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Growing Ansellia africana orchids

Ansellia Africana flower

The African Ansellia is commonly known as the Leopard Orchid. It is not difficult to see the rationale behind the common name when one takes a look at the Ansellia africana orchid, named in honor of John Ansell who discovered the first specimens when he embarked on an expedition on the Niger river. Some orchid enthusiasts claim that there is only one species of Ansellia africana that can be described as a monotypic genus, but the Leopard Orchid is actually a very complex group of species that all share a common growth structure and flower bearing habit. The other names that are associated with the Ansellia africana are as follows: Luipaardorchidee (Dutch), Luiperdorgidee (Afrikaans); Imfeyenkawu (Zulu).

Another odd, but wonderful characteristic of the Ansellia africana orchid also earned it an odd name, Trash Basket Orchid. That characteristic is the Ansellia africana’s ability, due to its epiphytic nature, to create a makeshift container of its aerial roots to not just catch but also to digest falling leaf litter and use it as nutrients.

The Ansellia africana orchid can be found most everywhere in Africa, countries such as South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Ruanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroun, The Democratic republic of Congo, Gabon and many others all boast with their very own Ansellia africana orchids where the natural habitat of these plants can be found alongside rivers and coasts in the canopies of trees.

The Ansellia africana is a huge epiphyte that grows in clumps. In nature you can find them attached to tree branches by their epiphytic aerial roots that resemble canes, showing off spectacularly when the Ansellia africana is in bloom. These aerial roots can become very thick and resembles rope like structures that will anchor the orchid plant onto the substrate. This orchid uses its ‘other' aerial roots, pointing upwards, making them appear like a trash basket (to catch organic debris) around its pseudobulbs. Each of these pseudobulbs can carry up to 8 leaves which in turn bears the flowers. The organic debris serves as nutrients for the orchid when it grows in its natural habitat. These aerial roots look different from the ones used to anchor the orchid plant. In its natural habitat the Ansellia africana can live and thrive for a long, long time, become huge plants with spectacular masses of flowers.

Flowering time for the Ansellia africana orchid is during the summer months. The flowers can last for between two and three months. Flowers are borne on branching sprays and are yellow and sometimes even green with typical red/brown or maroon leopard spots. Sometime the dark leopard spots may seem to take over the flower, but even in such cases labellum will always remain yellow. You will be able to enjoy the wonderful ‘spring forest’ like fragrance of your orchids more and more as your orchid seasons and matures.

Cultivation

Cultivating Ansellia africana orchids can happen in two ways:

You can either grow your Ansellia africana orchid from seed or using cuttings from the pseudobulb. When making use of seeds: the seeds originate from the pods. The pods take approximately thirteen to fifteen months to ripen. Thereafter you need dry out or desiccate the seeds after the seedpod has matured. This is done to imitate the seasonal dry periods that the Ansellia africana experiences in its natural habitat.

Germinate these Ansellia seeds in a suitable medium. This may take up to fourteen weeks. Thereafter you may transplant your seedlings in flasks. Take care of your Ansellia africana seedling in their flasks for approximately a year. Then start to harden off the plants in different setups. (TIP: in the hardening off phase be prepared to lose some plants as this is the riskiest part of cultivating Ansellia africana.)

OR

Ansellia africana can also be cultivated by cutting through the rhizome that connects the pseudobulbs. (TIP: Make use of a clean, sterilized knife when cutting through your orchid’s rhizome.) You may also take this opportunity to cut away dead roots. These will appear soft and papery. The real large plants can be split into several sections. Make sure that you cut the sections in such a fashion that each Ansellia africana section will have at least three pseudobulbs. Only split the Ansellia africana when new growth becomes visible at the base of the orchid plant.

Ansellia africana has a sympodial growth habit. The pseudobulbs will keep its leaves for a couple of years before losing it. Flowers are carried from the top of the most recently matured pseudobulbs between the top two leaves.

Temperature

True to its nature, the Ansellia africana orchid can grow and will thrive in intermediate to warm temperatures. A daytime temperature of 25° Celsius or higher (80° Fahrenheit and higher) is ideal especially in summer. And night time temperature of 10° Celsius (10° Fahrenheit and not lower) is preferred by the Ansellia africana orchid.

Your Ansellia africana orchid will be able to take a very light frost and survive; worst scenario it will drop its leaves. Never even consider exposing your orchid plant to freezing temperatures as it will surely kill your Ansellia africana orchid. Moderate to warm temperatures will ensure the health and extended life of your orchid.

Light

Though the Ansellia africana orchid longs for some sunlight at times, do not be tempted to put it out into full sun. The leaves may suffer permanent damage in full sun; instead make use of 40% shade cloth. In fact you can force flowering by controlling the amount of light. If you are growing your Ansellia africana orchids in the northern hemisphere it is best to offer your orchid a south exposure. Make use of bright light during the winter months so you can enjoy your Leopard orchid flowers in summer. (TIP: You may even make use of artificial light when there is not enough natural light to prompt the Ansellia africana orchid into bloom.)

Water and humidity

Humidity should at all times be higher than 50%. In winter you should ensure a 60% humidity level for your Ansellia africana, whereas in summer a humidity level of 70% is the ideal condition for successful Ansellia africana cultivation. Do however take cognizance that you need to provide good ventilation for your Ansellia africana orchid.

As far as watering your Ansellia africana orchid is concerned, you should take care not to overwater it. Overwatering creates the ideal conditions for fungal infections. In fact during winter you can allow your orchid to dry out at root level. You may use ordinary tap water, provided it has a pH of 7,5 or lower. But it is best to harvest rainwater and use that to water your Ansellia africana orchid. Only water your orchid when you see the growth medium is approaching dryness and do not allow your growth medium to dry out when the plant is in its growth state or flowering state. As mentioned earlier, your Ansellia africana will tolerate dry roots in winter. Do however keep a keen eye on the tall canes, the pseudobulbs, and when it shows signs of shriveling, water more often. The Ansellia africana is a low maintenance orchid that likes to be kept lightly moist, not wet, and will reward you with years and years of masses of orchid flowers.

Feeding

The Ansellia africana 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.