
In general, these orchids thrive in a temperature range between 60°-90° during the day. During the night, they can handle slightly cooler temperatures but should not be left outside in freezing weather.
Humidity is as important a factor in orchid health as temperature, if not more so. Epidendrums like a humidity level between 50%-80%. This is higher than most people prefer to keep in their homes, so I find that a sunny bathroom window is a perfect place for orchids. The humidity level tends to be highest in the bathroom of most homes.
There are ways to supplement the humidity level around your orchids as well. You can use a humidifier if you are careful about the surrounding area and its resistance to moisture. Another method is misting, but this requires you to mist several times per day, which can be arduous.
A dish of water with stones on it can be placed beneath the pot. As the water evaporates, it will provide moisture for your orchid. The stones elevate the pot so that the roots don’t sit in water.
Orchids love extra nutrients. During their growing season, you can fertilize your orchid weekly, which means every time you water, you give it some fertilizer.
This can be decreased to every 3-4 weeks during their dormant period (after the blooms fall and until the next period of rapid growth). When fertilizing weekly, flush the roots every three weeks to remove any buildup of salts.
Specially formulated orchid fertilizers are available at most places where orchids are sold. These are balanced especially for orchids; however, a balanced general fertilizer will work just fine. For example, a 10-10-10 fertilizer diluted to ½ strength is a great substitute for these specialty fertilizers.
Outside of maintaining the proper light, water, and humidity levels, there is very little maintenance to caring for orchids. It is important to inspect your plant on a regular basis, though.
Orchids are vulnerable to some insects and quite a few diseases, and the best treatment is prevention. The earlier you observe a problem, the better your chances are of eliminating it without losing the plant.
Regular pruning is not a necessity for epidendrums and most other orchids as well. It is important to leave spent pseudobulbs attached until they are no longer useful to the newer growth. When they turn brown and dry out, it is fine to cut them off. Remember, it is always important to use a clean, sharp tool. Clean cuts heal faster.
You can remove spent flower spikes by cutting them just above the node closest to the base. This will help redirect nutrients back into the plant to produce new growth.
The downside to this is that it is possible for an epidendrum to bloom twice in a season on the same spike. They will also occasionally produce keiki from the spent flower spikes. The option is entirely up to the grower’s discretion.
There are several popular varieties of this species that you can grow, each with different flower colors. Let’s take a deeper look at some of these popular flowers that you can add to your orchid collection.
Purple Reed Orchid
|botanical name Epidendrum x obrienianum ‘Purple’
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 9-11
This pretty purple orchid is terrestrial and one of the easiest to grow. In warmer climates, it can be planted in the ground, it does well in sandy soil, but any well-drained soil will work. It also makes a great houseplant. Given the right light conditions, this orchid can bloom anytime, and, if happy, will bloom continuously.
Flower spikes hold clusters of 10 or more bright fuchsia flowers. The blooms have touches of yellow and resemble tiny cattleya blooms. This orchid is a great reproducer, sending out keikis on its flower spikes after the blooms fall.
|botanical name Epidendrum Pacific Girl ‘Primavera’
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 9-11
This gorgeous reed stem epidendrum is a hybrid that produces clusters of cheerful orange and yellow flowers. The petals and sepals are brilliant orange with a tint of red on the edges of the petals giving depth to the tiny blooms.
The labellum of these tiny flowers is truly special. A bright yellow sunburst protrudes from the center of each perfect bloom.
Night Fragrant Epidendrum
|botanical name Epidendrum nocturnum Jacq.
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 9-12
This unique variety grows in Central America as well as in Florida and bears the largest flowers in the genus. Although not commonly kept as a houseplant, it is distinctive, and so it deserves mention. Nocturnum grows predominantly in swamps and hammocks.
The five petals and sepals are very long and slender and yellowish-green in color. The labellum is very pronounced, and this flower is self-pollinating, so it doesn’t require insect pollination. The lip consists of 3 large white lobes that flank a white column and a touch of yellow peeks from beneath the anther cap.
|botanical name Epidendrum Ballerina ‘Yellow’
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 9-12
Ballerina is another reed stem epidendrum growing tall stalks flanked with ovate leaves. The blooms appear in clusters of sunshine at the top of each stem. Five uniform petals and sepals open upward, and the labellum stands straight up atop the flower. The labellum is the same shade as the petals but is textured, with fine hairlike structures.
