Orchids Outdoors in Southern California

Text and photos by Susan M. Stephenson. Republished from AOS Bulletin Vol.56,#3; March 1987

The author's outdoor growing area in Hollywood, California.

Southern California - especially Los Angeles County - has become firmly associated in people's minds the world over as the place for sun, surfing, smog, and Hollywood stars. As with many other things "everybody knows," the reality may not be what you've come to expect. What's this got to do with growing orchids outside? Everything!

"Everybody knows" the weather is always warm and wonderful in southern California, right? Wrong! It may be glorious for the Rose Bowl Parade, but by mid-January temperatures in many areas often drop into the 30s at night and may even hit freezing. So, to all those growers who began reading this article to indulge a sense of fantasy, I offer this possibility: If we can grow orchids outside, our experience may help you reduce exorbitant heating bills.

"Everybody knows" tropical orchids need greenhouses to keep them from temperatures below 55°F, right? As the song says, "It ain't necessarily so." Orchids don't read books. There will always be difficult plants, but there seem to be far more species and hybrids that have wider temperature tolerance than is generally recognized.

Laelia (syn. Cattleya) purpurata var. carnea is grown in intense sunlight by the author, who hangs the plant up near the shade cloth of her growing area.

Those are the plants, from angreacums to zygopetalums, that are thriving outdoors right now in the gardens of outdoor orchid growers in southern California. Individuals have been doing it for years. I was told of one woman, recently deceased, who raised phalaenopsis in West Hollywood just north of Sunset Boulevard 20 or 30 years ago. But there is no bank of centralized information on which to draw. In researching this article, I talked to and will share with you the experiences of four other outdoor growers, all of us working under different conditions. The common thread seems to be curiosity and a willingness to experiment.

Don't think outdoor growing is a panacea. If you want perfection, you'd better stick with your greenhouse. Outdoors, a sudden hailstorm may give your cymbidiums unplanned freckles. The only snail within a mile may dine on that about-to-open bud. Or arguing hummingbirds may klutz into a trigger-happy Catasetum. Exposure to the natural elements makes many plants seem more robust, but it also can exact a price.


Southern California has a Mediterranean climate, i.e. sunny, hot, dry summers, with the rainy season during the moderate winters. The major influences are the Pacific Ocean and the continental land mass. The ocean moderates the temperature, keeping summers from being too hot and winters too cold. The dry continental land mass keeps humidity much lower than is common on the East Coast or even during summers in the Midwest. Local geography has a very real effect on weather patterns. The hills, canyons, valleys, and mountains may block Pacific breezes or funnel desert winds. Cold air flows down slopes and pools in the lowest basins, so hillside temperatures tend to be warmer in winter. The closer to the ocean, the more moderate the temperatures. The temperature variation directly related to geography can be dramatic. On a summer day when the San Fernando Valley hits tempertures of more than 100°F, the Brentwood / Westwood side of Sepulveda Pass only five or six miles away will often bask in the 70s. The average yearly rainfall for Los Angeles is only 15 inches, but local geography can mean more rainfall or less, depending on the altitude and prevailing winds.

One of the basic tools of local gardeners is the Sunset New Western Garden Book by the editors of Sunset Magazine. While it does provide some information on orchids (specifically Bletilla, Brassavola, Calypso, Cattleya, Coelogyne, Cymbidium, Cypripedium, Dendrobium, Epipactis, Habenaria, Laelia, Lycaste, Miltonia, Odontoglossum, Oncidium, Paphiopedilum, Phalaenopsis, Pleione, and Vanda), it follows the commonly accepted temperature requirements that outdoor growers have learned to ignore. Its strength lies in its maps of the major microclimates of the West and in its extensive listing of non-orchid plants, describing those areas where they will grow best.

When you look up which of the microclimate zones in which you live, you actually are giving yourself the benefit of years of data collection on temperature, rainfall, humidity, and major climatic influences. Now, instead of looking through the listing to see what the Sunset editors suggest will grow well in your area, work from the other direction. Observe plants in your yard, down the street, etc. See if you can spot plants listed as frost-sensitive or epiphytic orchid companions such as bromeliads and staghorn ferns. These are the best clues to the actual conditions in your area. Every yard has some areas that are more protected than others. Talk to your neighbors. Evey time you find a frost-sensitive plant being grown out of its recommended area, you are coming up with more information you can use growing orchids outside.

