Growing terrestrial orchids

Some of my readers have asked whether it is possible to grow native orchids, or where they can get some to grow.  The unfortunate fact is that many of the orchids have not been propagated, and those that can be grown tend to difficult to keep alive.

Being an orchid enthusiast, and loving to see these flowers, I have tried to grow some of them.

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An orchid in the pot does have the advantage that you can choose the background…

Acianthus pussillus

...and sometimes allow you to take shots that are not possibly in the wild, as these orchids don’t grow in open areas, and are very small and difficult to get underneath them!

The unfortunate fact is that most of the time, it has not been entirely successful.  All the orchid growers say that it is easy to grown orchids, but… have you seen their greenhouses?  Virtually they are running a laboratory for growing orchids, with the right sunlight, and the right amount of water, and these aren’t usually cheap to set up.  Here is an article about setting up the right conditions for growing Epiphytes.

There are several species of orchids that I have never seen in propagation.  These include: the Hyacinth orchid (Dipodium sp.) or any other species that does not have leaves including the Cinnamon Bells (Gastrodia sp.), everyone’s favourite the duck orchid (Caleana major or Paraceleana sp.), any of the swamp orchids (Spiranthes and Cryptostylis) or even the bearded orchid (Caladenia).

Caleana major

Sorry, you can’t grow these! 😦

The difficulty behind growing orchids makes it even harder to re-introduce orchids into the wild, and stresses the point that it is important to protect the remaining bushland.  Unfortunately, because Adelaide is relatively flat most of the land has been cleared for agriculture, but there are still a few pockets of native vegetation left, and quite often these are threatened by weeds

But it is important to remember:

No part of an orchid can be collected from the wild!

So if you are really desperate to try growing orchids, start with one of the easier species like one of the green-hoods (Pterostylis nutans or P. curta) or a Microtis sp, except its flowers aren’t very obvious.

Terrestrial orchids won’t normally be found for sale in nurseries.  There are a few specialised growers in South Australia, and around Australia, so if you are interested, it probably would be best to contact your local Australian Orchid Club!  Often they will also provide information on the conditions you need, and will be able to help with any difficulties that are faced along the way.

Orchid shows can be a chance to see some of the orchids that the growers have succeeded with, but usually they show their best specimens.  Here are a few pictures I took at the Native Orchid Society of South Australian’s meeting in spring, so you can see what the “professionals grow”.  (This is the only time you will see me using a flash – indoor photography 🙂 )

My observation is that the orchids that are propagated tend to have larger flowers than those in the wild, but that is probably due to the growers providing favourable conditions for them.

It is now the beginning of March, and I was very delighted to find that my Microtis are up already. (They are a desperate attempt to hopefully keep some orchids alive for a few years.  I’m told they grow like weeds!)

Microtis leaves

Already up!
Hopefully they survive the season, don’t get over/under watered, eaten…


14 thoughts on “Growing terrestrial orchids

  1. Robert Lawrence

    There is a leaf in my pot of Pterostylis curta today. Last year I didn’t see any growth at all in this pot and I thought I had lost them all.

    1. Helen Post author

      It is really sad and unfortunate when that happens. People seem to think their gardens have the same conditions as the “bush”. There are several orchid enthusiasts I know who are tentative about sharing the location of rare orchids for the same reason you have stated. It does come from a lack of understanding how sensitive these plants are to sudden change.

  2. myfoodandflowers

    In Canada I see a native orchid Epipactis gigantea (common name is stream orchid) like city so much, they are everywhere now! You can grow them from tiny dust like seeds, very winter hardy!

    1. Helen Post author

      Many of our orchids do produce a very tiny seed, however here they tend to be difficult to grow. An example is the king spider orchid which requires an adult plant to be close to the seedlings for survival.

    2. myfoodandflowers

      That is because some orchids rely on perticular bacteria to survive. That is why some people when they transplant orchid from soil to pot or elsewhere ended up many of them died.

