Tiny Feathered Friends of Reed-Stem Epidendrums

By Paris Everett Merriam

An Anna’s hummingbird resting on a reed-stem epidendrum. Grower: Paris Everett Merriam. Photo by: Paris Everett Merriam.

Hummingbirds enjoy visiting my reed-stem epidendrums, where they can be found resting peacefully on the long, twisted stems of this outdoor flowering orchid. Our resident hummingbird in Southern California is the Anna’s hummingbird. These flying jewels of the sky belong to the family Trochilidae, one of the most highly specialized natural groups of birds. Nectar plants, feeders and birdbaths will attract hummingbirds as well.

Reed-stem epidendrums, often referred to as “the ever-blooming jewels of the garden,” produce long-lasting flowers. They are easy to grow, whether for the novice or for the experienced grower. These orchids are available in a variety of colors, are easily propagated and produce new plants on their stems. Keikis, the new vegetative growth that is found on old stems and flower spikes, will develop roots 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long. The keikis can then be removed and grown into new plants.

The diverse genus Epidendrum is native to the tropical Americas, from Florida to Mexico, and from Central America to Argentina. The plants grow from sea level to elevations of almost 15,000 feet (4,570 m) and can tolerate variable climates. As the name Epidendrum implies, “upon a tree,” most are epiphytic in nature. However, some are lithophytic and terrestrial. There are close to 1,000 species of Epidendrum. Research from Calaway H. Dodson, PhD, and Robert L. Dressler, PhD, indicate that hummingbirds pollinate some species of Epidendrum, including Epidendrum secundum and Epidendrum pseudepidendrum.

Reed-stem epidendrums are prized for their vivid colors. Case in point: These epidendrums photographed at the Orchids at The Flower Fields event hosted in Carlsbad, California, in spring 2008. “Shown here are 12 different hybrids bred by us here at Cal-Orchid. Parental stock for our Pacific Life of epidendrums was collected by James Rose from growers all over the world. What we offer now are hybrids of our own. First-bloom seedlings demonstrate that color, size and shape improve as the plants mature. We breed for shape and size of flower, and for mid-sized plants. Hawaiian-bred plants often employ large- growing reds, while the Japanese often lean toward the shorter, multilead star-shaped flowers. We find growers in the United States want larger flowers, and strong colors,” says Lauris Rose of Cal-Orchid in Santa Barbara, California, who grew these plants. Photo by: Paris Everett Merriam.


I grow a rainbow of colors of these reed-stem epidendrums outdoors. They are a highly variable species complex called Epidendrum secundum. As the Anna’s hummingbirds are often seen visiting these reed-stem epidendrums, they may be pollinating these orchids as well. According to Andy Phillips, owner of Andy’s Orchids in Encinitas, California, hummingbirds are one of the primary pollinators of Epi. secundum. Phillips has observed them pollinating the reed-stem epidendrums at his nursery, showing signs of pollen on their bills.

In Southern California, Epi. secundum will bloom year-round. In areas where there is frost, it is best to grow the plants in containers so you can move them inside during cold periods. Some epidendrums can tolerate heat and cold, but should avoid temperatures below freezing. Ideal temperatures for some epidendrums are a daytime range of 60 to 90 F (16 to 32 C), with a nighttime range of 32 to 70 F (1 to 21 C). According to Phillips, Epidendrum cinnabarinum and its hybrids are not tolerant of low temperatures below 55 F (13 C) for extended periods.

Full sunlight will provide more abundant flowers, but make sure the foliage doesn’t turn red and burn from too much sun exposure. The foliage should be yellow green.

Keep the plants moist, well aerated, provide good drainage, and regularly apply a balanced orchid fertilizer (10-10-10). Pruning of the spent flowers and stems is important to promote year-round flowering. Most reed-stem epidendrums will only flower on new growth. However, some epidendrums, such as Epidendrum pseudepidendrumEpidendrum pfavii and Epidendrum raniferum, do not require that their spikes or canes be pruned. These orchids will flower year after year on the same ones.


