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!


forest said...

I found that Cym.Golden Elf 'Sundust' had flowers that only lasted a week or so, even if it bloomed more than once a year, as compared to the standard cyms. Is that what you find?

Jim Freeman said...


Golden Elf is a hybrid of Cym. sinense, I haven't gotten my sinense blooms to last that long, either. While I don't think they do last as long as standard cymbidiums even under the best conditions, here's a couple of things you can do to make 'em last:

1. Move the plant into bright shade, avoid direct sun.

2. keep evenly moist, don't let the plant dry out too much.

3. Avoid big temperature changes.

My guess is the flowers are fairly short-lived because the asian cyms are smaller plants with less energy stored in their psuedobulbs, and their strong fragrance evolved to attract pollinators fast, so they don't need to stay open for weeks.

Hope this helps!

stefanogiovannini said...

I am undecided between the ensifolium and Golden Elf. I live in Brooklyn myself as well. The ensifolium is a bit more expensive that the Golden Elf online but I wonder if teh blooms last longer and if it is as floriferous.

Anonymous said...

I live in Brooklyn, have 10 or more large well grown cymbidiums. they will bloom in Feb/March. I have been growing these plants for years and even got a prize in a GNYOS show for my growing of some of these same cymbidiums many years ago.
I have to move, are you or someone you know interested in purchasing them?? if so, you can contact me at: