Growing Ansellia africana orchids – Leopard Orchid Care
African Ansellias are commonly known as Leopard Orchids. When one takes a close look at the Ansellia africana orchid, named in honor of John Ansell, who discovered the first specimen on a river expedition in Niger, one can easily see why this orchid got its common name. The Leopard Orchid is actually a group of species that all share the same growth structure and flowering habit, in spite of some orchid enthusiasts claiming that only one species of Ansellia africana fits the description of the monotypic Ansellia africana genus.
In addition to the wonderful characteristics of the African orchid, another odd name has been given to it, Trash Basket Orchid. Ansellia africana is distinguished by its ability, due to its epiphytic nature, to form a makeshift container of aerial roots that can not only catch but also digest falling leaf litter and use it as food.
It can be found almost everywhere in Africa, including South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and many others. Found near rivers and coasts in the canopy of trees.
A huge epiphyte, Ansellia africana grows in clumps. It is commonly found in nature attached to trees by epiphytic aerial roots that resemble canes, and shows off spectacularly when Ansellia africana is in bloom. It is these aerial roots that anchor the orchid plant to the substrate and can become very thick and resemble rope-like structures. Around the pseudobulbs, this orchid has “other” aerial roots pointing upward, like a trash basket (to catch organic debris). Up to eight leaves can be found on each of these pseudobulbs, which in turn bear the flowers. When an orchid grows in its natural habitat, organic debris provides it with nutrients. Its aerial roots look different from those used to anchor the plant. It is very likely that the Ansellia africana plant could flourish in its natural habitat for a long, long time, eventually becoming huge plants covered with masses of flowers of spectacular beauty.
Ansellia africana orchids bloom during the summer months. The flowers can last for between two and three months. Its yellow or even green flowers are borne on branching sprays, and have typical red and brown leopard spots. There may be times when the dark leopard spots seem to take over the flower, but even then the labellum will remain yellow. Over time, you will be able to enjoy the wonderful fragrance of your orchids more and more as they mature and season.
The cultivation of Ansellia africana orchids can be done in two ways:
Ansellia africana orchids can either be grown from seed or from cuttings taken from the pseudobulb. If seeds are used, the seeds grow from the pods. It takes about 13 to 15 months for the pods to ripen. Following the maturation of the seedpod, the seeds need to be dried out or desiccated. The purpose is to mimic the seasonal dry periods in its natural habitat that Ansellia africana experiences.
Ansellia seeds should be germinated in a suitable medium. You may need to wait up to 14 weeks for them to germinate. Once they do germinate, your seedlings can be transplanted into flasks. Ansellia africana seedlings need to be kept in flasks for approximately a year. Then, they can be hardened off with different methods. If you cultivate Ansellia africana, be prepared to lose some plants during the hardening off phase.
You can also cultivate Ansellia africana by cutting the rhizome connecting the pseudobulbs. When cutting through the rhizome of your orchid, use a clean, sterilized knife. You can remove dead roots at the same time. You will find these to be soft and papery. It is even possible to break up the really large plants into several pieces. You should make sure that you cut the sections so that each Ansellia africana section will have at least three pseudobulbs on it. It is essential to cut the Ansellia africana only after new growth has appeared at the base of the orchid.
The growth habit of Ansellia africana is sympodial. A pseudobulb will maintain its leaves for a couple years before losing them for good. Usually, flowers are carried between the top two leaves of the most recently matured pseudobulb.
As it is adapted to grow in intermediate to warm temperatures, the Ansellia africana orchid thrives in such conditions. Especially during the summer, a temperature of 25° Celsius or above (80° Fahrenheit) is ideal. The Ansellia africana orchid prefers a night-time temperature of 10° Celsius (10° Fahrenheit and not lower).
Even a slight frost won’t harm your Ansellia africana orchid, but in the worst case scenario it will lose its leaves. You must make sure you do not expose your Ansellia africana orchid to freezing temperatures since it will surely die. Keeping your orchid at moderate to warm temperatures will ensure its health and longevity.
Despite the fact that the Leopard orchid craves sunlight sometimes, you should not expose it to full sun. If the leaves are exposed to full sun, they may be permanently damaged; use 40% shade cloth instead. In fact, controlling light intensity can force flowering. In the northern hemisphere, it is best to expose your Ansellia africana orchids to the south. If you want to enjoy Leopard orchid flowers during summer, use bright light during the winter. You can even use artificial light if there is not enough natural light for the Ansellia africana orchid to bloom.