This medium-sized chunky hummingbird, Calypte anna, is one of the earliest breeding birds to nest in North America, often as early as December. Its range includes the Pacific seaboard, from British Columbia south, then east to Arizona. They are also found in Mexico and southwest New Mexico. An iridescent green body with a rose-red gorget and crown distinguish the male Anna’s hummingbird from other hummingbirds. The males will also have a white line behind their eyes. The females have a green back and a grayish white belly and throat, a faint white stripe behind their eyes, and a small red patch on their throat. The Anna’s hummingbird is the best-known vocalist among North American hummingbirds. Their thin scratchy sounds are used to defend nectar sources, territories, and to advertise for mates. They are typically larger than most of the other hummingbirds that we see in Southern California, averaging about 3½ to 4 inches (9 to 10 cm) in length.

A male Anna’s hummingbird at a feeder outside the author’s window. Photo by: Paris Everett Merriam.

A female Anna’s hummingbird by a feeder outside the author’s window. Female Anna’s hummingbirds have little color compared with the males. Photo by: Paris Everett Merriam.

The Anna’s hummingbird habitat can be located in chaparral, oak woodland and riparian communities. Anna’s hummingbirds can also be found in suburban yards and parks that feature nectar plants. Some of the nectar plants which most hummingbirds enjoy include: agapanthus, aloe, begonia, cardinal flower, cestrum, chuparosa, columbine, dahlia, fuchsia, hibiscus, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender, lily, penstemon, sage and salvia. Hummingbirds also like my homemade nectar; I mix 2 tablespoons of sugar in one cup of water. I use pure cane sugar, as the nectar of the hummingbird-pollinated flowers is rich in sugars, especially sucrose that is found in sugar cane. The hummingbirds receive their protein from the insects found in the surrounding flowers, shrubs, and plants. In addition, they enjoy water misters or a small trickling birdbath in which to frolic and bathe in. Once the Anna’s hummingbird becomes familiar with a home or garden, they will often utilize surrounding trees for shelter, resting spots, and nests to raise their young.

In addition to orchids, Anna’s hummingbirds visit other plants in the landscape. Here, a male Anna’s hummingbird is seen at Aloe arborensis. This photograph was taken in mid-December at Crescent Bay Point Park in Laguna Beach, California. Photo by: Paris Everett Merriam.


There appears to be a unique relationship between hummingbirds and orchids. Based on a review of five volumes of Calaway H. Dodson’s book, Native Ecuadorian Orchids (Vol. 1, 1993 through Vol. 5, 2004), hummingbirds are known to pollinate orchids in Ecuador. Dodson identifies these native Ecuadorian orchids to include species in the genera Cochlioda, Comparettia, Elleanthus, Scelochilus, Sophrontis, Stenorrhynchus, in the subsection Coccinae of Masdevallia, and certain species of Epidendrum and Sobralia. In a separate book co-authored by Dodson, titled Orchid Flowers: Their Pollination and Evolution (1969), it is revealed that hummingbirds are pollinating some species of epidendrum, in particular Epidendrum secundum and Epidendrum pseudepidendrum. Robert L. Dressler, author of The Orchids: Natural History and Classification (1981), corroborates this relationship between hummingbirds and orchids. Dressler says, “The New World hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) are highly specialized flower visitors, and a number of American orchids are adapted to hummingbird pollination. These include Elleanthus, Cochlioda, Comparettia and some species of Epidendrum.”

Botanical art spanning centuries depicting hummingbirds and orchids help to further illustrate this unique relationship. Examples of this can best be seen in the beautiful renderings and detailed descriptions as found in Hummingbirds and Orchids of Mexico (1963) by Rafael Montes de Oca. Most of these illustrations were drawn in the 1870s. In addition, John Gould’s Hummingbirds (1990) depict beautiful illustrations of hummingbirds with orchids and flowers. Gould, a well-known ornithologist, originally published these illustrations in a number of volumes between 1849 and 1861.

Whether these Anna’s hummingbirds are visiting my home to help pollinate the orchids in the garden, or they just stop by to enjoy the nectar plants, birdbaths and feeders, it’s a pleasure to know that these tiny-feathered friends are frequent visitors of my reed-stem epidendrums.

— Paris Everett Merriam is a regular contributor to Orchids magazine. His last story, “Orchids at The Flower Fields,” was published in the June 2008 issue of Orchids.