Australian author J. N. Rentoul provides southern California experimenters with possibilities and helpful suggestions in his books entitled Growing Orchids because of the similarity of our climate with his. Orchids for the Outdoor Garden by A. W. Darnell is a bit more scholarly and directed at Britain, but it offers a compilation of orchids that can survive the frost. The problem is discovering whether they also can take our summer heat.

55% shadecloth protects Stephenson's orchids from intense sun.


I live in the Hollywood Hills within sight of the well-known sign. According to Sunset, this is Zone 23, a thermal belt of southern California's coastal climate, and a prime subtropical gardening area. They also mention, however, that temperatures as low as 23° degrees have been recorded in this zone.

Our house was built in 1927, making it quite old for Los Angeles. It stands on a hillside lot that would have been considered unbuildable in many parts of the country. There wasn't any place flat enough for a lawn, so the garden consists of patios and terraces on different levels. It's either climb stairs or use a parachute - the "bottom" of the garden is about 4-½ stories almost straight down. While this does ensure a certain amount of daily exercise, it also means that cold air flows right on past.

The garden was neglected and sadly overgrown when we moved in. It still awaits restoration, but temperature clues can be found. A little to the left of the non-working waterfall, a vining philodendron has become naturalized. A large pot of Epidendrum ibaguense sits on one of the terraces, and a Cymbidium left by the previous owners had been in place so long that its redwood tub has disintegrated. Supposedly, this is one of the "frost-free" sections of Los Angeles. The lowest temperatures I've encountered have been in the upper 30s.

I grow almost all of my orchids outdoors because the house, aside from the unheated third-floor garden room with its leaky fiberglass roof, isn't arranged well for window gardening. The biggest summer problem is the sun from that western exposure. Morning sun is blocked by the house until 11:30 or longer on most of the patio. A covering of 55% saran cloth keeps the plants from cooking completely, but I also arrange sun-loving varieties higher, where they can shade the more sensitive plants. A tall clump of tree bamboo growing on the next level down filters the afternoon sun, and bougainvillea clambering over part of the shade cloth gives shady things a chance. Because I love nature's creations, my growing area has a preponderance of species. Plants from Central America generally seem to do well, among them Laelia anceps, Laelia gouldiana, and Laelia majalis. I recently added Laelia autumnalis. I also grow Brazilian Laelia species as Laelia lundii, and my Laelia purpurata var. carnea is a regular bloomer. Schomburgkia (formerly Laelia) superbiens has a reputation for being difficult, but it's quite dependable here. Mine was overdue for repotting, but I made the mistake of setting it down on the patio and forgetting it for several weeks. The plant now not only sits on the patio, it has mounted itself there with roots running in all directions. This inadvertent experiment does suggest that my hope to establish the plant on the waterfall may succeed.

Other plants doing well include Lycaste deppei, Lycaste aromatica, Lycaste skinneri, Dendrochilum cobbianum, Cattleya amethystoglossa (bifoliate cattleyas in particular seem to do well outdoors), Galeandra baueri, Encyclia citrina, Dendrobium speciosum, Dendrobium draconis, Dendrobium superbum, Dendrobium kingianum, Dendrobium Gatton Sunray, Dendrobium Permos Glory X Gatton Monarch, Cattleya maxima, Cattleya intermedia var. alba, Cattleya trianae 'The President', Cattleya Carl Hausermann 'Spring Beauty', Cattleya Titus, Cattleya schilleriana 'The Duchess' x Cattleya aurantiaca 'Colima', Cattleya bicolor 'Green Magic' x Brassolaeliocattleya Gamble on Green '91675', Anguloa uniflora (purchased from a grower in Whittier who raised it under cover outdoors), Oncidium cheirophorum, Oncidium forbesii, Oncidium kramerianum, Oncidium onustum, Lockhartia lunifera, Epidendrum ciliare, Stanhopea tigrina, Sophrolaeliocattleya Rajah's Ruby, Sophrolaelia Jinn, Bifrenaria inodora, Ansellia africana, Neofinetia falcata, Angraecum eburneum 'Desert Star', Angraecum Veitchii, Promenaea xanthina, assorted paphiopedliums, catasetums, calanthes, vandas, ascocendas, and other odds and ends.

