SLIP INTO THE HOLIDAYS

byTOM FISCHER

photography byCASEY MCNAMARA

WITH THE HOLIDAYS fast approaching, there’s no cheerier sight than a room decorated with the traditional tropical slipper orchids. OK, so I’m fantasizing—no one I know actually does this. But why not? Plenty of varieties are in bloom this time of year, they come in the right seasonal colors, they stay in bloom for weeks, they have attractive foliage (unlike many other kinds of orchids), and they’re no trickier than African violets. But maybe you don’t celebrate the holidays—any holidays—or, like me, you get all bah-humbuggy after being bombarded nonstop with canned versions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Never mind—slipper orchids are still some of the most intriguing indoor plants you can grow, with colors ranging from hit-you-over-the-head brash to watercolor subtle, and flowers that can be glossy as lacquer, elegantly striped as a tailored shirt, or fuzzed and warty like some tropical arachnid (or your great-uncle Hubert).

ASIAN SLIPPERS: THE PAPHIOPEDILUMS

Most tropical slipper orchids belong to three genera: Selenipedium, Phragmipedium (both found only in the New World), and Paphiopedilum, from Southeast Asia. Although there are plenty of fascinating selenipediums and phragmipediums, the paphiopedilums offer the greatest variety (upwards of 70 known species), coupled with a willingness to thrive in the light and temperature levels found in most homes.

If you’ve seen one of our native lady’s-slippers in bloom (which belong to yet another genus, Cypripedium), then you have a general idea of what a typical paphiopedilum looks like: from a cluster of long, straplike, leathery leaves, which may be either solid green or beautifully mottled with lighter green, rises a single upright stem, bearing one or more flowers characterized by a prominent pouch (the “slipper”) flanked by two petals, and crowned by a broad dorsal sepal. But whereas the temperate, deciduous lady’s-slippers have a delicate, demure air about them, many of their tropical, evergreen cousins look like the products of a slightly deranged surrealist artist: Paphiopedilum sukhakulii, one of the easiest species to grow, sports a striped dorsal sepal and maroon-spotted petals with hairy margins; the dorsal sepal of recently discovered P. henryanum bears shiny raised black blobs, as though it had been spattered with india ink; and P. wilhelminae has long, twisty, downward-pointing petals that look like a pair of oversize corkscrews.

THE AMERICAN ORCHID SOCIETY

With nearly 30,000 members worldwide, the AOS is the largest special-interest horticultural organization in the world and a treasure trove of information about every aspect of orchids and orchid culture. Members receive the monthly 108-page Orchids magazine, copies of Your First Orchid and the Orchid Source Directory, a 10% discount from the AOS Bookshop and Orchid Emporium, and free answers to orchid-related questions. A one-year single membership in the U.S. is $40. For more information, write or call: The American Orchid Society. 16700 AOS Lane, Delray Beach, FL 33446; 561-404-2000; or visit www.orchidweb.org.-T.F.

Not all paphiopedilums specialize in bizarrerie; the somewhat demanding members of the section Parvisepalum, in particular, have a more white-gloves-and-pearls kind of beauty. (See the photo of P.micranthum, this page.) Paphiopedilum delanatii, for example, with a pink pouch and broad white petals and dorsal sepal, is as chaste as any northern lady’s-slipper, with a delightful lemony fragrance to boot, while P.armeniacum bears huge, rounded golden flowers on a relatively tiny plant.

HYBRIDS: WILD TO MILD

With so much natural variety, it’s not surprising that Paphiopedilum should have spawned hundreds, even thousands of hybrids. It would take several fat volumes to describe them all, so I’ll stick to three of the most commonly encountered groups.

THE MAUDIAE GROUP. Named for P. Maudiae, a hybrid first bred in 1900, these plants are among the easiest, handsomest, and most affordable slipper orchids you can buy. (With orchids, the name that follows the genus, set in roman type without single quotes, represents the grex, or all the hybrid offspring of two parent plants. A name set in roman type within single quotes represents a clone, a unique individual that has been selected from a grex.) The original P. Maudiae was an albino, or album, form; in an orchid context, that means it lacks pigments other than chlorophyll, and so the flowers are green and white. Eventually, pigmented parents were used as well to produce similar crosses (not all of them called P. Maudiae; P. Clair de Lune, P. Emerald, P. Faire Maud, P. Voodoo Magic, and many others are all considered Maudiae types), so that there are now four distinct color patterns: the album forms, with their green pouches and elegant green-and-white-striped dorsal sepals; the coloratum forms, which retain a striped dorsal but exhibit more or less red coloring throughout the flower; the vinicolors, which are a solid, sexy dark wine red that can appear almost black; and the flame vinis, also dark burgundy, but with dorsal sepals that display a large, round greenish spot at the base as well as sometimes a greenish edge, producing a halo effect. Given their green-to-red color range, the Maudiaes could easily serve as the centerpiece of a holiday display with a distinctly exotic flavor. All the Maudiae hybrids are quick-growing (for orchids, that is) and vigorous, and all have beautiful mottled foliage that makes them a pleasure to look at even when they’re not in bloom.

THE COMPLEX HYBRIDS. Originating from a genetic soup that includes P. bellatulum, P. insigne, P. niveum, P. spicerianum, and P. villosum—all worthy species in their own right—the so-called complex hybrids produce large, glossy flowers with broad, rounded petals and dorsal sepals. They’re probably the most in-your-face of all the pa-phiopedilum hybrids, and some fanciers find them too artificial-looking. But what they lack in finesse they more than make up for in variety of coloration, from pure whites through deep reds, greens, yellows, and browns, with any degree of spotting, streaking, tinting, mixing, and edging. I’m partial to the toasty yellow browns, like some of the clones of P. Demetria. These are designer’s plants par exellence; whatever a room’s color scheme, there’s bound to be a complex hybrid paph to complement it. Although the foliage of these hybrids is a plain dark green rather than mottled, it’s still reasonably neat and attractive.

