Tropical Gardening: Easy care plants for home and garden

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Epiphytes such as staghorn ferns can be attached to trees or grown in a hanging basket on the lanai.

Even though the days are beginning to get longer, folks like to brighten up their homes with bouquets of colorful cut flowers. However, for most kamaaina, flowering plants are another option.

Instead of lasting a few days, many flowering plants can last for years. If you like interior or exterior gardening the easy way, then you might consider a group of easy care plants referred to as air plants.


This group of unusual tropicals is technically referred to as epiphytes. The group includes many ferns, orchids, bromeliads and even some cacti.

Although epiphytes grow attached to shrubs and trees, they are not parasites since they do not take their nutrients from the plants on which they grow. Air plants have some of the most beautiful flowers and unique foliage in the plant kingdom. They generally require less care than most other ornamentals.

Many folks think air plants are difficult to grow, but this is not the case. Our tropical climate is ideal for air plants that are virtually impossible to grow outdoors anywhere else in the United States except in the warmest parts of California and Florida. Here, many grow with almost no care.

Orchids and bromeliads are probably the most well-known of the epiphytes. Many species have been introduced. If you have a tree or lanai in which to hang pots, you can have flowers the year round. All it takes is common sense, water and fertilizer.

When buying orchids and bromeliads, it is important to get healthy plants. Ask the grower or nurserymen about the particular species and its care. When grown in containers, they will require repotting every two or three years. To avoid the problem of repotting, many gardeners remove the plants from the pot and attach them to the branches of a tree. Rough barked trees such as paperbark, monkeypod, calabash and African tulip are usually best.

The epiphytic ferns and cacti also can be grown in pots or on trees. The secret of success is to be sure they have good drainage.

Fertilize lightly every two to three months to keep plants in active growth. But if plants are attached to trees, this is not required.

Several brands of orchid fertilizer are available. They are satisfactory for other air plants as well. These are specially formulated and when used according to directions will give excellent results.

Disease and insect problems are few. If they do occur, our local garden supply dealers have fungicides and insecticides to quickly control the situation.

Give air plants a try in your garden. Start with easy types such as bromeliads like Tillandias, Billbergias and Aechmeas. Staghorn and resurrection ferns are easy. Dendrobiums, Epidendrum and Oncidium orchids will thrive on a minimum of care. From there, go to the more exotic cattleya and moth orchids. Local nurserymen can give you quite a few ideas for the types to grow and ways to grow them.

Bromeliads, cactus and succulents might do with very little water or fertilizer. Ferns and orchids should be watered every few days and fertilized about once a month.

Some folks worry that insects might breed in the center of bromeliads, especially mosquitoes. These insects can be more than a nuisance since they can be vectors for dengue fever and other diseases. That is why natural insect control with lizards, amphibians and birds makes good sense.

It also makes the garden more interesting.

Anole lizards, Jackson’s chameleons and geckos, especially the gold dust day gecko, add to the tropical magic of our gardens. Many common birds feed on insects, so including a bird feeder in the garden to attract them also adds benefit and beauty.


To keep your bromeliads free of mosquitoes, use a biological control that kills only the larvae. The tongue twister name is Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis. The easiest to use is granule form, and sprinkling a few grains in the center every few weeks eliminates those pesky buggers. Flushing with water every two weeks or using natural insecticides such as neem also will help keep your garden free of mosquitoes.

For further information, contact the UH Master Gardener helpline. In Kona the number is 322-4893 and in Hilo it is 981-5199.

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