My first major outdoor orchid growing was in Whittier, California, where Rodriguezia lanceolata (= secunda), Rhynchostylis retusa, Trichopilia suavis, Trchopilia tortilis, and Broughtonia sanguinea all bloomed well for me. This was the site of one of those little disasters that only descend upon outdoor growers. One of the ducks I kept for snail control came charging onto the patio in a web-footed snit and gobbled down a prized paph seedling before I could defend it.

Because of the western exposure at my present home, I water as needed rather than by any schedule. The patio doesn't have a mist system. That surely would be a help on hot summer days. Perhaps I'll tackle that come spring. Lately, I've been downright haphazard about fertilizing, but when I do it's usually with Peters or fish emulsion.

I'm not terribly dogmatic about potting mixes. Most of my plants are in fir bark at the moment, but I'm not entirely satisfied with that because it breaks down too fast during the cold rainy season. A few things are in red lava rock - which seems to have weight as its sole advantage. New Zealand moss has been working well so far when the pot is clay, but appears to hold water a little too well when plastic pots are used. I am experimenting with using New Zealand moss in gutter guard containers to see how that works over winter. Vandaceous things go into teak baskets, while wire baskets are a better choice for stanhopeas. A number of the Laelia types already are mounted on cork, and as soon as some of the overgrown trees down below are trimmed, many plants currently in pots are destined for a true epiphytic lifestyle.

Pest control is mainly malathion for scale or mealybug, and only when absolutely necessary. I am going to make a concerted effort to cut down on the ant population this coming year.

Future plans include restoring the garden using orchids as a major element of landscaping. South Africa has a similar climate, and I'm slowly investigating the possibility of planting disas around the waterfall when it eventually is repaired. That's where many of my phragmipediums are headed, too, but all of this will be a while in coming. Restoring an old house is a long-term project under the best of circumstances.

John Ellsworth's outdoor orchid collection in San Gabriel, California, includes such species as Cattleya forbesii, Cattleya walkeriana, Ryncholaelia digbyana, Laelia gouldiana, Laelia purpurata var. carnea, Laelia crispa, Encyclia citrina, Oncidium microchilum, and Vanda tricolor. Wire mesh is used to create a hanging wall.


"I just buy what I want and out it goes," says John Ellsworth of his collection, which leans heavily toward hybrid cattleyas. "The only real trouble I've had growing outside has been ants carrying scale."

A quick survey of his growing areas reveals numerous Cymbidium hybrids, Angraecum sesquipedale, Cattleya Mountbetts, Brassolaeliocattleya Gamble on Green x Brassolaeliocattleya Pamela Hetherington, Vanda tricolor, Laelia milleri, and Sophronitis brevipedunculata, as well as assorted Laelia, Cattleya, Encyclia, Brassavola, and Oncidium species.

Ellsworth has been growing orchids for seven years in his backyard in San Gabriel, California. Typical of the inland valleys around Los Angeles, the summers are hot. If there is smog, it is likely to collect here, and in winter the cold air that flows down from higher elevations pools here, too.

When he first moved into his house, Ellsworth tried a vegetable garden. It burned up. The following winter, he acquired a handful of cymbidiums. They didn't do too well exposed to full sun and reflected heat on the patio, so he had a workman build a basic framework to give the plants a little shelter. About the same time, he built "rabbit hutches," also covered with shade cloth, to shelter some cattleyas. The cymbidiums still weren't doing too well, so he moved things around. The cymbidiums went out to their present location along the walk to the front yard, and the cattleyas were placed under the shade cloth.

That winter was cold, windy, and rainy, with temperatures down into the 30s. To protect the plants under the shade cloth, Ellsworth bought 3-mil plastic at a local building supply store. With this, he covered the framework and enclosed the sides. The area is against the west side of the house but has no source of heat except for the sun. Despite the fact that a thermometer just inside the plastic barely six inches from the nearest plant has registered as low as 31°, the plants thrive.

