Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cymbidiums You Can Actually Grow at Home

I can't be the only orchid grower who's stared at a full-sized Cymbidium at an orchid show or florists' shop and thought, "Wow, that's gorgeous -- but how could I ever fit that thing into my small apartment?" The great majority of Cymbidiums grown for sale are so-called "standard" cymbidiums, which means basically they're at least four feet high, need a foot-wide pot, and only bloom if you have your own personal cool temperature greenhouse or live in coastal California. Tough luck for the rest of us. Even more ironic are the "miniature" Cymbidiums, which really mean "minature only when compared to the regular gigantic kind," being about, say, two or three feet tall. Hello? What kind of dictionary have they been using here? But don't lose hope. There are Cyms that almost anyone can grow in an apartment. Really! The trick is knowing what species and hybrids to look for, and perhaps giving up on the idea of dozens of four inch flowers on tall spikes. Hey, you can't have it all.

The "original" mini Cymbidiums are the six East Asian species of the section Jensoa. Characterized by thin, grassy leaves and short sprays of relatively small but often fragrant flowers, they have a history of cultivation in Asia that stretches back over 2,000 years. Some of the higher-elevation species need colder winter temps than most home growers can provide, but a few are quite suitable. Cym. ensifolium has a short spike of brownish flowers and can bloom several times during its summer season. It's also one of the parents of one of the most well-known mini hybrids: Golden Elf 'Sundust', with pretty yellow flowers and a great scent. Cym. sinense has wider leaves and a winter/spring flowering season. Cymbidium goerengei is the shortest of these three, and the coolest-growing; but is still worth trying.

More recently, hybridizers have developed a number of "ultra-miniature" or "teacup" cyms using species such as devonianum, pumilum (aka floribundum), and tigrinum. They are the closest in looks to the standard cyms, but only 12 to 18 inches tall, and encompass a range of colors from all white to yellow, red and green. Culture is similar to standard cyms as well, but since these species grow in warmer climates, they don't need as pronounced a temperature drop in order to spike.

Finally, there are a few pendant-flowering species that may fit a sunny window if you have the space to hang them in baskets. Cymbidium dayanum flowers in the winter, with red-marked white blooms; there is also an alba form. Cym. devonianum, mentioned above, is not really a miniature, but it can exist happily in a 5" basket if old bulbs are removed every other year, and its reddish- green blooms are quite dramatic.

So what do you give a mini Cymbidium to make it happy in your house? Most of these need good, bright, but not full light: the shorter ones can grow well and flower under lights. Two keys to cultivation: good air movement, and careful attention to watering. Spider mites love these plants, and the thin, grassy leaves give them plenty of hiding places. Particularly in the dry air of winter, they need a fan or other moving air source to keep their leaves healthy and developing spikes from blasting.

Regarding watering, an old saying has it that "cymbidiums love water but hate wet; they love dry but hate drought." What this means in actual practice is they need a coarse mix for terrestrial orchids, with large perlite, sharp sand, gravel, or charcoal to keep the drainage open. They also need deep watering, enough to run water through the entire mix, then they need to almost, but not quite, dry out before their next watering. In the house, drench your cyms in the sink or a bucket, or a give them a good shower, but skip the shampoo and conditioner. If your plants grow well but don't flower, they probably need cooler conditions at night and brighter days. Got a window that you can crack open at night, or a room that you don't heat as much as the rest of the house? Here's where you put your Cymbidiums (and any other plants needing similar treatment) to bed at night. During the day, keep them close to the window or other light source, but not so close as to burn the leaves. Avoid air from radiators or heaters at all costs.

During growth, Cymbidiums like regular feedings; some growers add slow-release fertilizer pellets to the growth mix. During the winter, too much fertilizer can create new, weak growth rather than flower spikes, so once a month is plenty. Cymbidiums have long, fleshy roots, and need pots about three times as tall as they are wide and a coarse, semi-terrestrial mix. A visit to your nearest Asian-American neighborhood will likely allow you to find beautiful clay pots for your plants; probably a lot cheaper than on the web.

Mini-cymbidiums can be seen as a "next-best thing" for those who lack the space for full standards, or they can be seen as charming orchids in their own right. A group of mini-cyms, in traditional pots, in the window or on a light shelf can be as elegant as any NBA Allstar-sized specimen. And they're perfect plants for those of us trying to keep our heating bills down this winter!

The Green, Green, Grassy-Leaved Orchids of Home

Why grow an orchid that looks like a grass? You can go to the park or front lawn for grass, or buy one of those mini Zen gardens that lets you manicure a square foot of turf, or even hit your juice bar for a shot of wheat grass, if you really like that sort of thing. With all the unusual growth habits that orchids display, why go with a plant that non-orchid lovers (i.e. most of the people you know) won't even recognize as anything out of the ordinary when it's not in flower?

