Attempting to Grow the Ghost Orchid


Now that I’ve had some success with Dracula orchids, I’ve decided to take on a new challenge. In fact, this might actually be the challenge when it comes to orchid growing: Dendrophylax lindenii, better known as the ghost orchid.

Ghosts only grow in humid, swampy forests in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and are classified as endangered. In fact, there are only about 2,000 left in all of Florida, and the locations of most of the best specimens are kept secret in an attempt to prevent poaching.

Replicating the conditions of a swamp in southern Florida isn’t easy. Ghosts typically need:

  • Very high humidity (I’m trying an average of about 80%). That’s a little lower than Dracula orchids, but still much higher than what most orchids require.
  • Warm temperatures during the day with a 10-15 degree decrease at night.
  • Very bright light (at least 3,000 foot-candles). Rather than leaves, ghosts photosynthesize through their roots, so they thrive in relatively bright environments.
  • Reduced airflow. (Swamps tend to be stagnant.)
  • A mount they can attach themselves to, and that will not decay significantly over time since it isn’t possible to transfer ghosts to new mounts once established.

What I find most challenging about ghosts is their limited palette for expression. Becoming a good grower of orchids (or any other type of plant) means observing tiny changes in behavior, sometimes over long periods of time, as expressed primarily through leaves, roots, stems, and blooms. However, ghost orchid seedlings have tiny roots, no leaves, obviously no blooms, and a dramatically reduced stem. And if that’s not challenging enough, they’re naturally very slow-glowing. That means by the time you’re able to observe a problem, it might very well be too late to correct for it.

I got my first ghost at the beginning of the year, and I’d classify it as “stable” (certainly healthy, but barely growing). I used to have two, but the second one I ordered was damaged in transit when it was delayed due to a snow storm and exposed to freezing temperatures for too long (they should be shipped with a chemical heat pack during the winter; this one was not). Now the trick will be to make small adjustments in light, humidity, temperature, fertilizer, etc. until I see it start to thrive.

Many updates to come (hopefully).

5 thoughts on “Attempting to Grow the Ghost Orchid

  1. I am a bit sceptical about the zinc plated mesh you are using. Did you use zinc plated mesh before for growing orchids?


    • Hey, Matt. This is my first time using galvanized steel mesh. I’ve tracked down a few people on forums who have had good luck with it, so we’ll see. If it doesn’t established itself, I’ll switch to a wooden mount.


  2. What an adventure in botany! I just reread your article about your Dracula orchids — seems you have become a plant rescuer. I have a feeling your new orchids will be equally as responsive and very impressive, too!


  3. Hi Christian,
    I am a naturalist/photographer who has observed Ghost Orchids in the wild for many years now – over a decade now. I have also worked with the University of Florida, advising one of their PhD students (now with a doctorate) with my observations, which have helped in a small way to establish their very successful propagation program with this species…I was also invited by this student to tour the UF facilities and see how they grow Ghost seedlings to maturity in the greenhouse and in the wild (their repatriation effort in the wild has had around an 80% success rate of seedling survival).

    Here is what I observed from seeing ghosts in the wild, UF’s propagation program, communication with Dr. Nguyen and with renewed attempts myself at growing ghost seedlings:

    1. In the wild, I have observed that plants grow with their growing tips TOWARD THE HOST SURFACE and not away from it. Thus, new roots emerge beneath old roots. Dr. Nguyen had dissected the roots of these plants and discovered that the cells for creating root hairs and generally adhering to the mount are actually on the upper side of the roots – the side of the roots toward the growing tip. Every plant that I have seen in the wild grows this way – with the tip invisible beneath a bundle of old roots and new roots snaking out from beneath this bundle.

    2. seedlings really need to be affixed to a substrate to grow well – aerial roots on these plants grow very slowly compared to mounted roots and are hard to keep moist. Dr. Nguyen’s observations showed that roots attached to a surface grew significantly faster than aerial roots, even under optimal conditions.

    3. UF uses a thin layer of burlap cloth beneath the plants, and uses various mounting substrates – palm wood, cypress wood, generally not cork bark. I remember Dr. Nguyen pointing out a particular plant that had attached itself to a PVC pipe in the greenhouse and was growing happily there.

    4. Because I had pointed out the growth orientation of ghosts in the wild on a trip I hosted for Dr. Nguyen, and his own observation of the same, UF has oriented its seedlings tip-down, both in cultivation and with repatriated plants and has had wonderful success.

    I have attempted to grow Ghost seedlings on several occasions before (they came mounted with their growing tips out from the mount) and have had them grow very slowly with it being very difficult to convince roots to attach to the mount, even when tied down.

    Last year I obtained some more ghost seedlings and tried to replicate UF’s technique, but using inorganic mounting materials. The PVC pipe was an interesting idea, but I decided not to put all my eggs in that basket, so I took two large seedlings and mounted them over burlap onto the outside of a terra cotta pot. The other smaller seedlings I mounted to a section of PVC pipe that I roughed up to a more bark-like texture using a Dremel rotary tool. These seedlings were also mounted over burlap. All seedlings were oriented with their growing tips toward the mounts. I used flat dental floss to wrap the seedlings onto the mounts over their burlap.

    I placed the plants out in my yard with all my other orchids, which is where previous ghost plants had rapidly shriveled and died. I only augmented their water occasionally during an exceptionally dry spell – other than that, just natural central Florida rainfall and ‘fertilizing’ from critters (insect, lizard and bird droppings) has been what has kept them going.

    At first, the terra cotta plants had new root tips stop growing as soon as they hit the clay – my best theory is that salt build-up in the terra cotta through sprinklers at the garden center had burned the root tips at first; however, after a few outdoor rain cycles, this seemed to clear up and new roots started to grow. My best root growth has been on the terra cotta plants.

    The PVC plants did great from the get-go, with new roots emerging and crawling all over the surface of the mount.

    In less than one year, my best seedling put on about 7 inches of new root growth. Between all my seedlings, I have had about 20 inches or more of new roots. That is simply phenomenal compared to my previous seedlings with their tips mounted up – roots would grow just a few millimeters per month by comparison. All the roots have firmly attached to their mounting surface. Growing as well as they are, I suspect I might have a flower by summer of 2018.

    So, to make a long story even longer, I would recommend obtaining a non-organic mounting material – unglazed terra cotta (be sure to soak for some time in distilled water to leach out any salts), PVC, or something of the like (I know one person who grew a Ghost to flowering size mounted on the surface of a large Venus Clam shell), place a single layer of coarse burlap cloth beneath the seedling and mount it, tip-down, onto the non-organic substrate. Water every few days in the summer and perhaps once a week in winter. Use a weak fertilizer occasionally.


    • Hi, Prem. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I really appreciate you sharing your insight and experience.

      It looks like I need to rethink my approach. I’m currently seeing very slow growth which, as you point out, might be due to the roots’ orientation. I’ll try remounting with your tips and advice in mind.

      Thanks again, and I’ll let you know how it goes.


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