Ellsworth has come to believe strongly that many orchids can take the coldest air temperatures but not the cold winter rains. That seems to be borne out by Phalaenopsis Eileen Kay 'Blanc de Blanc' x Easter Moonlight 'Baldy', which had more than 200 blooms during the long season. He now takes the plastic down in early May and puts it back up in October when the temperatures start dropping.

During his fourth season of orchid growing, Ellsworth began using teak and wire baskets. The plants in them did well, and he's been expanding their use ever since. Epilaelia Cordicoro tends to lose its roots in a pot, but it does well mounted on cork, as do a number of other epidendrums, laelias, and cattleyas. Plants still in pots are in the standard mixes sold by Stewart Orchids. Ellsworth started to install a watering system with overhead sprinklers when everything was on the bench. Now he feels the area is too crowded, and plants would stay too wet.

"I'd like to hook up a drip/mist system for the cork-mounted stuff, which dries out fast enough so the extra watering wouldn't hurt, and for the pahps, which probably should be a little wetter than I keep them. They would probably bloom better.

"When plants are growing outside, crowding seems to help maintain a more constant humidity and temperature level," Ellsworth says, "Now that all these plants are here, this area does totally different things from the rest of the yard because a microclimate has been established."

A few years ago, he watered once a week. Now, because of work, he waters less than that. Seedlings are crowded together with the other plants so they don't dry out as much as they did a few years ago. In the summer of 1986, he misted approximately every third day for about 10 minutes and watered about every two weeks. These mistings help to keep the ground wet underneath the benches, and this helps keep the humidity higher.

"I used to fertilize every other week using Peters 20-20-20 but haven't had the time this past year. Peters has a higher phosphate level and that means you don't have to switch back and forth [between other formulas]. Growth has been stronger. It's too much hassle to use something different on different batches of plants, so they all get the same."

The amount of care received by the plants depends on Ellsworth's busy schedule. If he has the time needed to fill, operate, and clean a chemical sprayer, he uses diazinon. Lacking time, he uses diazinon crystals for ant control. Safer's soap is good for smaller things because it's easy to use and has the additional advantage of being safer for the environment.

The main growing area of Russell Stewart in Monrovia, California, is protected from the full sun by 55% shade cloth.


Russel Stewart of Monrovia, California, is no relation to Stewart Orchids. He is a manufacturer of athletic bags, gym bags, and tennis racket covers. Although he's been growing orchids since 1959, he didn't start growing them outside until 1979 out of necessity - he didn't have a greenhouse.

Stewart's house sits at an altitude of approximately 1,100 feet and looks southward over Monrovia and the San Gabriel Valley. This is a thermal area where the cold air flows downhill onto someone else. Temperatures range from an average low of 40°F in winter to an average high of 105°F during Santa Ana winds in September. The last hard frost was in 1978, so the area may be about due for another.

The growing area behind the house is covered with 55% shade cloth. Stewart's plants get light reflected from the south-facing retaining wall. Saran cloth also helps to break the force of the wind and distribute it more evenly. This is critical because winds often peak at 50-60 miles per hour during storms in January and February. "Make sure your saran is well-anchored!" Stewart advises.

To handle watering chores, Stewart currently uses a regular lawn sprinkler system, but recommends installing a mist system to help provide the necessary humidity. Because of the dryness of his area, he generally waters twice a week in summer and may mist as often as three or four times a day if someone is at home.

"I don't feel the cold winter rains are a problem," he says. "After a natural rain, you see a rejuvenation of the plants, a burst in growth."

Under his conditions, Stewart finds 100% white pumice the best potting medium for all his epiphytes. "I never have root rot problems with the pumice, where fir bark breaks down in the winter rains." White pumice will hold only so much water, then the rest simply runs through. The weight also is a plus in keeping the plants from being knocked over by the winds. For terrestrials, pumice can be used as an additive to the same mix used for cymbidiums or pahiopedilums.

"This is the same pumice used for toothpaste, just a different grade, i.e. 1/4 on 1/8, and 3/8 on 1/4. It comes from northern New Mexico just north of Santa Fe and is used mostly in agriculture. It seems to have more minerals in it," Stewart feels, "manganese and other trace elements that orchids like." The company he buys from supplies information on the exact chemical breakdown. The one problem is that the company will sell it only by the truckload. When Stewart has a pile of the stuff on hand, he willingly sells 50-pound bags to anyone who's interested.

