A two year trail finish date at first seemed to be a long way out, but in hind sight and in my view has been an ideal length, the reason being that two years provides opportunity to view at least two flowering cycles or total growth seasons.

Three key areas to ensure a successful trial in my view were as follows:

  • Commitment; is a critical element in any trial process. This means that you need to be prepared to give up time and in part past beliefs. Commitment to record results.
  • Observation; Some will say that this is a given and they are right but the observation needs to be focused and recorded you should not react to what you see first up it needs the timeframe to allow for verification. Create milestone points. In other words what you expect to see at a given point in the trial timeline.
  • Prepared to Change and Challenge; if, you want results to change then you need to be prepared to change. This action will on occasion challenge traditional growing methods. If you note results that appear at your milestone dates are better than or do not meet your expectation you need to record and implement change.

Trial setup:

The genus originally selected for the trial was Miltoniopsis as these plants were in a controlled environment within the collection. 15 pairs were selected. This meant a like for like or apples with apples approach could be applied. The trial was set up with one plant in a mix of number 3 bark and course pumice and the other in straight Fern Fibre substrate. The plants were side by side on the bench and attached to an in pot watering system. Both received the same watering and fertilizer cycle.

“Key milestones included growth rate at 6 months, flowering at first and second season and overall plant quality.” This was  tracked via photographic record.

While the initial trial was to compare Miltoniopsis grown in a Bark / Pumice mix with those grown in Fern Fibre substrate I felt that a wide range of comparison would provide added value to any trial end result.

After some discussion with Alan Ford from Fern Wood Products the trial was extended to cover other genera, firstly within the Odontoglossum alliance then on to others as commented on within this document.

Over view of observations:

Miltoniopsis were first after 4 months there was be it small changes (Plants in a semi dormant phase)

  • Plant foliage in the FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE seemed to be darker and healthier.
  • Less water required to satisfy FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE.
  • Root Structure in FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE seemed more vibrant

Odontoglossum: It just made good sense to trial this Genus as they were at the repotting stage. Once re-potted;

  • The pseubulbs showed no sign of stress
  • New growth seemed to develop after 2 months
  • Overall plant heath seemed to be ahead of those in straight bark mix.

Dendrobiums: Despite this Genus almost at its dormant phase I decided to include in the FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE trial.

  • No Noticeable difference at this time

Cattleya: Having an issue with a couple plants in this genus it seemed to make good sense to try FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE.

  • While the photos are of seedlings their root structure in FERN FIBRE SUBSTRATE was advanced compared to those in fine bark. This was after 4 weeks.

    Seedlings their root structure in in fern fibre substrate

The above photos show the increased root growth on two Cattleya seedlings after 4 months.

The below photo in like time frame shows the root structure of two Miltoniopsis.

the root structure of two Miltoniopsis

Now for the real test, removal and exposure of the plant root structure. They say a photo speaks a thousand words, along with seeing is believing. The plant on the left was in bark pumice mix while the plant on the right was in Fern Fibre substrate. I my view there is only one positive result.

Despite being watered only two days prior the roots of the Miltoniopsis on the left (in Bark) were very dry where the plant roots on the right were moist not wet. (As expected) you can also see the growth intensity difference between the two. In both cases the roots presented a healthy appearance.

The other noticeable observation relates to the depth of the root growth with the Miltoniopsis on the left being in the top half of the 1.3l pot where the Miltoniopsis on the right tended to spread down and out to about 3/4 of the depth of the same size pot.

A conclusive view (1)

Seeing this sort root growth within a 4 month period produced in my mind a no brainer decision to transfer any remaining Miltoniopsis and any new additions to the collection straight into fern fibre substrate. As well as this decision it was decided to increase the range of genera within the Odontoglossum Alliance into fern fibre. The 15 pairs would remain till the end to provide an overall conclusion.


As the trial timeline continued other genera outside of the Odontoglossum alliance were added as well as some recently de-flasked seedlings (Promenea, Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium.)

All seedlings showed early than expected signs of accelerated growth.

The trial also included a number of different genera placed on fern fibre rafts or mounts. As with the in pot trial early signs were very positive with significant early root growth.

During the next six months plants continued to flourish with blooms initially appearing to be too big for the stalks holding them.

A conclusive view (2)

Plant growth appeared to be too rapid around those that spikes had not yet developed a light sprinkle of gypsum was applied and watered. When these other plants finally spiked the stalks were more robust supporting the flower heads so as to present an upright display.

This photo shows two Mps Robert Jackson ‘Wild thing’ plants in flower. These were part of the trial. The plant on the left in Fern fibre had 8 flowers average diameter of 100mm whereas the plant on the right in bark had 5 flowers at an average of 65mm. The best result was quite apparent.

Value of Fern Fibre Medium:

Root growth within the medium was easy to observe. the roots are strong and healthy

After about three months the fibre formed and maintained the shape of the pot when removed. As this photo shows the roots are strong and healthy looking.

