Terrestrial Orchids: Answers, Curiosities, and Questions

I’m planning on having a little indoor garden and wanted some flowering plants that would look great indoors. Since my main passion is orchids, I thought first about them, expect I wanted something planted in soil. That’s when the thought hit me…like, duh? There are terrestrial orchids!!

Orchids grow in 4 main categories: 1) epiphytes (grown on trees and are the main category of most growers), 2) lithophytes (on rocks and cliffs), 3) saprophytes (totally underground, coming up only to flower but never produce leaves (SourceOpens in a new tab.) and 4) terrestrial orchids (that grow in soil just like any other houseplant.

In this article, I will address some common questions about terrestrial orchids that I had when I first learned about them. I believe these questions may also be on your mind. If you have any additional questions or insights about terrestrial orchids, please feel free to share them in the comment section below. I’ll be happy to provide answers and further information.

So, let’s dive into the fascinating world of terrestrial orchids and explore the wonders they bring to indoor gardening.

What is a Terrestrial Orchid?

Terrestrial orchids are a fascinating category of orchids that differ from other types in several ways. They have unique characteristics that allow them to thrive in harsher temperatures and challenging growing conditions. Unlike other orchids, terrestrial orchids do not solely rely on rain and wind for nutrients or the sun for photosynthesis. In fact, some terrestrial orchids don’t even have leaves. Instead, they have underground roots that absorb nutrients from mycorrhizae fungi, nutrient-rich leaf debris, and various mosses that surround them.

One notable difference between terrestrial orchids and epiphytic orchids is the way they store energy. While epiphytic orchids often have pseudobulbs, many terrestrial orchids, such as Nervilia and Anoectochilus species, have well-developed subsurface tubers, corms, or thick fleshy roots. These orchids typically have thin leaves with attractive patterns, as described by the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (SourceOpens in a new tab.).

Another interesting aspect of terrestrial orchids is the absence of aerial roots. Unlike epiphytic orchids, which have aerial roots to collect nutrients from the air and rain, terrestrial orchids do not require these additional surface areas. Their roots are located below ground and spread out horizontally to collect rainwater and nutrients that seep through the soil.

Additionally, terrestrial orchids often exhibit intricate leaf patterns and vein designs, as well as molten splotches and splashes of varied colors. While this is not a definitive characteristic for classifying terrestrial orchids, it is a common observation. Many plants, including terrestrial orchids, use variegated leaf patterns as a defense mechanism against leaf-chewing critters. The intricate patterns serve as a deterrent and protection, especially since terrestrial orchids are closer to the ground (source).

Terrestrial orchids stand out from other orchid categories due to their ability to withstand harsher temperatures and growing conditions. They have unique adaptations, such as underground roots, energy storage structures, and the absence of aerial roots. The intricate leaf patterns and variegated colors found in many terrestrial orchids add to their allure and serve as a natural defense mechanism. Understanding these differences allows us to appreciate the beauty and resilience of terrestrial orchids in the world of indoor gardening.

phaius-tankervilleae
Phaius tankervilleae: The Nun Orchid

How to Care for Terrestrial Orchids

When it comes to caring for terrestrial orchids, it’s important to understand that the specific care requirements can vary depending on the genus of orchid and the growing conditions. Terrestrial orchids can be found in a range of habitats, from wet woodlands at high altitudes to scorching hot deserts. Each orchid has adapted to its specific environment, and as a result, their care needs can differ.

One common factor that all orchids, including terrestrial orchids, require is a well-aerated soil. Even though terrestrial orchids grow in the ground, they still need a potting media that allows for easy drainage and prevents water from accumulating around the roots. Unlike epiphytic orchids, which have aerial roots that can dry out quickly, terrestrial orchids have roots that spread horizontally rather than penetrating deeply into the soil. If water pools around the surface, the roots won’t have a chance to dry out, which can lead to root rot and other issues.

Another difference between caring for terrestrial orchids and other types of orchids is the frequency of repotting. Epiphytic orchids typically need to be repotted every two years as the potting media breaks down and the roots outgrow the pot. However, terrestrial orchids planted directly in the ground or in pots can thrive for longer periods without the need for repotting. In fact, terrestrial orchids hate to be repotted. Leave them alone as long as you can. The soil used for terrestrial orchids tends to break down less compared to bark or sphagnum moss used for epiphytic orchids.