Well, let me give you a few reasons. First, a grassy-leaved orchid doesn't take up much space in the windowsill or shelf -- its vertical shape is easily managed. Second, when displayed in a nice pot, like those used for Asian cymbidium species, a grassy-leaved orchid can be elegant indeed even when it's not flowering. Finally, there are a number of easy growers with great flowers that fit this category which may change your mind.

Since the quintessential grassy-leaved orchids, the Asian cymbidiums mentioned above, have been covered in another article, let's start with another category -- phragmipediumss. Yes, some of them are monster-sized, and their flowers can be an acquired taste. But some species, like schlimii, peirceii, and fischeri, are much more manageable, as are their hybrids such as seidenii, Silver Eagle and Carol Kanzer. The flowers of schlimii look alot like a paphiopedilum, with a pink pouch and short, rounded white sepals. In some clones they're even fragrant. Peircii look like a typical phrag flower in miniature; some plants have rather muddy colors, so try to find a clone with proven color and shape. Here's another plus for those who tend to overwater -- phrags really like to stay wet, in fact, growers often stand the pots in a saucer of water during the growing season to make sure they don't go dry. Don't be put off by statements that phrags are sensitive to water quality, and need a strict diet of rainwater to survive. If your tap water is less than good quality, and if you can't collect rainwater on the fire escape/balcony/roof, then a regular rinsing with distilled water will help to prevent build-up of salts in the potting mix.

Maxillarias are another multifarious genus, with sizes ranging from mini to monster, and a variety of flower sizes, colors and fragrances. Max. tenuifolia, the "coconut orchid," is usually grown for its flowers, which in terms of fragrance could be stunt doubles for coconut cream pie. It has a climbing habit, growing new psuedobulbs above the old ones on a slim rhizome. Because of this rambling habit it's often grown mounted or in a basket. But indoor growers aren't likely to have room to allow it to reach specimen size. Instead, take the small plant you just purchased and put it in a tall, narrow cymbidium-type pot. As the plant climbs, it'll grow more bulbs and roots above the mix, and will start to need frequent misting to keep all this stuff moist. But it will look neat and classy, and when it flowers you can serve it for dessert. Just kidding. Maxillaria has a few more species with a grassy-leaved habit. Max. sanguinea is very similar in leaf and growth to max. tenuifolia. But its flowers have a really beautiful rosy sunset tone to them, and it's less rambunctious in growth than tenuifolia. Other maxis with potential include cucullata, gracilis, and picta, although some of these get a bit large and spreading, and may need cooler summer temperatures.

Sigmatostylix is a South American genus of which only Sgmx. radicans is well-known to home orchid growers. It works great in a basket, allowing its tiny psuedobulbs pop up all around and build up a nice, grassy bunch of leaves. Its flowers are small, but intricate, and have a faint, sweet scent. Because even a small plant will have a lot of growths, it can put up spikes over a long period of time. It is not a spectacular orchid, but a subtle charmer. Look for more species coming from Latin American nurseries to expand the selection.

If you're looking for really tiny grass-like orchids, consider Ceratostylis phillipinensis. It's small, neat, with white, scented flowers. It'll work fine in a small orchid case, light garden shelf or windowsill as long as your humidity's decent and you never, ever, let it dry out for too long. Remember, small orchids in small pots have a much smaller margin for error than a giant catt in a giant pot. Similar-sized orchids include Isabella virginallis, a tiny gem with tufts of needle-like leaves and little violet flowers. Larger, but very choice, are the Isochillus species, particularly isochillus linearis. It has small, thin leaves along slender stems, and the overall effect is definitely grassy. It produces flowers on short, successively-blooming spikes, so make sure to keep it well watered and warm when it's in bud or bloom and you'll get a long-lasting series of small, graceful purple flowers.

Finally, there are Dendrochilums -- every apartment grower should have at least one of these. The genus includes a bunch of compact, elegant, easy-growing and blooming species, and they look great in a hanging basket. All have long, thin, grassy leaves, and long arching spikes of small or even tiny white, golden, or red flowers. Vandas, they're not, but the impact of half a dozen or more spikes on a plant in a 4-5" basket can be very dramatic, and you don't have to water it twice a day or run up the heating bill to keep it happy in winter. These are intermediate growers, and need bright light but not heavy sun, they like to be kept moist year round. My Dendrochilum glumaceaum has a light, sweet scent, and several others are scented as well.

Learning to enjoy grassy-leaved orchids isn't hard, and once you get started, you may find them becoming some of your favorites – even if you still lust after those big, dinnerplate catts and vandas!