Water and humidity
The humidity should always be greater than 50% at all times. It is important to maintain a humidity level of 60% for your Ansellia africana in winter, while in summer, a humidity level of 70% is the ideal condition for successful cultivation of your Ansellia africana. Do, however, take note that you need to provide good ventilation for your Ansellia africana orchid in order for it to thrive.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to watering your Ansellia africana orchid is not to overwater it. Excessive watering creates the perfect conditions for fungi to flourish. In fact, you can allow your orchid to dry out at the root level during the winter. If the pH of the tap water is 7,5 or lower, you may use it. The best way to water your Ansellia africana orchid is to harvest rainwater. If your orchid’s growth medium is nearing dryness, water it immediately. If the orchid is in its growth or flowering state, do not let the growth medium dry out. Ansellia africana can tolerate dry roots in winter, as previously mentioned. Keep an eye out for the tall canes and pseudobulbs, and water them more often if they appear shriveled. A low maintenance orchid, Ansellia africana likes to be kept lightly moist, not wet, and will give you countless flowers for a very long time.
The Ansellia africana orchid / Leopard orchid is a plant that can ‘look’ after itself ala the trash basket. However, when cultivating your own Ansellia africana, in a container (which is incidentally the way most commercial and residential Ansellia africana orchid enthusiasts cultivate them) it is wise to feed them a good orchid fertilizer. Do make use of an orchid fertilizer that is formulated to be administered each time you water you Ansellia africana orchid. Ensure that you fertilize/water your orchid every second watering in summer and every third watering in winter to ensure a well-cared for plant. When you cultivate your own Ansellia africana orchid, you will notice that is this plant can be a heavy feeder and an insufficient amount of nitrogen will result in the orchid plant growing its own ‘trash’ basket. When you provide your Ansellia africana with enough nitrogen on a regular basis, there will be no need for the orchid to ‘build’ its own food basket.
Pests and Diseases
Plant diseases such as scale, mealy bugs and spider mites are the usual culprits that will afflict your Ansellia africana orchids. These diseases are more prevalent during Spring and it is thus advisable to check your orchids on a regular basis to prevent unnecessary damage to your plants.
Pests that definitely pose a problem to the Ansellia africana are gall midge flies. It is the adult female gall midge fly that will damage your Ansellia africana flowers and flower buds to lay its eggs in. Once the eggs develop into larval stage, they will burrow into the flower stem and render the whole plant vulnerable to bacterial infections. Whenever you notice these gall midge flies on your Ansellia africana orchids, treat it immediately with a pesticide such a Lebacyd.
When your Ansellia africana does become infected by bacteria it is wise to use a clean secateurs or blade to cut out the infected plant parts.
Infections such as fungal and bacterial infections can also be brought on by overwatering. When you do notice fungal growth on your Ansellia africana do treat the orchid immediately with a good fungicide and do allow the growth medium, whether it is potting soil, or a ‘trash’ basket to dry out.
Potting mix and Repotting
When cultivating your Ansellia africana as a container plant you can make use of a free-draining, organic soil type medium that is suitable for epiphytes: sphagnum moss, osmunda, rockwool, vermiculite, perlite, shredded tree-fern fiber and even fir bark will suffice as a base for the growth medium.
Preferably you should repot your Ansellia africana at least every second year. Repot this plant just after flowering when the new growth becomes visible at the base of the orchid plant. (TIP: just after repotting you should keep the roots drier.) The Ansellia africana orchid is a hungry feeder and repotting helps immensely to ensure that you provide the plant with ample nutrients. Some Ansellia africana enthusiasts even go so far as to add birch tree leaf mould to imitate the debris that the Trash Basket orchid collects for itself in its natural habitat.
Let there be no illusion: the Ansellia africana can be difficult to repot without your efforts resulting in some damage to the root mass. Due to the fact that this orchid grows so quickly when it has been cultivated properly and successfully, they will and often actually do crack their pots. The roots are not deciduous and the older pseudobulbs will stay alive under these circumstances and you will need to cut them away from the walls of your container.
General tips for Ansellia africana Orchid care
- When you orchid displays very green leaves, you can be sure that it is telling you that it is not receiving enough light. Make use of artificial light to remedy the situation if required.
- You can grow your Ansellia africana orchid in much the same way as a Dendrobium orchid as long as you observe its dormancy period.
- Makes sure that all you cutting equipment is clean and sterilized to prevent the spread of disease and harmful fungi and viruses.
- Ansellia africana grows top heavy, when cultivating them in a container provide your plant with the necessary support. Make sure that your orchid will not tumble over when cultivating it in a container. For best results make use of a slab or branch or tree trunk in your garden to show off Ansellia africana’s true beauty.
- When the flowering season ends, you should reduce watering to enable the pseudobulbs to mature. It might even be better to just mist your orchid occasionally. At all times avoid wet feet.
- When repotting into containers, make use of clay pots.
- Make use of liquid orchid fertilizer.
- Increase watering when your pseudobulbs almost reached their final size.
- Make use of humidity trays in dry climates.