In terms of humidity, most terrestrial orchids prefer a slightly higher humidity level. While this is a generalization, it holds true for about 80% of terrestrial orchids. If you live in a dry area or have air conditioners that can reduce humidity, you can provide additional moisture to your terrestrial orchids. This can be done by using a mister or fogger to create a fine mist or by spraying them in the morning and evening.

Providing a well-aerated soil that allows for proper drainage is crucial, as is understanding the differences in repotting requirements compared to epiphytic orchids. Additionally, maintaining a slightly higher humidity level can benefit most terrestrial orchids.

Are Terrestrial Orchids Hard to Grow?

Terrestrial orchids are not hard to grow; usually they are easier. For example, the orchid bamboo is a commonly used indoor plant and you only have to water it once a week. Break any new “shoots” and plop them down into the pot to have a new plant growing beside the mother plant.

I grew bamboo orchids (Arundina graminifolia) long before I even liked orchids. I brought it home – my first place by myself– after a quick trip to the nursey. I asked the grower, “I tend to kill plants, so what survives and can withstand a person who doesn’t have a green thumb?” I came home with the orchid bamboo. If he had told me that my plant was in fact an orchid, I might have backed off the purchase, just since orchids have this horrible fame. It was only a month later when my mother told me what I had bought…and it was still alive.

Another example of an easy to grow terrestrial orchid are the Phragmipedium orchids. When I was in Kansas and had my home office, my Phragmipedium grew better indoors than the others. I had to place it very close to the humidifier, but that’s what made the difference. It bloomed prolifically and I immediately fell in love with it.

Just to keep the rule of “it depends”, some terrestrial orchids are hard to grow. I don’t have a Zygopetalum, but from what I’ve read, most growers tend to have a harder time getting their Zygopetalums to bloom.

Note: some Zygopetalums are in fact epiphytic, so check your species too. If you are aiming for a woodland orchid, grown in native forests in North America like the Lady Slipper Orchid, note that they will have shallow roots systems and need to be watered more frequently.

Most terrestrial orchids love water and having a media that was constantly draining but then constantly watered was the way my Phragmipedium grew the best. Research the growing conditions of each specific orchid and if you can match those growing conditions, then the terrestrial orchid will be easy to grow. If you cannot, then the orchid will be difficult.

Phragmipedium sedenii
Phragmipedium sedenii

Are Terrestrial Orchids Expensive?

Terrestrial orchids can vary in price depending on the specific type and where you purchase them. If you’re looking for the latest, award-winning orchids with unique characteristics, such as a rare Paphiopedilum, then yes, these terrestrial orchids can be expensive.

For example, as of today, January 2nd, 2024, the price of a Paphiopedilum, also known as Lady Slipper Orchid, can vary depending on the specific variety and where you purchase it. Based on the information I found, the prices can range from around $11.99 (linkOpens in a new tab.) at Hausermann’s Orchids to $300.00 (link) Orchid Web.

I am NOT an affilaite of either of these places. I am just quoting prices that I found.

Please note that these prices are just estimates and the actual price may vary from where you live. However, if you’re interested in more common, simple, and less showy orchids like Spathoglottis, then terrestrial orchids are generally not expensive.

The price range of terrestrial orchids can also depend on the seller. To find less expensive terrestrial orchids, consider buying them when they are not in bloom and from local growers. This can help you save money while still enjoying the beauty of these orchids.

One strategy to find affordable terrestrial orchids is to explore online sales through platforms like Facebook. There are sellers, like the one I personally recommend, who offer competitive prices, even with shipping included. For example, I had a favorite seller in Hawaii who had a great selection of terrestrial orchids at amazing prices. I was particularly impressed with their orchids and even made an unboxing videoOpens in a new tab. to showcase the quality of their plants.