Jewel Orchids: Growing for Foliage

Orchids grown primarily for their leaves? Sure, I got a bunch of them that haven't bloomed in years, so I'm growing them for the foliage! But seriously, folks; though many of us may have counted a ludisia (old name: haemaria) discolor among of our first orchids, the very idea of growing orchids for their foliage display rather than their flowers somehow goes against the grain of orchid growing. For that reason, jewel orchids have long remained hidden gems, so to speak. They achieved brief popularity in the late 60s and 70s when gardening under lights became a fad, but mostly remain a sideshow to orchid flowers rather than a respectable group of their own. There are two very good reasons why the situation is about to change, though. The first is that, during times of high energy costs, people tend to gravitate towards orchids that are smaller and have lower light requirements, so in this age of astronomical heating bills, don't be surprised to see more vendors offering jewel orchids. The second is that a few nurseries are introducing new species and hybrids, and a number of these push the concept of jewel orchids in new directions; renowned orchidist Harold Koopowitz coined the phrase "jewel and painted leaf orchids" to describe the full range of orchids with attractive leaves. Even without these two global factors, there is plenty for hom orchid growers to like about jewel and painted leaf orchids. Many are minis or compact in habit: a whole collection of jewel orchids takes up a small space, even in a crowded apartment. Most grow in low light conditions; you can put them in places too dim for other orchids and they'll do just fine. Finally, as long as you know their growing likes and dislikes, they're easy maintain, and some are extremely easy to propagate. A few even have pretty flowers -- but that's just extra.

{NOTE: This article owes a special thanks to Dr. Leon Glicenstein of Hoosier Orchid Company, hybridizer extraordinaire, who gave a terrific lecture on Jewel Orchids at the WOC in Miami and was very generous with his time and knowledge.}

Jewel Orchids


The original "jewel orchids" are a number of small, spreading terrestrial species of the subtribe Goodyerinae from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which grow on the floor of damp jungles among leaf litter and moss. Their leaves, particularly the veins, have a bright, almost electric glow to them, hence the "jewel" name. The most familiar, the aforementioned Ludisia discolor, has been in cultivation for over a hundred years, and comes in a number of leaf patterns. The most common, var. dawsonia, has very dark green, almost black, velvety leaves with luminous red veins. I keep expecting to see a picture of Elvis appear on one, but it hasn't happened yet. Var. nigrescens is similar, but with only a single, central red vein on each dark leaf, for an understated yet dramatic look. Var. alba has green leaves with very pale cream veins in a more netted pattern, and is generally smaller than the other varieties in leaf and habit. Ludisias spike during winter, and bear many 1/4" white flowers, attractive in their own right, especially on a specimen plant with multiple spikes. But wait, there's more! A newly discovered cultivar of var. nigrescens, named 'Ambrosia,' received a JC/AOS for its fragrant flowers, which may explain old reports that Ludisias are fragrant; though all the varieties I've smelled so far are not.

Perhaps the next most common genus is Macodes. Mac. petiola, with shining green leaves laced with sparkling veins that look like lightning in bright light, is a popular species. Macodes sanderiana, a closely related species, can be distinguished by the wavy edges on the leaves. There is a legend about this orchid, told in Borneo, that a goddess decided to visit the local mortals one day and came down from the sky, wearing her shining cloak. The villagers were scared of her supernatural appearance, and, in a sad comment on human nature, tried to kill what they feared. As the goddess ran away, a few threads from her cloak caught on a rock and turned to Macodes plants. Some of the calmer villagers noticed the plants and brought them back to their temple, where they promptly died (a cautionary tale to all orchid growers!) But when the villagers prayed to the goddess, she came back bringing new plants with her. Whether their origin is truly divine or not, Macodes are true minis, and small specimens in particular need attention so that they neither dry out completely nor get their tiny roots waterlogged, which will result, as the story tells us, in swift death. Patience, however, is rewarded with one of the best foliage displays around.

Dossinia is next on the popular scale; Doss. marmorata has been around for a while, but is not commonly grown; wild-collected plants proved very difficult to grow. However, Dr. Glicenstein reports that newer seed-grown specimens are much easier to cultivate, and that's good news; this is a gorgeous orchid with dark green leaves veined with iridescent gold. Flowers are insignificant, but with these leaves; who needs 'em?

If any genus can outshine Macodes and Dossinia, it is Anoectochilus, a group of about 35 species with some of the most fantastic leaf patterns ever; mostly dark greenish-red background with bright gold or copper veins. Anct. burmannicus, aka chapaensis, has the added bonus of bright yellow flowers, a change of pace from the usual white. Several of the species have interesting fringes on the flower lip; Anct. formosanus has yellow fringes on a divided white lip which makes the flowers look like tiny winged insects!