This made any repotting very easy as all that was required was the placement of the root slug into a larger pot and fibre packed around the outside.

Once settled in terms of pot size reference indicates the fibre substrate will outlast bark by a factor of 2 times plus.

Research indicates that Fern Fibre contains a higher than normal level of mycorrhiza fungus which penetrates the plant root cells creating hyphal coils, or pelotons which are sites of nutrient exchange accelerating growth.

Success with other genera:

It once again needs to be understood these results are due to my “Orchid Culture” the methods I apply may or may not work for you.

Oncidiums (Onc.)

  • Fern Fibre on the surface appears to influence the colour of the plant. I have found for example that Onc. in Fern Fibre appear a darker green than those in a bark mix and
  • pseubulbs showed no sign of stress
  • New growth seemed to develop after 2 months
  • Overall the plant looked to be very healthy.


My trial with this genus started from the de-flasking stage. Seedlings were put into a fine grade of Fern Fibre and placed in a hot box for a month. Plants were watered only every two days for a month before being transferred to their growing environment. Growth rate was very noticable.

This photo is of Prom. Samsu T

his plant was given to me in a very dehydrated state. It was in a garden potting type mixture. It was immediately transferred to a fine Fern Fibre substrate and the subsequent flowering is only after 4 months. The Fern Fibre maintained a higher level of water retention and therefore boosted the spring growth and summer flowering.

As a result of this outcome I have transferred all promenea into the fine fibre and have noted those plants that were struggling have now come into life. I am looking forward to the results in the next summer flowering season.

A conclusive view (3)

With any plant based trial once one sees positive results, conclusions are made unless specific measures are in place, unless you are a qualified horticulturalist with access to all sorts of testing equipment. The first growing and flowering season produced some positive and some exceptional results I now await the second growing flowering season to see either a repeat or improved results.

Key result areas included overall plant development and increased flower size.

Flowers grown in fern fibre substrate

The like for like plants in bark presented flowers that were on average 70 mm in Diameter.

Fern Fibre Slab Culture:

In addition to the fern fibre substrate I also trialled a number of different genera on fern fibre slabs or rafts.  This photo shows the root attachment after 6months

Din. polybulbon

Din. polybulbon

Two aspects of this exercise provided noticeable outcomes.

  1. The Fibre slab or raft required a higher level of attention in terms of watering and fertilization as they tended to dry out at a faster rate than those plants in a pot of the fern fibre substrate. And
  2. The root structure tended to attach to the slab at a much faster rate thus providing a stronger foundation for plant growth. As per photo

Conclusive view (4)

I would certainly recommend this type of mount for Cattleya and Sarcocillus. Both genera produced strong well developed plants within 12months out of flasks. I also tried Oncidiums, Phalaenopsis and Promenaea with positive outcomes be they not quite as noticeable as with Cats. and Sarcs.

Second Flowering Season:

Normal expectation in New Zealand is to have Miltoniopsis flower late spring early summer. Since placing my Mps into fern fibre I am getting spikes at the beginning of spring with strong flowers during September. The initial spikes while stronger than season one of the trials have been stronger and larger than normal. Some plants have flowered twice within an 18 month time frame

A further observation and totally unexpected has been the noticeable lack of snail or slug activity on or around the plants. I can only presume there is something associated with the fibre that makes these pests stay away.

Odontoglossum alliance in fern fibreWhile the initial trial focused on the 15 pair of Miltoniopsis it soon became apparent the other genera within the Odontoglossum alliance were also showing positive signs of improvement since being placed in the Fernwood fibre substrate along with several other randomly select genus’s.

This photo is but one of the Odontoglossum alliance in fern fibre.  This is its second flowering season two strong spikes were produced with 12 flowers on each spike. I have also included this plant in my hybridisation program. Oncostele [Ons.]  (syn. Odontioda or Oda.) Stirbic. The overall plant appeared to be healthier and the flower colour had more depth.

Conclusive View (5)

I did find under my conditions that some genus did not improve Masdavillia, Dendrobiums being two of them. (This should not be taken as a reference of failure as other growers may have success in their environment).

A matter of unexpected note was: Plants in fern fibre appeared to display a resistance to snails and slugs I consider this to be an unexplained plus.

Mps Firewater ‘Red Butterfly’ The first flowering Miltoniopsis to flower in the second season was  Mps Firewater ‘Red Butterfly’ these flowers as with early blooms near the end of season one were were 100mm in dia. This was an indication the development displayed in the first growth season are indeed sustainable.This plant provided a quality bloom in possitive condition for 16 weeks.

I should comment that there were a number that also flowered at what I would call an inbetween season.  This is also a plus indicating that some plants may flower at least twice over a 12 month growing season.