If you’re interested in finding reliable sellers and want to see my unboxing video, you can visit my website page hereOpens in a new tab. where I have a list of recommended buyers and links to the video. By purchasing from reputable sellers and taking advantage of sales and local options, you can enjoy the beauty of terrestrial orchids without breaking the bank. Remember, the price of terrestrial orchids can vary greatly from vendor to vendor, so it’s always a good idea to do some research and compare prices before making a purchase.

Are All Terrestrial Orchids the Same?

Terrestrial orchids are incredibly diverse, and they come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors. While they all share the characteristic of growing on the ground rather than in trees or rocks, there are significant differences among them.

One way in which terrestrial orchids differ from each other is in their size. Some terrestrial orchids are tiny, with flowers that are no larger than a fingernail. These delicate orchids can be easily overlooked, but they possess a unique beauty. On the other end of the spectrum, there are terrestrial orchids like the Phaius tankervilleae orchid, which can grow up to 3-4 feet (90-120 cm) in height. These larger orchids make a bold statement with their impressive size and vibrant blooms.

In addition to size, terrestrial orchids also vary in terms of their flower shape and color. Some have intricate, delicate blooms with intricate patterns and vibrant colors, while others have more simple, understated flowers. The diversity of flower shapes and colors among terrestrial orchids is truly remarkable, offering something for every orchid enthusiast.

Furthermore, terrestrial orchids can also differ in their growth habits and requirements. Some prefer shady, moist environments, while others thrive in full sun and well-draining soil. Understanding the specific needs of each terrestrial orchid species is crucial for successful cultivation.

Are terrestrial orchids parasites?

Terrestrial orchids are not parasites. In fact, no orchids are parasites. They attach themselves to the sides of rocks, trees, tiles, vases (pretty much anything) and cling to the surface, but they don’t get food this way. It’s just a way to get higher above the ground level on the floor to receive more light, nutrients, and wind circulation.

The way they attach themselves to the tree bark is merely a way to hang on for life in an atmosphere with more available carbon-dioxide than that on the ground level of the forest. In no way does the orchid actually absorb the tree’s nutrients.

On the ground level, where terrestrial orchids live, orchids utilize the fungal co-dependance in order to survive. The mycorrhizal fungi does not seem to mind handing over free nutrients in a form that the orchids roots can appreciate, yet the orchid offers nothing in return. Since this relationship doesn’t kill the fungus slowly or deprive the fungus from any nutrients to survive itself, it is not considered a parasite. Without this fungus, the orchid has no way of absorbing nutrients.

sphatoglottis uva
Sphatoglottis Orchid:
Commonly known as Grape Orchid because of the smell

Do Terrestrial Orchids Come From the Tropics?

Most orchids come from the tropics (70%), but not all. In this sense, if you must generalize, then yes, the terrestrial orchid group also comes from the tropics. Yet since terrestrial orchids have underground roots, they can survive in colder temperatures and harsher climates, a period where they go into dormancy and just stay beneath the ground. In this sense, terrestrial orchids can grow in larger more vast climatic ranges and zones than most epiphytic orchids can. Since their roots are more expansive (horizontally) they also can cover areas that grow with abundant moss or leaf litter, or in places with pockets of humidity and water. This expands their growing areas quite considerably, giving them more habitats to grow, yet the majority still come from the tropics.

How Long do Terrestrial Orchid Blooms Last?

It’s important to note that the blooming period of an orchid is influenced by various factors, including the specific species, care conditions, and environment. Therefore, it’s difficult to make a general statement about whether terrestrial orchids bloom longer than epiphytic orchids. The blooming period of terrestrial orchids can also vary depending on the specific type and its care conditions. For example, Bletilla, also known as hardy ground orchids, are known to bloom for a long period, lasting up to ten weeks in most places.

On the other hand, most epiphytic orchids require a rest period after blooming to store up energy for the next blooming cycle. During this time, water and fertilizer should be withheld for a few months. The length of the blooming period can also vary among different species of epiphytic orchids.

Orchid blooms can be categorized into two groups: ephemeral orchids, which only bloom for one day, and field orchids, which bloom for 2 to 7 days. Some terrestrial orchid genera are so diverse that they contain both groups. For example, Sobralia orchids exhibit both ephemeral and field orchid characteristics.

