In a world where mass-produced phalaenopsis clones and oncidium hybrids by the dozen are showing up at every home department store, corner florist, and local cafe, it suddenly becomes possible to forget the unique nature of orchids, and to begin looking at some of them as just another potted plant. To prevent modern merchandizing from robbing you of the special joy of orchid growing, it's refreshing to turn to species; especially species with personality. These three orchids are hardly unknown -- neofinetia and its hybrids being some of the most popular home-grown orchids around -- but it's worth looking at the three of them together as a kind of tryptych illustrating the potential wealth of variations within a species. When we do this, we can appreciate things like leaf shape, growth habit, and variegation -- things not often talked about in the North American orchid community.
Aside from their geographic origin, these three orchids have a number of common characteristics that appeal to apartment growers: they're small, of course, adaptable to a range of growing conditions, flower reliably, and are very fragrant. They have been cultivated in Japan and China for centuries, and as a result of selective breeding, there are numerous cultivars available for each species, all with different leaf colors and shapes, growth habits, and flower colors. Considering that the wild forms of all three have plain green leaves and all-white or mostly-white flowers, this is quite an accomplishment.
In fact, the practice of collecting and growing many different varieties within a single species is well known in Japan, where it is called "koten engei." Both orchids and non-orchids are used as subjects. The practice traditionally emphasizes collecting specimens for their leaf and growth variations as much or more as the flowers themselves, and requires great attention to the potting method and the container used to display the plant. This is a strong contrast to the style of most American home growers, growing a wide variety of hybrids and species, usually in plain plastic or clay pots, even old take-out containers. But when your growing space is small and your ability to modify growing conditions limited, it's worth thinking about an orchid plant and its pot together as a harmonious whole, rather than seeing orchids as simply clunky green vehicles for fantastic flowers.
For the home collector, growing multiple specimens of the same species also has the advantages of simplifying watering and care routines, and having "backup specimens" in case one of them dies. But the true joy of koten engei lies in appreciating the subtle differences between various cultivars. For instance, a neofinetia collection might consist of a typical wild specimen; a cultivar with short, thick, "bean" leaves; one with twisted, "ocean wave" leaves, and one with yellow-edged variegated leaves. Each one, sitting in its pot, will have a very different feel to it. Each one will grow differently, and respond differently to the same cultural conditions, even though horticulturally they're all the same species. It is possible to start thinking about each orchid as an individual, rather than as one of a thousand genetically identical clones.
Even if you don't want to get all Zen about your orchid growing, there is a lot of fun in collecting within a species; placing a white, a yellow, and a pink-flowering den. monoliforme together, or a dwarf sedirea with leaves the size of a quarter next to a regular-sized specimen.
Although it goes completely against the grain of this article, I can't resist mentioning a few choice hybrids. Dendrobium monoliforme, crossed with Den. tosaense, aka stricklandianum, becomes Den. Ise, a common parent in many compact nobile-type hybrids and worth growing in its own right for its fragrant, pink-tinged flowers. The hybrid of neofinetia and sedirea, Neosedirea Summer Stars, is very rare, but try seeking it out. Sedirea has been hybridized with holcoglossum (formerly vanda) amesiana to produce Vandirea Newberry Jasmine, with excellent fragrance, temperature tolerance, and frequent blooming. Rhynchorides 'Dragon Charmy' combines sedirea with rhynchostylis gigantea; it has dramatic, reddish foliage and reddish-marked flowers and is described as intensely fragrant.
For more information on these species and their growing requirements, there are a few nurseries to look at on the web: New World Orchids specializes in these three species and has a ton of cultural information. Cal Orchids and Orchids Limited both offer many different neofinetia cultivars. Finally, Japanese orchid show and society pages, available on the Web, are not often translated, but beware: the beautiful pictures can really get you hooked.