When fertilizing his orchids, Stewart prefers to use dichondra food without herbicide. A slow-release fertilizer helps to avoid salt buildup, "Using 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of that per pot, depending on the pot size, gives initial root tip burn, but then the plants jump right out of the pot."

Stewart acquires his plants by buying collections (which accounts for the number of unlabeled plants) as well as from commercial nurseries and from the plant table at orchid society meetings. "Buying collections is a good way to get started if you have a little money. The unlabeled plants you get are fine for providing cut flowers for around the house."

Laymen are really surprised when you grow orchids outdoors because of the old fallacy that orchids are difficult to grow Stewart feels that 90% of commonly grown orchids are very hardy. Left to their own devices with a reasonable amount of care, they do quite well.

The Cymbidium growing area of Russell Stewart in Monrovia, California, is paved with unglazed terra-cotta tiles laid down over the natural granite gravel. Besides snails, the biggest threat to the plants comes from wandering deer - which are kept out by a fence.

"Don't grow your plants outdoors if your prospective growing areas is too hot, too cold, too light, or too dark. Try the more hardy cattleyas, Laelia tenebrosa from Brazil, the Mexican laelias," he advises. "Most cattleyas will eventually adapt. The healthier a plant is, the better it will acclimatize. Putting a plant out in spring or summer, of course, gives it more chance to get used to the outdoors and the gradual change of night temperatures. Most orchid plants will take a very low temperature if they are dry."

Plants Stewart grows successfully outdoors include cultivars of Cattleya Portia, assorted Cymbidium hybrids, Vanda Eisensandar, Vanda tricolor (which blooms 2 or 3 times a year), Stanhopea wardii, Paphiopedilum Maudiae 'Magnficum', Paphiopedilum Lillianne, Paphiopedilum stonei x curtisii, Paphiopedilum Ceres, Paphiopedilum reticulatum, Gongora galeata, Brassavola nodosa, Odontoglossum bictoniense, Oncidium sphacelatum, Gomesa recurva, and an unidentified Pleione species. Also, a Bletia species grows next to the fish pond. The jewel orchids are moved inside in November when temperatures begin dropping into the 50s at night. Stewart doesn't recommend phalaenopsis for outdoors unless you can move them in and out as winter weather condition change. "Miltonias simply don't do well for me," he reports. "Depending on the type, they need cooler summer temperatures or warmer winter temperatures than I seem able to provide."

Stewart has done a lot of the work on the house himself. He built the retaining wall and set the beams that now hold up the saran shade cloth. Sometime in the future, he plants to add a fiberglass roof to make the area into a garden room. Of course, then he'll no longer be growing his plants outside.

The front growing area of TV producer Harry Chittick in Sherman Oaks, California, features cymbidiums as well as a healthy planting of reed stem epidendrums.


Harry Chittick has been growing orchids actively for almost nine years. "My dad grew orchids, and occasionally I'd be called on to help at repotting, but I wasn't interested in them except as a source of free corsage flowers at prom time," he recalls. He started growing them himself because someone gave him a plant. Then he acquired several cymbidiums and became interested in other types of orchids.

A producer for ABC Network News working the Peter Jennings Tonight and Nightline with Ted Koppel shows, Chittick and his orchids live in Sherman Oaks overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Temperatures range from an ambient maximum low of 35-38°F in winter to highs to 110°F in summer when the hot, dry Santa Ana wind strikes. There at the north end of Sepulveda Pass, there's about a 50% marine influence with a downslope cold air drain. In Chittick's back yard, the winter lows run from 42-43°F (because the area is more protected), with a high in summer of 100°F or more. He feels the practical range runs from 50-95°F.

Plants are hung from a length of irrigation pipe in the enclosed portion of Harry Chittick's growing area. The pipe is not hooked up to the water supply.