The level of early spiking appears to be around 12% higher than in the previous season.  Some say this could be attributed to the different conditions experienced i.e. warmer night time temps so be it. I feel the observation is worthy of comment.

The advice to apply gypsum has provided strength to the spikes.

Trial Measurements:

For any trial to be considered a success there is a need to apply some level of performance measurement. The Basics being;

  • Plant growth: Plants in the fern fibre substrate tended to develop at least 25% more than those in bark.
  • Plant appearance: Plants in fern fibre were a darker shade of green and presented an overall healthy look.
  • Plant Flowering: The flowers produced by Miltoniopsis plants in fern fibre in both growing seasons were at least 15% larger than those in bark. With the odd plant producing flowers around 50% larger. The flowers also appear to present a stronger texture in their petals.
  • Is there any added value in change of potting medium: Without a doubt there is fern fibre in my environment exceeded all my expectations? The three points above as well as requiring less water and fertilizer, longer intervals between repotting and replacement of substrate. The change to me was a no brainer.
  • Did the change of medium provide opportunity for trial measurements to be applied to other genera: In short the answer was yes to the above?

Conclusive view (6)

Some will say that having plants awarded presents a conclusive success result and I support this thinking however opportunity to have at least two Mps viewed by a judging panel during the start of the growing season was put paid to be the appearance of the Covid-19 pandemic however later flowering plants will now have opportunity. The weather conditions this last growing season has also impacted on a number of plants flowering ahead of time. I suspect that if plants are growing in a controlled environment, then natural occurring environmental conditions would not be any influence.

Results of Performance review:

As commented at the start of this report the trial grew from having 15 pairs in a single genus to having a number of genera being added to the overall total so as to provide a broader range result. With some 200 plants in the trial, as well as the number increasing with the various genus being added allowed the growing environments to also have an influence i.e. cool, intermediate and warm environments on the end result.

Fernwood fibre substrate seemed to produce better than expected results in all environments.

From my perspective as a grower I had to learn new techniques and forget some old ones. The most critical associated with watering. I had to observe the colour change in the substrate to get my timed water delivery system producing a functional result. This meant in one instance a 3 day difference or time span between watering. Once worked out the automated watering system kicked in time was saved and water requirements reduced overall.

  1. Overall plants transferred to fern fibre appeared to have a heathier look about them were at least 50% bigger than those in the bark mix.
  2. All plants in the fern fibre with pseubulbs presented a nice firm appearance indicating no sign of stress.
  3. Flower size was certainly larger in the plants in fern fibre with some flowers being up to 50% larger than those of the same plant in bark.
  4. Plants in Fern fibre seemed to be resistant to snail or slug activity. (I have no explanation as this is just an observation)
  5. After two years there is certainly no sign of media or substrate break down in the Fern Fibre substrate any repotting activity generally associated with up sizing or splitting of plants.
  6. Fern Fibre has provided a clear indication of being an added value product in the less water and fertilizer is required to get results and the longer time span before any repotting requires consideration.

Odontoglossum Alliance cool house Overall the trial provided some in the view of the writer some in creditable result to the extent further plants will be transferred from bark to the Fern fibre substrate. The trial has certainly worked for me.

I did find that Masdavillia and Dendrobiums did not tend to have any positive response but have talked to others that have used the fern fibre with these genus and had success  I suspect it comes down to your overall orchid culture.” Not everyone does it the same way.”

Conclusive view (7)

Using Fern fibre as a substrate to support the growing of orchids is a no brainer for me. Positive results can be obtained and added value is gained from the use of this sustainable product.

I look forward to the up and coming summer flowering season which I feel sure will produce some award winning results.

Results in the 2020 flowering season:

At the time of putting this report together spiking with in the Miltoniopsis collection was quite evident. Other Odontoglossum alliance plants of flowering size were also showing signs of spiking along with a couple of the normal summer flowering cymbidiums (these were about two months ahead of expected timeline). As yet these plants are about 2 months away from opening as per required timeline.

Conclusive Recommendation:

For me transfer of the majority of plants in my collection into fern fibre substrate has been a “No brainer.”

While I would openly admit the move from the traditional bark into a fibre substrate made me become more conscious about my overall orchid culture. In applying the basic principal of “If you want to get the same results then continue doing things the same way” was not an option.

Having the support of Fernwood NZ and the opportunity to publicly report on product progress meant that each step had its challenge but also its win, win for both parties.

I have also had feedback from a number of other traditional bark growers that I have convinced to change to Fern fibre substrate that their results are positive.

My collection as a result of this trial has become more robust and focused causing me to invest in an Odontoglossum Alliance cool house which after one month is showing added value in terms of plant growth and spiking.

I am also humbled being given the opportunity to present a summary article in the American Orchid Society October magazine on the value fern fibre provides.

Photos show a small part of my collection:

Beautiful flowers show the value fern fibre provides

~ Allan Watson

Alan Ford: International Sales Manager for Fernwood