August 5, 2011

New World Ladyslippers-the Phragmipediums:
--Rubies, Whiskers and Moss--

P. besseae
an exceptional clone

This is the last installment of the tropical Ladyslipper orchid series, outlining Phragmipediums,  the New World version of the genus Paphiopedilum. These plants have many similar characters to their Old World brethren, but with some unique differences. Many of the species in this genus come from a fairly small area of South America, mostly in wet areas of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Some species come from moss-covered rocks near waterfalls, where they are bathed in rainwater mist, while enjoying a brisk breeze at a temperature that is mostly constant around the year, roughly 80 F or a bit less. ( How difficult could it be to grow those species ? ) Curiously, "phrags" are considered moderately easy to grow, once the conditions are met. The conditions in which these species grow best are well-aerated mixes containing an inert spongy rock such as diatomaceous earth or pumice, plus sphagnum moss, plus fir bark, all of which are kept rather wet, but in extremely well-ventilated pots. One neat trick is to use a clay pot, with long slits in the sides, placed in a dish of water. This is one group that would definitely appreciate distilled or rainwater as their water source.

P. Beaumont
The plants enjoy bright light without direct sun, and have proven fairly unhappy as outdoor plants. So much of this genus comes from slight to moderate altitudes, so cooler air is appreciated rather than warmer. Some growers I've met grow these in climate-moderated greenhouses or indoors in fluorescent light gardens.  The results of good growing are shown in sequentially-flowering bloom stems, and fairly vigorous growth.

eye-popping flowers of
P. kovachii, a plant with a fascinating
tale of international intrigue and legal wrangling

These plants are still a bit expensive, although prices are dropping. I remember when P. besseae was first discovered 30 years ago, and the scramble was on to get the plants at any price. Small plants fetched a whopping $ 500 each. You can now buy respectably large plants of this species under $ 100, and hybrids which look like the besseae parent for half that amount. The raspberry-pink kovachii is getting more reasonably priced, too, with prices around $ 200-$300 for near flowering sized plants. It is, however, not easy to grow well unless you have experience in growing this group. 

P. caudatum
with petals over 24 inches long

Many of the members of the genus have moss-green flowers, and these seem to be the "easy" ones, from lower altitudes. The really flashy pink or red or raspberry species are higher altitude plants, and are consequently more demanding in their culture for most people. Overall it seems that consistent culture is the key to success, and water quality is also a big part of growing these species well. To that end, rainwater or distilled or reverse-osmosis water is key to successful Phrag culture. With few exceptions, these are tropical rainforest or cloud forest plants, often growing on moss-covered rocks. An open / porous medium kept rather wet and with a consistent supply of highly purified water are needed to grow this group of plants.

As with so many orchids, the primary hybrids show more vigor and ease of growth than the species do. The hybrids grow faster, and are often cheaper than the species. Further, the species are increasingly hard to find from vendors. With a robust red-orange hybrid like P. Beaumont,   some might ask why we should try to grow  the fairly fussy besseae species.   


P. schlimii

There are so many species and hybrids in the Orchid family that a grower could spend a lifetime experimenting and growing and learning about them. With well over 100,000 hybrids, the orchid family is the largest plant family by a large margin. There are plants for every budget, skill level, and climate.  Experiment with a few plants outside of your usual growing conditions, and you'll be rewarded with some of the most interesting flowers in the plant world. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

P. caricinum

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