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Basic Orchid Care- Cattleya species
One of the best known of all orchids is the Cattleya, the famous (or infamous) corsage orchid. Millions of these orchids are harvested annually as cut flowers. Their unique combination of color, shape, and exquisite fragrance make them perennial favorites for many occasions. There are several dozen species, yielding thousands of hybrids, stretching back in time to 1870. The modern hybrids are a far cry from the elegant yet durable species, many of which make outstanding landscape plants for the subtropics.
Cattleya skinneri--National Flower of Costa Rica
As with so many plant groups, there are miniature and giants in the group, and a wide range of colors and even fragrances to choose from. The smallest of the genus, Cattleya luteola, grows comfortably in a 4 inch pot for many years. One of the largest species, Cattleya bowringiana, can grow over 4 feet tall, and weigh over 100 pounds. Yet most Cattleya species will interbreed with each other, often resulting in some unusual primary hybrids. The genus is widespread over many countries, all in the New World. All are tropical species, but some species are native to dry scrub habitat, while others are native to rainforest climates, and a few grow on rocks in all day sunlight. Knowing something about the species' native habitats can greatly help with growing the species successfully.
Cattleya luteola, a true miniature
Growing species Cattleyas requires some knowledge, a little skill, some patience, and some gentle neglect. Most all of the species need bright light, some really like several hours of direct sunlight. All of the species require good to excellent drainage in the potting media, while some, like the aclandiae / schilleriana / walkeriana group really prefer to be mounted on cork or wood slabs. Given the choice, most of the species will produce larger and more robust root systems when the roots are unconfined and allowed to grow throughout open, coarse media.
Recently, orchid growers have begun growing Cattleya species and hybrids for the mass market with outstanding results. Many tissue-cultured varieties are available at local big-box stores for a fraction of the costs once seen only at orchid shows. Recent culture advances have produced high-quality plants at not only a reasonable cost but a higher quality of growth as well. Some varieties ( especially the blue tones and alba varieties) were difficult to acquire until tissue culture and mass growing techniques came along. As growers selected more and more vigorous varieties, plants became easier for novices to grow successfully.
Most of the species will grow well in slat baskets or in clay pots with coarse media and excellent drainage. With rather few exceptions, plants enjoy morning sunlight but afternoon shade, and to be dry at nightfall. watering and fertilizing should be done early in the day. Various species grow at various times of the year, so the best advice is the oldest: if the plant is growing, water it. If it isn't growing, don't water it. It would also seem reasonable that a growing plant needs fertilizer, but fertilizing should be done judiciously, once a month at the middle range of fertilizer label recommendations.
Cattleya walkeriana semi-alba
One of the hardest aspects to learn about growing species Cattleya is to grow them "lean" or "hard" meaning that the plants need great drainage, to remain dry more than to stay wet, grow in abundant light and air movement, and to have less care than more care. In some grower's definitions, "tough love" is a great credo for growing the species in this genus. This is a great section of orchids for those people who tend to their plants occasionally, not so much for those people who constantly water and fertilize. There are orchids which really enjoy lavish care, such as Vandas, but Cattleya species need less. The subtle beauty and complex fragrances can enchant you, especially if you know that it is these species which started the Victorian orchid craze of the late 1800s. I'll address complex Cattleya hybrids in another blog. Visit a local orchid show and see what tempts you. Local orchid societies are great resources for information on the special needs of individual species, and are more than happy to tell you everything you need to know. Think of them as data banks, at a very reasonable cost.