Metro-East Living

Most orchids grow on tree bark

By Charles Giedeman

For the News-Democrat

Orchid roots on tree bark anchor and absorb humidity.
Orchid roots on tree bark anchor and absorb humidity.

Q: I recently returned from a trip to Florida. I saw orchids growing on trees not in the soil, and it looked like the roots on these plants were different. How do they do this? Also, I found plants that the locals were calling philodendrons but the leaves were well over 2 feet long. Can this be true?

D. K. of New Athens

A: Most orchids for sale are found in pots with redwood bark and perlite as their growing medium. In nature, most orchids grow on the bark of trees. The roots are used for anchoring as well as absorbing the humidity found in the tropical air. Some orchids are sold growing on old boards being held in place with twine or wire. Your eyes were not playing tricks on you.

Philodendrons are very numerous. As many as 200 species are found growing in tropical America. They usually grow as a vine needing some support, like a tree, to help them compete for light. Most of these philodendrons have leaves 2 or 3 feet long. It can get very confusing as juvenile plants can have different shaped leaves from adults of the same species.

Now to really confuse you, most pf the plants called philodendrons sold in the United States are not philodendrons at all but Scindapsus species (which are sold under the name of Pathos) and are native to Malaysia. The golden variety is “Golden Pathos,” and is sold in pots with a moss stick placed in the center of the pot. Its aerial roots readily grow into the stick for support and not to absorb water.

Q: Our son built a birdhouse and nailed into one of our trees. Will the nail kill the tree? Over time, can the birdhouse kill the tree by being too heavy?

R.V., of Highland

A: As long as the house is a simple little house, there is nothing to worry about. But a large apartment-style house which become heavy over time, pull the nail down and cause a major injury to the tree. If the tree is a fast grower, it could actually push the house off the nail as the bark grows outward.

There is one concern, however, that copper nails could kill a small tree. Copper is a trace element necessary for plant growth, but too much absorbed by the plant can be toxic. Luckily, not too many people have copper nails.

Q: We have had a rather mild autumn and some of my crabapples have developed few flowers that bloomed a few weeks ago. Will these trees flower again when spring comes?

T.R., in Granite City

A: Your trees could bloom again in spring, but not as well as if they had not bloomed this fall. Blooms will also be determined by how cold our winter is. There is only one set of buds on the plant and some buds have already bloomed. If the winter is bitterly cold, it could freeze the floral buds. They may have swollen and gained water in the floral tissue, making them more susceptible to freezing. If the cell wall in the flowers swells too much, it will break and the fluids will freely run out. The cell walls will not realign themselves to the strong cell walls, and the remaining floral buds will die. You can limit the effects of bitter cold winters by planting trees in a protected location.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to