Angraecum leonis

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Terra Cotta / Clay Pipes (Burnt Earth)

       About a year ago, I received a message via the tkangraecums page that I have on Facebook.  It was from a gentleman that was experimenting with orchids growing on terra cotta/clay pipes; somehow referencing burnt earth somewhere along the line.  His name is Edward Brookes and although born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) he resides in Natal, South Africa. 
       I am always mounting various orchids on different types of wood, types of rock, materials I may find in a nursery or items I come across in my own yard.  The terra cotta pipes sounded interesting so I asked him if he wouldn't mind sharing his results and instructions how to do that just that; grow orchids mounted to a burnt earth (terra cotta) pipe.
       Eddie grows various orchid genera and has no idea as to how many are packed into his bit of Eden.  When asked which are his favorite; his prepared response is "the ones in flower at present"!  He admits he suffers from acute and chronic orchid mania and has for decades, not remembering when it all started.  Retired from the nursing profession (a trauma specialist), he has countless hours to spend with his orchids, his pets, bonsai and bromelaids and mixing up batches of what must be the best potting soil ever.  If you were to ask his family about him, their offered response may be "Oh, he;s mad, quite mad".
       I would like to introduce the second resident of South Africa to have an exciting article posted here in the Angraecums blog

            This method of growing orchids is far from being a new concept, having been practiced for generations in what used to be Burma (now Myanmar), for species of Bulbophyllum and Dendrobium.  The method is also being used in Europe with considerable success and great sophistication.
                                                                     terra cotta/clay pipe

            Essentially what one has is a clay pipe, closed at one end and at the other, holes for wires to enable the pipe to hang up.  The pipe with orchid attached is hung up, filled with water & topped up as necessary.  In theory, an elegant and simple method of growing orchids.   I approached a local nursery and they were willing to have samples made for testing.  The pipes we got were some 20 cm (8 inches) long and 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter.  The potter had etched wavy grooves into the clay so that it resembled bark, unetched pipes were also made.
As with any new terra cotta pot, thorough soaking is important before the item is suitable as accommodation for a plant.  The baked clay is remarkably "Thirsty" and will filch water from the plant at high speed.  In addition, the clay contains a lot of mineral salts and other additives utilized in the processing for molding.  None of this will contribute to the suitability of the container as a plant refuge.
I therefore soaked the new pipes for at least one week - my lazy method being to submerge them in my fish pond.  My thinking here was that the water had been thoroughly worked by the aquatic plants and would likely contain a nutrient or two for the benefit of the orchids.  The now wet and hopefully "Enriched" pipes were rinsed and wire attached for hanging after the plant was attached.
I tried various methods with the orchids on these pipes, pads of soaked sphagnum.  Coir fiber wrapped around the pipe and live moss obtained locally from trees in the vicinity.  This moss grows on the trunks and branches of trees where rain water collects long enough to provide moisture for some time.  It is very fine in texture and grows really rapidly during our rainy summers.  Clearly it is well able to withstand dry spells as well, since it is widespread and thus a successful colonizer.  It will also grow strongly as a lithophyte where rocks receive suitable amounts of water.  In practice, I found that this moss dies if kept too wet for long periods.
The orchids I tried on the pipes include miniature Cattleya hybrids, Dendrobium kingianum, Epidendrum polybulbon, Angraecum scottianum, Coelogyne fimbriata, Trias picta.  The only failure amongst this gathering was a mini Cattleya which seemed determined to die no matter what I tried with it.  A, scottianum has prospered on its pipe, with roots rambling happily and growths hanging freely below.  I tied it quite low on the pipe, since the species seemed always to strive for the free swinger lifestyle. E. polybulbon has also been very vigorous, but then it is just like that by nature.
                                                Angraecum scottianum and Coelogyne fimbriata

I refill the pipes when they have dried out - this varies greatly from pipe to pipe, some remaining wet for a good period, others drying within days.  My tree frogs seem to enjoy siesta in these pipes, and are most discommoded when I unwittingly drench them as they snooze down inside the pipes. Fertilizer is applied only to the outside of the pipes.  I found that leaching and buildup of salts on the clay surface to be a real problem.  I am sure that drenching with distilled water or reverse osmosis water would allay this nuisance.  I never pour fertilizer into the pipes, although this would seem to be a good method. The evaporation and salt build up on the clay surface would surely result in burned roots.
This technique offers enormous opportunity for further development, larger pipes, wide oval cross section shape to offer a broad surface, horizontal pipes closed at both ends with an opening mid-way in the length, ball shapes, standing instead of hanging pipes -  and so on and so on.
Thus far I'm pleased with the results, the wetter pipes for plants needing cool moisture at their roots, drier pipes for those so disposed.  I have found that sphagnum moss is unnecessary and even a hindrance to root attachment.  Coir wrapping is suitable, but rots rather too rapidly.  My live moss has completely covered the wet pipes, looks great and the orchids thereon seem happy (Trias and E. polybulbon) Den. kingianum is very successful and can be dried out to flower profusely after its rest.
Obviously fertilizer is very important on this form of mount.  I am in favor of variety - organic for preference, very dilute and being sure that the entire outside of the pipes are drenched.   A problem yet to be encountered; how to deal with this form of mount when the plant needs a bigger pipe!!  The roots attach so firmly into all the etched grooves and grow right around and down inside the pipes. I hand this dilemma in waiting to the good members who read this article.  Various species of Mystacidium are found naturally in our area and I am keen to try growing these exquisite orchids on a pipe. Being a protected species here, I shall have to wait for a legal specimen to be available.  Here again, I hope to inspire a reader to undertake the project.
            I hope this account will set Angraecum devotees to seeking and creating all manner of burnt earth vessels and succeeding mightily in cultivating their piped orchids.


  1. Do you know of any commercial supplier for the clay pipes?

    1. My apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Have been out of town orchid hunting; to no avail finding Angraecoids. I deal with a place that has a small website in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. ( ) His name is Ken Russ and he has a light red clay and a deeper red clay; both of which work. The pipes made of a white clay don't seem to leach the water as well if at all (Ken does not sell the white though). Contact him through the website I listed above!

  2. Hello, nice article. Since you are from Florida, have you ever tried to grow the Ghost Orchid on this method? Curious to know if yes and the end result..


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