The front of Chittick's house faces north-northwest, so the back yard gets lots of sun. Reed-stemmed epidendrums, Oncidium sphacelatum, Oncidium forbesii, Oncidium leucochilum, Encyclia adenocaula, Encyclia hanburii, Dendrobium kingianum, Laelia anceps, Laelia albida, Hexisea bidentata, Brassia Rex, Odontoglossum pulchellum, Chysis Chelsonii 'Gubler's' x bractescens, and a scattering of cymbidiums do well on the patio with a shady corner harboring some Paphiopedilum hybrids. The small lean-to greenhouse on the side of the house gets a fair amount of light, too. In the front, the cymbidiums, odontoglossums, and cattleyas do well. The plants in both front and back get some protection from the sun from overhead lattice but are exposed to whatever wind, rain, or hail that occurs. Still, Chittick moves the more tender plants indoors if necessary on the coldest nights or throws plastic over everything if the forecast indicates a real chance of frost. Smog is not a big problem, although he occasionally loses a few buds on some of the more delicate plants.

"The challenge is to find those plants that will adapt to the conditions I have," Chittick says. "I try to manage microclimates and mate plants with appropriate conditions, i.e. paphiopedilums, phragmipediums, and stanhopeas like it shady and damper while cattleyas like things dryer. Mexican laelias bloom in the dry season, the fall, so you cut down on the watering at that time, and they'll do wonderfully."

Chittick is a believer in air movement and daily misting. Drip irrigation tubing mounted with mist heads works off the lawn sprinkler system's main computer control on a secondary program, providing the orchids with a thorough soaking every five days, and a couple of minutes of mist every morning around 11.

"The Cattleya schilleriana I have outdoors is five times more healthy and vigorous than the division indoors," Chittick says, explaining that some orchids simply seem to prefer a more natural environment. Along with the other growers I talked to, he would like to be able to make a list of those species and hybrids that can be grown outside in southern California.

"Growers should learn by observing their plants. Orchids are just very slow-moving animals. They get up and move. If they don't like something, they'll tell you about it. Look for robust plants, healthy clones when you intend to grow outside," Chittick advises. "Red Marsh once told me, 'You've got to listen to what the plants are telling you. Think about what you're looking at and put that information to work.'"

"Orchids are tough plants and adaptable. For example, Epidendrum ibaguense (= Epidendrum radicans) is extraordinarily tough." It's becoming extremely common even in the gardens of non-orchid people, and Chittick expects to see it become naturalized in our local canyons.

Chittick likes species, and he loves Central America, a good combination because species from Central America seem to do well outdoors here. "Living in L.A., you can have breakfast in your own home and by after lunch be in a cloud forest collecting. I'm fascinated by it, the observations - how things grow."

Orchid-filled trees dwarf Bill Paylen in his back yard garden. Tall sycamores more than 100 years old provide the primary shade for this man-made jungle. The feathery fronds of tree ferns such as the one at the right add a second level of protection from the sun.


Actually, there are quite a few trees in Brentwood, but the ones in the back yard of retired landscape designer Bill Paylen's home are loaded with orchids. Originally from Java, where he was born and raised on a plantation growing rubber and coffee, Paylen is a graduate of Holland's unique plantation management program. World War II intervened, and afterwards Paylen made his way to southern California. He ended up in landscape design and has used his knowledge of the tropics and love of plants to create his very own back-yard jungle.

When he started this project, Paylen looked for a garden containing old sycamore trees. The house was very much of secondary consideration. The trees which now form the backbone of his growing area are some of the original natural sycamores around Bundy Canyon and are easily more than a hundred years old.

At the time, Paylen was primarily a bromeliad fancier, so he began his gardens as a habitat for that largely epiphytic group. His first orchid was a Cattleya he found discarded on a compost pile. He still has the plant, and it blooms like clockwork. He mad trips to South and Central America collecting bromeliads, and because orchids grew with them, he started getting some of them, too.

Paylen has created microclimates in his garden with the development of canopy levels. High branches of the sycamore trees forming the uppermost canopy level allow light to filter through. Staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) mounted on the sycamores have grown so well that some had to be removed because they've become so huge. They act as windbreaks, deflecting the path of strong winds, and help to hold humidity. Tamed, the breeze provides natural air circulation. Sycamores are deciduous, so the winter sun can be a problem. Tree ferns now give protection from winter sunburn as they have reached a height that provides a second canopy. On the floor of the "jungle", humidity is slowly released by the cups of bromeliads used as ground cover. A tall stand of clumping bamboo forms a windbreak along the east (back) wall of the garden. The natural effect is heightened by the by the presence of a colony of wild bees that set up housekeeping here, suspending their mammoth honeycombs from one of the sycamores.

