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Growing Orchids for their Foliage

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandNovember 27, 2010

Most people recognize that orchids are grown for their exotic and in many cases, extremely showy blossoms, but few indoor gardeners would think of orchids as potential foliage plants. Yet there are many that have stunning foliage with flowers being only secondary. Meanwhile, others have both lovely foliage AND great flowers. Read on to learn more about the potential orchids which may be grown as foliage houseplants.

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(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 3, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)  

Orchids as a foliage houseplant...seems a strange idea. Goodness knows, most orchids, when not in bloom, are rather blasé looking plants. However, with some 30,000 or so species, there are bound to be some orchids which offer more than a pretty flower. In fact, there are quite a few that offer foliage interests, either by intricately marked leaves or unusual leaf forms. In this article I will discuss a few of these foliage orchid plants. Of course, these orchids provide exquisite blooms as well, so is the foliage an added bonus or the flowers? You will have to decide on that!

There is one group of orcImagehids which are grown primarily for their foliage. These are known as the jewel orchids. In the wild, these orchids grow among the moss and rotting vegetation on the forest floor, hence are adapted to reasonably shady locations. However, the humidity is usually high in such locations, making these orchids a bit challenging for indoor culture. A way around this is to grow them in terrariums. Jewel orchids usually form rosettes of intricately silver- veined leaves at the ends of creeping rhizomes. In season, the rosettes will produce a narrow spike of small flowers then that particular rosette will die, to be replaced by newer ones. Our native rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera spp., have this habit and could be considered a hardy jewel orchid. Among the tropical jewel orchids, the most common and easily-grown species is Ludisia discolor. The leaves are dark reddish to black-purple with bright metallic-pink veins. The small white flowers are interesting rather than showy, but do contrast nicely against the dark foliage. Similar in appearance with even more intricately veined leaves is Anoectochilus chapaensis (sorry these orchids have such onerous names!). Cyclopogon elatus also has dark purplish leaves but with bold silver veins like wandering jew. A few of the jewel orchids have leaves more like those of Goodyera, being green with silvery veins. Among the best is Macodes petola and Anoectochilus formosanus. There are even some tropical Goodyera worth considering, such as G. reticulata and G. schlectendaliana.



A wonderful mix of jewel orchids. In order, left to right, top to bottom are  Anoectochilis formosanus, A. chapaensis, Cyclopogon elatus, Goodyera schlectendaliana, G. reticulata and Macodes petola, with Ludisia discolor featured in the opening photo.

What other choices do we have other than jewel orchids? Well one of the most popular group of orchids as flowering plants are the tropical lady's-slipper of the genus Paphiopedilum. As it happens, there are three sections within this genus that have lovely tessellated foliage lending them the status of foliage plants. These include the Barbata group (most popular are P. acmodontum, P. barbatum, P. callosum, P. lawrenceanum, P. purpuratum, P. sukhakulii, P. urbanianum and P. venustum), the Brachypetalum group (P. bellatulum, P. concolor, P. godefroyae, P. leucochilum, and P. niveum) and the Parvisepalum group (P. armeniacum, P. delenatii, P. jackii, P. micranthum, P. malipoense and P. vietnamense) . These often pass on the lovely foliage to their hybrids as well. See below for foliage and flower examples. Most of these need moderate temperatures and bright light, such as in an unobstructed east window.



Above are Paphiopedilum delenatii, 'Shirley Amundson' and P. venustum showing the foliage and flowers.

Even the most popular of orchid, Phalaenopsis, there are two species with distinctly mottled and beautiful foliage, P. schilleriana and P. stuartiana. Again, these may also pass on their foliage to their offspring. And of course, these have lovely floral displays as well. Yet another orchid of note for its mottled foliage are Stenosarcos spp. This one also has the bonus of brilliant salmon-orange flowers reminiscent of some Aloe blossoms. These also need bright light. Finally there are two sun-loving Oncidium relatives with attractively mottled foliage; the genus Psychopsis, commonly called the butterfly orchid, and Trichocentrum lanceanum (AKA Oncidum lanceanum). These two also have stunning flowers to boot!


Phalaenopsis schilleriana foliage and flowers and the same with Psychopsis.


Above is Stenosarcos Vanguard, S. speciosa and a close-up of the flowers.

What about truly variegated foliage? Well, they are far rarer among orchids, but there are a few that have typical green leaves outlined in white. Doritaenopsis Sogo Vivien ‘Marginata' has striking variegated leaves.  The hybrid reed-stem epidendrum called Epiphronitis Veitchii also has a variegated version.  The Chinese and Japanese love their variegated foliage and have done much of the selections for these among the orchids. There are now variegated cymbidiums (especially C. ensifolium and C. sinense), Neofinetia falcata and Dendrobium moniliforme. Orchids are generally expensive plants and these variegated ones are even more so!


Some variegated orchids include Doritaenopsis Sogo Vivien 'Marginata', Dendrobium moniliforme 'Nichirim' and flower and Neofinetia falcata 'Gojyo Fukirin' (shown above) along with Epiphronitis Veitchii 'Variegata' and flower and Cymbidium sinense 'Four Harbor' (shown below).


Next we come to orchids that have unusual leaf forms. The most common of these are what are called braided orchids. These have small, almost triangular leaves that are densely arranged along somewhat trailing stems. The genus Lockhartia is typical of the braided orchids, but Dendrobium anceps, D. kiauense and a few other Dendrobium species also have this pattern, as do some Eria species.


Examples of 'braided' orchids inlcude Dendrobium anceps, D. kiauense, Angraecum disticum and Lockhartia lunifera.

If large foliage is your forte then you could try growing members of the genus Phaius, Calanthe or Lycaste. These have large, heavily ribbed leaves which certainly lend a tropical feeling. Please note that many of these are deciduous so the plant will be dormant with no foliage for a few months each year. For a fountain-like, grassy effect the Cymbidium are perfect. They may even be used outside as a patio plant during the warmer summer months. I'm sure I have left out some other orchids which may be equally attractive for their foliage as their flowers but those described above will at least open your eyes to the possibility of growing orchids as foliage houseplants.


Above are Phaius tankervilliae plant and flower and some examples of Cymbidium growth habit.

The pictures portrayed in this article are a group effort to say the least! Thanks are extended to Boojum, RUK, Ironwood, lothainjavert, monocromatico, plantladylin, rickstropica, MaypopLaurel, kennedyh, keyring, begoniacrazii, tommyr2006 and equilibrium. Whew!  That's quite a crowd.  Thanks guys for posting to the PlantFiles!

  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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