  3. Philip

    I’ve not found most of the epiphytic orchids all that difficult to grow at all. I do not have a greenhouse, nor do I live in a tropical country, (I live in Southern California in the United States; far from being tropical).
    Of the ones I grow outdoors, many of them are quite easily grown without me poking and prodding at them. I oftentimes neglect them periodically because I’m either busy with work, school, or need to tend to my social life.
    Sometimes people assume the orchids they’re purchasing are epiphytes, but they’re really not. Hobbyists can sometimes find that they unknowingly purchased a lithophytic orchid, (orchids that grow on various types of rocks). A prime example that you may be aware of would be Dendrobium kingianum, (aka Pink Rock Lilies/Pink Rock Orchids). Here in the US, people do not realize this is a lithophyte, even though some Aussies might be fully aware of this.
    Sometimes people assume the orchids they’re growing are true terrestrials, when they’re not. Examples of this would be orchids in the genus Paphiopedilum. While there are some species of Paphiopedilum that do grow in humus and leaf litter, a vast majority of them do not grow in such a manner. Some of them grow on limestone cliffs and outcrops. Others grow on sandstone outcrops. Yet others are growing on granites. There are even epiphytic Paphs too!
    If you’re talking about growing native Australian terrestrial orchids, they do tend to be more difficult to grow. Many of them have developed a tight relationship with the fungus they grow with in the wild. I don’t know which came first, the fungus or the plant only producing a small amount of roots, but many of your Australian terrestrial orchids that grow underground tuberoids, (underground storage organs that are made primarily of cells that are similar to the cells that make up the plant’s roots that resemble tiny potatoes), don’t have very large nor plentiful root systems. Some only produce 1 – 2 very short and stubby roots. Because of this meager root stock, it is very easy to damage the roots badly and outright kill the orchid.
    If you were ever wondering why orchids seem “difficult” to grow, it is usually because you must actively learn about the secrets of each orchid. There are lots of them. I’ll give you some secrets about orchids in the genus Chiloschista that a ton of people still do not know about just to illustrate my point…
    The Asian Ghost Orchids, (genus Chiloschista), they are generally known as “leafless” orchids. Well, they’re not truly leafless. They can very well produce a couple of small, rudimentary leaves that are very much, fully capable of photosynthesis and can provide enough energy for the plant to sustain itself if there is not enough light in the place they’re growing. Another secret is that Chiloschista spp. go through a winter dormancy. Most people don’t know this and assume that this orchid actively keeps on growing year-round – that is not true at all! Because of this dormancy, they need to have their water reduced greatly during the winter period.
    If Chiloschista is not of any kind of interest to you, then perhaps some secrets about Phalaenopsis?
    Many people who attempt to grow Phalaenopsis may not realize that this group of orchids generally do not grow upright in the wild. Many of them hang pendulously off of tree branches and tree trunks with their leaves pointing downwards towards the ground. Occasionally some Phalaenopsis will grow off of trees where the length of their stems run parallel to the ground, but the apex of the stems can curl upwards towards the sun. Others, (particularly species that used to be classified under the genus Doritis), are true upright growing Phalaenopsis.
    Growing orchids can be a science, but you don’t need a greenhouse that looks like a lab to achieve it. All that is needed is to do a lot of footwork, and research the orchid you’re interested in growing. Just thought I’d put it out there.

