Thursday, August 7, 2008

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!

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