The final important genus for jewel orchids is Goodyera, a pan-global genus that includes hardy species native to North America and temperate Asia as well as tropical species. Typically growing a rosette of white-spotted or marked green leaves, the flowers are usually small and not showy. Good. daubeniensis from Taiwan is a well-known representative of the tropical species; Good. hispida, from the Himalayas, has tiny crystalline hairs inside the flower nectary. Good. katanya from India has satiny green leaves.

A tip from Dr. Glicenstein for those going hiking in the Western states, straight out of Native American and frontier folklore: several Goodyera species are said to be effective at curing venom, perhaps courtesy of their snakeskin-like leaf markings. The procedure is simplicity itslef; if you're bitten, just grab the snake and make it bite itself, then let it go -- it will head for the nearest goodyera plant. Follow it to the orchid, pull it out of the snake's mouth, nibble away and you're cured!

A few rarer genera include Nephelphyllum, with gorgeous bronze purple leaves; Oeceoclades, which includes the tropical orchid "weed" Oec. maculata as well as some fabulous species that look almost like pinkish-gray rocks; and Malaxis, mostly tiny-flowered species with some highly colored and patterned leaves.

Jewel Orchid Hybrids:

According to Dr. Glicenstein, the first intergeneric orchid hybrid ever was not the famous Calanthe dominyi but a ludisia/dossinia cross, which has now been remade. Hoosier Orchid Company carries a number of jewel orchid hybrids, and with names like Anectodes Charlotte's Web, Dossinyera Tapestry, and Macodesia Spiderman, you just know the leaves are fantastic. Most of these are also more vigorous and easier to grow than the straight species. Pictures don't quite do them justice; if you get a chance to see them in person you'll really understand why they're called jewels.

Painted Leaf Orchids


The genera of Spiranthoideae includes a bunch of wonderfully patterned species, but they neither look nor grow like the jewel orchids, hence the term "painted leaf." Most of these are terrestrial species that grow basal rosettes of leaves, with thick, fleshy flower spikes rising up from the middle. They grow in shady conditions in humid, moist or seasonally dry rainforest habitats. Like jewel orchids, they grow best with little to no direct sunlight, which can scorch the leaves, in shallow pots of well-drained, humus-rich mix. Since they dislike stale conditions at the roots, it's a good idea to repot at least every two years, but keep them fairly tightly potted, as overpotting can also lead to root rot.

First up is Sarcoglottis, with glossy leaves striped and spotted silvery-white. Popular species include Sarcg. sceptrodes and speciousus. The flowers are usually greenish. Srcg. portillae reportedly has a fantastic fragrance as well! You can grow these practically like a regular houseplant in well-draining potting mix. All species need a slight dormant period after flowering, with some requiring a complete break from watering, so it's important to know what species you're growing and what its dormancy needs are.

Stenorrynchos is a South American genus very closely related to Spiranthes, most species have silvery-green leaves in a rosette, with a thick spike emerging from the center. The flowers have bright red bracts and often bloom around the end of the year, though not always in time for Christmas. Styn. speciousus is the most common species; a new species, austrocompactus, is a mini version of speciousus, which can get large if allowed to grow to specimen size.

Stennoglottis is an African genus, with some species having purple-spotted leaves. Sngl. fimbriata is being line-bred to increase the size and density of spotting, and its flowers are a lovely lilac with darker spots in the lip. Like Sarcoglottis, it needs a dry resting period after flowering, where it will drop its leaves before putting up new growth in spring, so cut way back on watering until you see new foliage appearing.

Painted Leaf Hybrids:

Some very interesting crosses are being made among the painted leaf group, with the aim of improving leaf markings, flower size and color, and ease of growth. This is totally new territory with regards to which species and genera will cross successfully, and what the results will be; aside from the species mentioned above, most orchids in this group have a very short and limited history of commercial cultivation, and new species are still being discovered and brought into the trade, so who knows what the near future will bring us?

Stenosarcos Vanguard, the first intergeneric hybrid in this group, was just registered by Hoosier Orchid Company in 2001. It combines stenorrynchos with sarcoglottis to produce a plant with the leaf markings of the latter and the bright red flower spike of the former. Stenorrhynchos has been crossed with Cyclopogon and Pelexia, two similar terrestrial genera, that introduce shades of pink to the typical red flowers of stenorrhynchos. Stennoglottis Venus is a cross that maximizes the purple spotting of its Stenn. fimbriata parent; Stenn. Bill Fogarty has great flowers but unmarked leaves, technically it's not a painted leaf orchid at all, so perhaps this is the right note to end on!