Bromeliads and sycamores help hold the heat at night, and the canopy moderates the day temperatures, thus bringing the extremes of night and day temperatures closer together so that the area is cooler during the day but warmer at night than the surrounding neighborhood. "My overall plan has been to try to eliminate severe temperature fluctuations using the dense growth to moderate general conditions. A low of 34°F is the coldest I've observed, and 98°F is the highest ever in the garden. More normal temperatures would be usually 45-50°F at night in winter and 75-80°F on a summer day."

Striving for a more natural look, Paylen began attaching the orchids directly to the trees. The epiphytes love it. The sycamore is a perfect host. The flaking bark is held by the extensive healthy roots, which, in turn, benefit from the moisture held by the flakes.

Live Australian tree ferns also are great hosts. Roots are very happy wrapping around and anchoring firmly. (By contrast, fresh hapuu is hygroscopic; orchid roots shrivel on contact.) Leptospermum laevigatum (Australian tea tree) is another excellent host. The hard durable wood is covered by gnarled, uneven bark that provides an ideal surface for roots to hold.

Cork slabs nailed to posts (or if you have a live cork oak) also are good. (Oak slabs may develop a tree ear fungus that eventually will kill the orchids mounted on them. To eliminate the fungus, spray with a Physan solution). Another good host Paylen recommends is Phoenix roebelenii (pygmy date palm) because of the fibrous nature of the trunk. Stick the plant you're mounting behind the dead, cut-off frond stems. The plants love it. Don't bother with trees of the aralia family, however. Orchid roots won't adhere.

Paylen waters three or four times a week in summer and usually twice a week in winter. In his garden, elements are arranged for an aesthetic balance rather than cultural compatibility, so hand watering with a hose is essential for proper control. With overhead watering, you cannot always avoid the flowers, so some will get blotches just as in nature.

As a landscape designer, Paylen concentrates on the artistic impression of his garden, striving for combinations and contrasts of year-round color that are eye-catching and attractive. It takes a lot of time to care for, and as with all successful gardening, a certain feel is required. "Try to put each plant in a spot that corresponds to its natural habitat as well as manner of growing," he recommends. "For instance, oncidiums like to be protected by other plants and do best mounted on smaller branches due to their finer roots. Cattleya types can go on the biggest tree trunks because they develop roots that seem to go for miles.

The unique pendent leaves of Epidendrum parkinsonianum dangle from a tree in the Brentwood, California, "jungle" of retired landscape designer Bill Paylen. He collected the plant 18 years ago.

"You have to figure out which orchids need more light. Light is important. Place laelias highest, cattleyas next, and broad-leaved varieties lower. Laelia anceps and Laelia gouldiana can go way up in the trees as that approximates their natural growing style." Many species are mounted low to the ground for humidity. Masdevallias and other pleurothallids grow on an old saturated hapuu log in the coolest spot in the garden, where Paylen gives them twice as much water as the rest of the jungle. Experimentation is the key. By putting plants close together, they protect each other and keep local humidity up. It benefits orchids to be grown with bromeliads and staghorn ferns because in their natural habitat orchids grow in similar plant communities. "Observe your garden and see what is happening." Paylen advises.

Creating a jungle community seems to have worked very well. One clump of Laelia gouldiana had 36 inflorescences last year. Laeliocattleya Clayton Waglay is represented in both its pink and white forms. This is a garden that makes the visitor feel like an explorer, and everywhere there are orchids: Laelia albida, Laelia pumila, Masdevallia infracta, Gomesa crispa, Vanda Judy Miyamoto 'J. Yamamoto', Brassocattleya Busy Bee, Oncidium Golden Shower, Oncidium incurvum, Epidendrum parkinsonianum, Brassolaeliocattleya Ronald Hausermann 'Carl', Notylia bicolor, Stanhopea tigrina and assorted species of Sophronitis, Pleurothallis, Masdevallia, and Ornithocephalus. Sobralias also do well in pots crowded among the bromeliad ground cover. Because vulystekearas have slender roots, they respond best when treated like cymbidiums in containers on the ground. Vanda Hilo Sky blooms regularly and produces great masses of roots - definitely a happy plant. "But I've had very little luck with dendrobiums," Paylen admits. "I think I don't give them enough rest."