THE BRACHYPETALUM HYBRIDS. The crosses that have as their main parents the species in the Brachypetalum section of the genus—P. bellatulum, P. concolor, P. godefroyae, and P. niveum—are some of the most serenely lovely of all the paphiopedilums. They tend to have rounded, white or pale pink flowers more or less dusted or stippled with darker pink or deep purple. Many of their names are lovely, too—P. Eos, P. Iona, P. Psyche, and P. Virgo, for example. As with most paphiopedilums, they display an element of the curious: hybrids of the short-stemmed P. bellatulum may remind you of a nest of speckled bird’s eggs. The Brachypetalum hybrids also bear mottled leaves, which tend to be darker overall than those of the Maudiae group. The only drawback to the brachypetalums is that they’re somewhat tricky to grow. They should be potted slightly high; they need an extremely open and porous potting medium; they should dry out between waterings; and they enjoy more warmth than the general run of paphiopedilums. For these reasons, they don’t make ideal beginner’s plants; wait until you’ve had a bit of experience before you succumb to their charms.

CARING FOR PAPHIOPEDILUMS

With paphiopedilums, it’s all about the roots. Encourage a healthy, vigorous root system, and you’ll have a healthy, floriferous plant. And the most important factors in encouraging a healthy root system are choosing the right potting medium and figuring out how often to water.

POTTING MEDIA. Paphiopedilums are humus epiphytes, which means that in nature they grow in pockets of decaying organic matter in the crotches of trees, between rocks, or on the forest floor. This organic matter is always porous and open, and allows air to reach the roots—it’s nothing like the standard soil-based or soilless potting mixtures used for most indoor plants. Therefore, it’s important to choose a potting mixture formulated especially for orchids. But you don’t want one that’s too coarse, because it will dry out too quickly—use one of the fine fir-bark-based mixtures (sometimes labeled “seedling mix”) or, better yet, track down one of the newer mixes composed mostly of chopped coconut shells, which break down much more slowly than fir bark (two to three years for coconut shells versus one year for fir bark). Another rule of thumb: if the potting medium is dark, mushy, and slow to dry out, it’s time to repot, and fast.

ON THE WEB

Bob and Lynn Wellenstein, of AnTec Laboratory, a specialty nursery in Candor. New York, have developed an amazingly comprehensive and detailed web site devoted to all the genera of tropical slipper orchids. Lots of excellent photos as well. Visit www.ladyslipper.com.

For a handy guide to mailorder orchid nurseries and providers of orchid supplies. visit the Orchid Mall, www.orchidmall.com.-T.F.

A Beginner’s Dozen

SPECIES

P. appletonianum

P. henryanum

P. hirsutissimum

P. spicerianum

P. sukhakulii

P. venustum var. measuresianum (album type)

HYBRIDS

P. Darling

P. Laser (vinicolor)

P. Magic Lantern

P. Maudiae types

P. Psyche

P. Saint Swithin (shown this page)

WATERING. Watering a paphiopedilum is something of an art. Nothing will kill your plant more quickly than overwatering. Your goal should be to allow the medium to dry out slightly between waterings. Get to know the weight of the pot just after you’ve watered, and when it’s nearly dry. If you’re in doubt, wait a day or two. When you do water, water copiously, letting it run through the medium and drain away. This will help prevent the buildup of harmful salts on the plant’s roots. If you know your water is extremely hard, try to use rainwater for your paphs, or dilute your tap water by half with distilled water, or purchase a reverse-osmosis system. Never water paphs with water that has been through an ion-exchange water softener—the high sodium levels will kill them in short order.

FEEDING. Specialists often concoct elaborate fertilizing regimens, but you can get good results much more simply: choose a balanced fertilizer formulated especially for orchids, dilute it to one-quarter or one-half the recommended strength, and apply it every other watering. The harder your water, the more dilute the fertilizer should be.

LIGHT. Most paphiopedilums will grow and flower well in relatively low light levels; in fact, direct midday sun will overheat the plants and scorch the leaves. If you grow your plants on a windowsill, choose an east- or west-facing window. Paphiopedilums also grow well under fluorescent lights. The ideal setup is a two- or four-tube fixture with 40-watt full-spectrum tubes, with the plants three to eight inches below the tubes (closer for two-tube fixtures, farther for four-tube), Keep the tubes on 12 to 14 hours a day.

TEMPERATURE, HUMIDITY, AND AIR CIRCULATION. Normal room temperatures are just fine for most paphiopedilums, “normal” being no warmer than 85°F during the day (although brief periods in the 90s won’t do any harm) and no lower than about 55°F at night. A difference of about 10 degrees between day and night temperatures is helpful. Being plants of the moist tropics, paphiopedilums enjoy high humidity. This is easy to provide if you have a greenhouse, but if not, they’ll do fine in a relative humidity of 40 to 50%. Ultrasonic humidifiers are an efficient and reasonably quiet way to boost humidity—better than sporadic misting or placing the plants over damp pebbles. Orchids of all kinds appreciate air movement, which moderates leaf temperature and discourages water-borne pathogens, so if possible, keep a small fan running near, but not on, your plants.

Does all this sound daunting? It isn’t, really, and in fact quickly becomes routine. As you gain experience and learn how to adjust conditions to suit your plants, you’ll be able to try your hand with the exquisite Brachypetalum species, or with strapping specimens like the brown-striped P. rothschildianum, the envy of every orchid fancier who sees it. The world of orchids is a vast one. It’s waiting for you. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 79.

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