Pests and Diseases
Sadly, orchids are particularly susceptible to pests and diseases. Their plump, meaty leaves, tender flowers, and new growth make them both a tasty treat for insects and a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria.
The best treatment for all these issues is a healthy dose of prevention. Observing your orchid regularly for signs of pests and disease is the best way to mitigate the damage.
Hard Brown Scales
Scales are tiny brown insects that feed on the sap of plants. They drain the plant of moisture and nutrients and leave behind a sticky substance known as honeydew. This causes black fungus to grow on the leaves of the plant. It’s not a pretty picture.
If you notice new growth starting to curl or see these tiny brown insects on the underside of your orchid’s leaves, take a cotton swab dipped in 70% isopropyl alcohol and wipe them off.
This should eliminate the scale. The sticky honeydew and fungus need to be wiped away by hand, which can be tedious on larger plants but not so time-consuming for most houseplants.
Aphids are another insect that loves to feed on the sap in tender new orchid growth. They drain this new growth of the nutrients it needs, so the growth of the plant will be noticeably stunted. If you see that new growth shriveling, check for these tiny green bugs.
Aphids will focus on forming buds if they are available, and that means your orchid won’t bloom. This is obviously a big disappointment! Aphids also leave behind sticky excrement that causes mold to grow.
The main culprit behind aphid infection is bringing in plants that are already infected. Always inspect new houseplants to make sure you’re not inviting these little pests into the home. If you find an aphid infection, isolate the plant, and treat it with an insecticide until there is no trace of the insects.
This is the reason that overwatering is so deadly to orchids. Too much water will leave an orchid’s roots soft and vulnerable to deterioration. Once this happens, bacteria and fungus can infiltrate and cause root health to decline rapidly.
It’s difficult to diagnose root rot until it is too late, as you won’t see the roots turning brown and mushy. If the leaves start to turn yellow, the damage has been done, and it will be difficult to recover the plant.
The best hope is to remove the plant from its pot, gently shake out any potting mix from the roots and trim off infected tissue. Dust the remaining roots with a fungicide such as cinnamon or sulfur and repot. Water sparingly until you see some new growth.
Remember that this is an issue begat by overwatering, so your fragile roots need to dry in between waterings to maintain their integrity.
Phyllosticta leaf spot is another fungal disease, this one affects the leaves of the orchids and is caused by Phyllosticta capitalensis. It appears first as elongated purplish-black spots on leaves that grow and devour tissue.
Isolate the plant to avoid spreading the infection, trim off infected leaves and treat with a fungicide. Don’t reintroduce the plant until you are certain the infection is gone.
Black rot is a fungal disease that affects the leaves of orchids. It generally shows up as tiny black spots on new growth and can cause a young plant to shrivel and die quickly. On a mature plant, you may see spots first and then swaths of black on the leaves.
Black rot is a waterborne disease, and the biggest culprit is bringing an infected plant into the house and allowing water to splash from the infected plant onto an uninfected plant.
Practicing good hygiene will limit the spread of most diseases, but sometimes it happens without us knowing, so it’s good to observe and pay attention to changes in your plant’s foliage.
Some good practices that help avoid all kinds of rot in orchids are; keep your orchids off the ground outside, maintaining good air circulation around your orchids, and trim off infected leaves at the first identified sign of infection.
Botrytis Petal Blight
The fungus botrytis cinerea is the biggest culprit of flower blight in orchids. It reproduces in cool, damp environments, which can happen inside a home where you are increasing the humidity while still keeping the temperature human-friendly. This fungus is airborne, so it’s difficult to control its spread.
Botrytis shows first as brown spots on new growth and particularly flowers, and it spreads quickly, decimating a plant. It can be treated with fungicide, but the damage is not reversible, so you will need to remove and dispose of the affected tissue to keep the plant healthy.
Some prevention tips are; keeping good airflow in rooms with raised humidity, maintaining healthy hygiene, especially in watering practices, and isolating infected plants quickly to stem the spread.
Caring for orchids is a labor of love, but the reward for your efforts is a beautiful, flowering, exotic plant that will bring joy for many years. Epidendrum orchids are great beginner orchids, as they are hardy, resilient, and easy to care for. These pretty plants can produce flowers nearly year-round if given the right care and conditions.
With more than 1,000 varieties to choose from, it’s easy to get started and difficult to stop collecting wonderful epidendrums!