Terrestrial orchids can also vary in their flowering habits, ranging from a single flowering bulb to clumps of flowers. For instance, my Phragmipedium orchid had multiple blooms, with each individual flower lasting a couple of days. However, the entire flower spike was in bloom for over two months, as it had six blooms, one after another.

How Often do Terrestrial Orchids Bloom?

Since most terrestrial orchids depend on outside weather to guide them during spring and winter, most will bloom only once a year. Depending on how harsh the temperature and other climatical issues are, their blooms will be fast, returning to their normal, rich, underground life. If they happen to grow in a climate that doesn;t have such distinct weather changes due to the seasons, then terrestrial orchids can bloom up to three or more times a year. Of course, since the terrestrial orchid group is so diverse, there are clearly exceptions to this rule. Spathoglottis orchids bloom consistently throughout the year; they seem to have no recollection of seasons.

What are some examples of terrestrial orchids?

There are so many terrestrial orchids that it is hard to list them all. Also, a thing that stumped me for a while was that just because some of these orchids are terrestrial, they also can be grown as epiphytes if given the right conditions. So some of these orchids can be classified are both categories.

It might be a shock to see some of these names here… and your first reaction will be, that’s not a terrestrial orchid. But yes, it just might be that one species of the genera is terrestrial, but others are epythitic too. So that may be one cause for the confusion. But… the most common terrestrial orchids are:

  • Acianthera teres,
  • Arundina,
  • Calanthe Orchids.
  • Catasetum barbatum,
  • Cymbidium,
  • Cypripedium,
  • Ludisia discolor,
  • Orchis,
  • Paphiopedilum,
  • Phaius Orchids (Nun’s Orchids),
  • Phragmipedium,
  • Sobralia,
  • Spathoglottis

What’s the best potting media for terrestrial orchids?

It’s best to mix compost or mulch with your garden bed since the additional organic matter allows air into the soil which encourages it to dry quickly.

1) A mixture of 1 part peat : 1 part soil or

2) A mixture of 1 part loam : 1 part rotted cow manure : 1 part peat.

Whatever you use, make sure it drains well. Most all terrestrial orchids like abundance of water, but don’t like to be soggy. If you water your Pahalenopis orchid once a week, water your terrestrial orchid twice or even three times a week.

As long as the pot drains well, your terrestrial orchid will thrive. Exceptions: Ludisia orchids. Ludisia are my favorite terrarium orchids and although they love water, they aren’t so inclined to being drenched inside the terrarium. It all comes down to environment.

How Do You Water Terrestrial Orchids?

You can water terrestrial orchids like any other plant. There is no need to be extra careful with the crown (like a Phalaenopsis orchid) since most terrestrial orchids will not have that shape where water accumulates. Make sure the first 2-3 inches of the soil are wet then move on to the next plant. As long as your potting media allows for water to run freely, you are fine and don’t need to worry about them.

During winter, cut back the water a little bit if in a pot. If planted directly in the ground, you can still water if the orchid is in its’ growing phase. If the orchid has gone dormant, then cut water back drastically.

Do ground orchids like sun or shade?

Most terrestrial orchids prefer shade, although there are exceptions. For example, the Spathoglottis orchid thrives in direct sunlight and can be grown as a garden border plant. If you’re unsure about the light requirements of a specific orchid, it’s best to start with dampened sunlight, leaning more towards shade. Gradually increase the light level until you notice the leaves turning a faded yellow color. This indicates that the orchid is receiving too much light, and you should move it away from the window or provide shade if it’s outdoors.

Interestingly, my orchid bamboo actually thrived in full sun. It grew even better in direct sunlight than when I kept it indoors.

If you have any other questions about terrestrial orchids, please feel free to ask them below. I’ll do my best to provide you with the information you need. Thank you for reading, and happy cultivating!

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Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews is a theological professor, author, pastor, and a motivational speaker. She's passionate about spreading hope and teaching. Her hobbies include biking, cultivating orchids, and exploring nature trails. She now lives in Kansas, while raising her two children. To read more, go to https://orchideria.com/about-the-author

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