Saturday, January 31, 2009

Creepy Crawlies: Orchids of Unusual Growth and Flower

Let’s face it: orchid growers are weird. If we were normal, we’d stick to mainstream plants like roses, lilies or ficus trees. To quote paph grower Joe Kunisch in Orchid Fever: “the only people that are weirder than us are the dog show people . . . and we are not a distant second by any means.”

Within the wild, weird world of orchids, there are plenty of odd-looking orchids to choose from -- you could build an entire collection of weirdos from just within the Bulbophyllum/Cirrhopetalum alliance. Mormodes and Catasetum both contain species capable of scaring small children. I’m not even going to mention the Draculas, it’s just too obvious. But many of these are not easily grown at home without special care, and some get quite large. So, for this article, I’m going to look pecifically at orchids with a crawling, miniature habit. This is not just a Halloween-season gimmick—well, OK, it is—but crawling habits are easy to accommodate if you know a few tips, and they can pack considerable flower power if grown to specimen size.

The genus Dendrobium is so large it has something for everyone, including weirdos. Dendrobium toressae is so small it can fit anywhere, its leaves are less than a quarter inch long! Sure, you’ll need a magnifying glass to see the flowers, but it has a particular charm of its own, and you can hide it in someone’s hair for a trick. Dendrobium lichenastrum, a newer species, is similar in habit, but its flowers are a whopping 1/4” wide, and fragrant, too. Dendrobium rigidum is definitely creepy, with greyish-green leaves spotted purple, but it’s also a nice, easy-growing species which flowers readily and tolerates neglect, and its small, red-lipped blooms are not at all scary. Dendrobium laevifolium is a true gem of an orchid. It’s miniature, has purple-backed leaves, and long-lasting sparkly pink flowers. It’s often mentioned as an easier alternative to Den. cuthbertsonii, one of the most spectacular minis in existence if you can keep
it alive long enough to bloom. These and other species in the oxyglossum section of Dendrobiums come from cold, wet, high mountain elevations in New Guinea, where they have constant cool temperatures, high humidity and air movement, and they never, ever, ever dry out. Think of them as delicate sprites among a crowd of goblins. Finally, for something completely different, there’s Den. dichaeoides, with ranks of small overlapping leaves—like a Dichaea, which we’ll get to next, and hot pink flowers at the tips.

Dichaeas are little known rainforest epiphytes from Central and South America, and they grow in warm, damp, medium light conditions; their overlapping leaves are shaped to shed excess water. Most grow best mounted, so their pendant stems can wander around like Medusa’s hair, but their flowers, small, intricate, and often fragrant, are definitely not monstrous. Successful growing can be a challenge, but their small size makes them excellent additions to a terrarium or light garden setup with good air movement.

Attendees of last September’s Manhattan Orchid Society meeting heard about Dockrillias, diminutive, rock-dwelling, mat-growing Australian species split from Dendrobium. Many species have terete leaves, and quickly form wild, hairy specimens big enough for a haunted house ex-
hibit. Others, however, have leaves shaped like tongues (linguiformis), gherkin pickles (cucumerinum), or broad daggers (pugioniforme) — a whole Halloween party in a single genus! Dockrillias have a reputation for being very forgiving of different growing conditions, although young plants do need consistent watering, and have high flower counts when grown to specimen size. Line breeding and hybridizing are constantly bringing improvements, so expect to see more of these around in the future.

Epidendrums are probably second only to Dendrobiums in diversity of growth habit and flower. In addition to the typical tall reed-stem epis grown all over the tropics, the genus holds a number of creeping species, and perhaps the best for our purposes is Epi. polybulbon, which may or may not be moved to its own genus, Dinema. Epi. polybulbon is in some ways like a mini, mat-form-ing Encyclia in the shape of its psuedobulbs and leaves, the main difference other than size is it grows horizontally along a widely-spaced rhizome, rather than in a tight clump like most other Encyclias. Epi. quisayanum is relatively newly discovered species from Ecuador, similar in size and habit, the difference is the flowers are purplish-white rather than orange-red, and are held on longer stems rather than appearing right above the psuedobulbs. Nanodes medusae is another former Epidendrum with a creeping habit. Its flowers are a somewhat lurid shade of red with a wild, fringed lip similar to other species in the Epidendrum family like Epi. ilense and Epi. ciliare. Other worthy members of this creepy genus include Nanodes discolor, with spidery reddish flowers, and its even smaller cousin longirepens. The cross between Nanodes porpax and Nanodes medusae, Epi. Panama Ruby, has flowers bigger than either parent and the best features of both. If you can find it, get it; it’s a true Queen of the Creepy-Crawlies.

Want a challenge? Maxillaria sophronitis is a miniature in the genus, with leaves only 1” long on a creeping rhizome. Its flowers are as orange as pumpkins; perfect for seasonal arrangements. This species has a reputation of being difficult to grow. It needs good quality water and must stay moist, but not soggy. If you can manage this, it should do fine in bright light. Maxillaria arbuscula is another mini, with more of clambering habit, and pretty red and white flowers like tiny peppermints. Keep it cool and bright, with regular watering. Maxillaria uncata is like a pendulous form of arbuscula, with less bright flowers and similar care requirements. To complete the goody basket survey, Mediocalcar decoratum has psuedobulbs like sausage links and candy-corn-like flowers; it’s another cool grower that should work fine under lights or in a shady window.
Here’s to a fine fall season for all orchid weirdos, with more flowering delights than dead plant frights, so go get creepy!


Anonymous said...

What's up

It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys! Just wanted to say hello to the new community :). Thanks for letting me in! :D