  4. Philip

    Here in the US, Spiranthes are pretty commonly found in specialty nurseries. They are typically not all that difficult to grow or reproduce. It can be done.
    Leafless Dipodium species are impossible to grow in cultivation, but leafy ones can most definitely be grown. I’m growing one of those, and I’m not doing anything extraordinary to keep it alive. The species is Dipodium pandanum.
    Diuris behrii is actually not terribly difficult to grow if they are grown right. Once acclimated, they grow quite quickly and can produce new tuberoids readily. I had one that I had acclimated from growing in the Australian seasonal timeframe to the United States seasonal timeframe, that produced leaves and grew a new tuberoid. Unfortunately, I was very inexperienced with growing Diuris, and it eventually didn’t make it. I grew this for about 1 year to 1.5 years before it gave up on me. I do eventually plan to try again at a later date, but Diuris behrii shows a lot of promise in being grown in cultivation. I have confidence that once I learn how to get this orchid to bloom, and when to harvest the tuberoids, this will not be a problematic orchid to grow and propagate.
    Another thing I think you guys should know about your Australian terrestrials is that, they don’t live nearly as long as epiphytic orchids do. The reason why many of these orchids don’t seem to last more than 2 years in cultivation, is most likely due to the fact that that may be just how long their natural lifespans are. Vegetative propagation of terrestrial orchids that grow underground tuberoids, are in my experience, a very inefficient means of continuing the species. It is far more advantageous to propagate via sexual reproduction and obtaining seeds from the plants.

    1. Helen Lawrence Post author

      Hi Philip,

      Thank you for your two lovely comments. Most of Australia’s terrestrial orchids do grow below the tropics, and I imagine the climate would not be that different from Southern California.

      You have highlighted one of the main problems that occurs with people growing Australian native orchids: researching the orchids. Some people see the orchids in the Australian wild and remove them (which is illegal) and then expect them to grow as other pot plants grow. This may work for some species such as many Pterostylis species (the greenhoods), Acianthus (Mosquito orchid) and some Thelymitra (Sun orchids). Many of our orchids do require fungi and the fungi needs to be kept alive as well as the orchid.

      It is true that you don’t always need a fancy greenhouse to grow the orchids. In Australia we prefer to grow our orchids in greenhouses as the sun can be rather unforgiving. It is better for us to protect them.

      Relative to the epiphytic orchids, the terrestrial orchids do have a shorter life span. What often happens is that from year to year the orchids will grow a new tuber and the old tuber will die. There are the two methods for reproducing orchids: through underground tubers or through seed. Most people who grow orchids tend to use seed as it is often the easier method. Many growers hand pollinate their orchids. In the case of the Arachnorchis, it takes almost five years for a seed to become a large enough tuber to produce a flower. Also the Arachnorchis seedlings require an adult plant to be in the same pot in order for its survival. There are some orchid species which do spread very well with just tubers such as some Diplodiums.

      As far as I understand the Diuris species are one of the harder ones to grow – though not impossible. I have seen some beautiful specimens on display at local orchid shows here in Australia.

      I hope you don’t mind me asking, but from where did you obtain Australian orchids in the US? I’ve had several people from overseas ask where they can buy Australian orchids.


  5. Philip

    When exportation of orchids out of Australia didn’t carry such outrageous costs, I got some of them from Nesbitt’s Orchids.
    Afterwards, I either had to get a hold of seeds or had to purchase from European vendors.
    Currently, there are an extremely limited amount of people selling a few of the more commonly grown Greenhoods, (Pterostylis spp.), here in the US.
    Caladenia are extremely difficult to get a hold of in general, no matter which country I look for them in. I’ve had people requesting to buy orchids from this genus from within the US, and all I had to say was that there are no vendors in the US that carry, nor sells Caladenia at the moment.
    It is possible to find Diuris or Thelymitra being sold in Europe, but US importation laws make it inconvenient for most people to import plants into the country, (sometimes importation can also be somewhat expensive). Neither Diuris nor Thelymitra can be currently found sold in the US, as fas I know of.

    1. nossaorchids

      Nesbitt’s Orchids is owned by Les Nesbitt founding member of the Native Orchid Society of South Australia (NOSSA) and current patron. He is still growing his orchids as well as being involved with conservation and returning orchids to the wild.
      Your last three posts are very interesting. Can you get in contact with me as your comments would make a great article for the NOSSA website ( and possibly even for our Journal (but I would have to ask the editor)? We regularly receive emails about purchasing Australian orchids and though I have a standard reply ie contact the local orchid group in your country, I don’t know the overseas situation and so I found your comments helpful.
      Native Orchid Society of South Australia

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