Mounting orchids in trees isn't terribly difficult if you do the job correctly. Wait until a plant shows active root growth. Divisions should not be smaller than three pseudobulbs. Take some 1" galvanized nails, hammer them about halfway into the tree more or less as the corners of a square. Pad the roots and base of the new growth with just enough sphagnum to protect the roots from damage when being fastened. Use 30-pound test nylon fishing line, crisscrossing the moss from nail to nail until the plant is secure. The moss is to keep the fishing line from cutting the tender roots and new growths. No moss should come between the roots and the tree bark. Take care to fasten the plant securely so the base of the plant is held firmly to its mount. If the base wobbles, the roots will not attach. Keep the sphagnum moist to encourage root growth. Fertilize when the roots have begun to grow firmly onto the host. After the plant has become attached firmly (usually in about 3-4 weeks), the plant can hold on unassisted, and the fishing line can be removed for aesthetic reasons. Once a plant is established, it becomes stronger and will bloom better. Here's one word of caution, though: Never attempt to mount a plant outside during its dormant season. The plant may dry out before active growth is possible.

Paylen doesn't follow a rigid regimen with fertilizer. He uses a hose applicator, feeding about once a month with Spoonit, Peters 20-20-20, or fish emulsion. Best-Grow, a growth hormone which stimulates root growth, is added to whichever fertilizer he's using. When vegetative growth is maturing, he gives the plant more phosphorus. "Good plant growth results from properly combing the factors of humidity, light, and feeding half strength," Paylen adds. He does not fertilize during winter "short days" from October to February.

A domesticated jungle requires pest control. Malathion is good against the scale that converges in the center of the leaves, but Paylen feels that Cygon has adverse effects on the root systems of orchids and never uses it. "For snails, it helps to go out into the garden about 11 p.m. with a flashlight and pick up all the 'grandmothers,' especially after watering, when they are much more active." If the problem is more severe, he wets the plants before sunset then drops metaldehyde crystals over them. The crystals stick to the wet leaves and help lure snails from their hiding places. Mosquito control is maintained by flushing the cups of the bromeliads when watering so mosquito activity isn't encouraged by stagnant water.

Labels are one of Paylen's big problems. No matter how hard he tries to keep things tagged properly, the neighborhood blue jays find ways to remove the tags. "They are fascinated by them," he says. "I'm always way behind replacing the ones they've pulled off."

Why does he put such effort into outdoor orchid growing? "For me, it is the enjoyment of having things in a natural habitat," Paylen answers happily from his own private jungle.


I hope this article will serve as a horticultural lightening rod for southern California outdoor orchid growers. Many individuals have knowledge that deserves to be pooled. Who has successfully grown what, using what techniques, where, and under what conditions? It is my intention to build a working list of orchids being grown outdoors in southern California.

To this end, I hope outdoor growers here and in other areas with a Mediterranean-type climate will contact me to share both their success and failures. By expanding the normally accepted cultural limits of many types of orchids, we'll not only improve our own growing but also will build a body of knowledge that will add something useful to the world of orchid gardening.


Clark, D. E. [ed.]. 1983. Sunset new western garden book, seventh printing. Lane Publishing Co., Menlo Park, California.
Darnell, A. W. 1976. Orchids for the outdoor garden: a descriptive list of the world's orchids for the use of amateur gardeners. Dover Publications, New York.
Rentoul, J. N. 1980. Growing orchids: cymbidiums and slippers. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
___________. 1982a. Growing orchids, book two: cattleyas and other epiphytes. Timber Press, Portland Oregon.
___________. 1982b. Growing orchids, book three: vandas, dendrobiums and others. Timber Press, Portland Oregon.
___________. 1985. Growing orchids, book four: the Australian families. Timber Press, Portland Oregon.