Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The La Boheme orchid

Everybody has something that stops them in their tracks, that they can't overcome, no matter how hard they try.  Hey, even Superman had kryptonite.  When it comes to orchids, there is always at least one species or hybrid that you kill, over and over again, despite proper care and attention, the best advice of friends and family, deep and passionate attachment . . . it's all to no avail.

You try to stay away -- for her own good, because you can't take care of her, and you don't want to cause more harm, you don't think you can take the pain again -- but like Rodolfo and Mimi, you keep coming back to each other, even though you know the two of you are doomed from the start.  She looks well for a while, then goes into decline.  You weep, you pray, you cut back withered leaves and water gently, you try enclosing her in a clear plastic bag (the orchid version of an ICU) but alas, one morning, she is gone, with only an empty pot and a forlorn plastic label to remember her by.  Ahhh, l'amour!

My first La Boheme orchid is Macodes petola, a jewel of a jewel orchid:

Its veins are electric gold, looking like lightning close up:

Given good lighting, this species is nearly impossible to resist on a sales table at an orchid show or meeting.  It's small, it's cute, it's gorgeous, and it's usually not too expensive.  So I bought one, years ago.  I'd had ludisia discolor and other jewels, and thought I could handle Macodes.  I was wrong.  I forgot to water for a couple of days in summer, or maybe I was on vacation, I can't remember -- I can remember the collapsed stem, the dried up leaves, how quickly it went from jewel orchid to ex orchid.  So I bought another one.  And I neglected that one only slightly.  And it died, too.  And the next one, that I bought at the World Orchid Congress and looked so vital and alive when I brought it home.

My second La Boheme orchid is trichocentrum lanceanum, which in my informed-but-not-expert opinion is one of the most striking orchid species around.  First you've got those big, mule-ear shaped leaves (hence the common name for many trichocentrums is "mule ear orchids.") which are grey-green, spotted with purple.

Pictures don't usually do justice to the way the leaves look in person.  They do, however, show just how cool the flowers are, with a Mardi-Gras-worthy purple and gold color scheme and full, fat presentation.  Oh, they're fragrant, too.

Taken together, they form a graceful, harmonious whole that is not always present in orchid plants. 

There's only one problem.  It is very, very sensitive to how you water it.  In its Caribbean homelands it grows in pretty hot, exposed situations where it drenches and dries so quickly that watering by rainstorm works just fine.  But in the home you can easily rot out new growths by letting water sit inside developing leaves or letting the roots stay too wet during colder winter temps, and once it starts rotting, that's all she wrote.  Here's what my baby looks like now:

But don't cry for me, Argentina -- whoops, sorry, wrong musical reference -- but my point is that the death of these orchids wasn't high tragedy, or the price of love, or anything dramatic, I just hadn't learned to give them what they needed.

Macodes petola is a warm temp, high humidity plant from the steamy rainforests of Java, Malaysia and Borneo.  In urban apartment conditions it's very hard to keep both temperatures and humidity at Java levels, so it does best in a terrarium or similar enclosed environment, which is why you sometimes see it for sale at vivarium and reptile supply shops.  In particular, careless watering during the winter that spills drops inside the developing leaves is the kiss of death.  Next time, I'll be sure to water from the side of the pot and put it in my old Beta fish bowl for added humidity.

The trichocentrum?  If I try it again, which I probably will despite my past record, I'll probably put it in a hanging basket with a chunky mix, and never, ever water it past 3pm if the weather is not positively tropical.

And love may bloom again.

Monday, January 23, 2012

We're Back for 2012!

For those of you who have stumbled upon or googled your way to this blog, and wondered, where are the new posts?  Wonder no more, O ye teeming multitudes! (Or at least ye tiny handful)

I'm teaching a class at the New York Botanical Gardens this spring as part of their annual Orchid Show, and am also doing a talk or two for local orchid societies, and that means new topics!  The class is on orchids to grow under lower light conditions, and I've got one talk on mini Vandaeceous orchids, and another on the Dendrobiums of New Guinea.  I'm not going to give out too many details, mainly because I haven't written the scripts yet, but I'll be posting bits to test out, and would welcome any feedback, as well as suggestions on what you'd like to hear more about.

In the mean time, I'll fill in with some shorter posts related to the ups, and particularly the downs, of growing orchids in urban apartment conditions.  Next up, the La Boheme orchids:  the ones you're always dying to grow, but always end up dying on you despite your expressions of deepest amour.  Love!  Valour!  Crown rot!   Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dean Street Orchids is now The Dean Street Orchid Blog!

This should've happened a long time ago  . . . .

too many people saw the old title, assumed I was an orchid nursery, and contacted me to buy plants.  OK.  It was confusing, I should have known better, it's fixed.  Moving on!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Orchids can help you get a job!

No, really, it's true. Walk into an interview, and see what the prospective boss has growing in her or his window. If there's an orchid or two, mention casually that you grow orchids. If you're feeling really gutsy, you could bust out with something like, "Wow, what a great multi-floral phalaenopsis hybrid you've got there!" You may get asked a cultural question, or launch a whole discussion about how each of you got into the hobby, or favorite species, or where to buy good plants. It could be that extra connection that clinches the position for you. Hey, you never know.

Or it could be like my interview today, when I noticed a well grown ludisia discolor on the windowsill, and upon mentioning it to my interviewer, was told that the plants were the territory of his executive assistant and he was "not allowed to touch anything."

I'll let you know whether I get the job or not.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Touring the Latourias: An Overview of New Guinea Dendrobiums

Dendrobium is the second largest orchid genus after Bulbophyllum, with over a thousand species stretching from Australia to Northern India. The Latorias, aka the New Guinea Dendrobiums, are a small group of about 24 species, mainly from the warm, wet lowland areas of the island, although some species occur in the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and other nearby islands. They received their name from early orchid taxonomist C. Blume, who described D. spectabile in 1850 as a new genus Latourea, which is no longer recognized as separate from Dendrobium. I prefer the term “Latourias” to “New Guinea Dendrobiums” because, obviously, there are plenty of other Dendrobium species from New Guinea, many with completely different growth habits and cultural requirements, and not all of the Latourias are from New Guinea.

They are related to the Australian Dendrobiums of the Dendrocoryne section (speciosum, kingianum, etc.), but do not interbreed well with them, or with most other Dendrobiums either. They usually have long, club-shaped psuedobulbs with leaves on the top, and one or two flowering spikes coming out between the leaves. The flowers are usually white, yellow or green, often with purple spots. They’re not really huge, but they pack mass appeal when they reach mature size; multiple spikes per growth are not uncommon. Because of their remote habitats, very little was known about many Latourias until quite recently, when several species that had been ‘discovered’ early in the century and then pretty much forgotten were rediscovered and described in the 1970s and 80s. Hybridizing among the Latourias is likewise a recent phenomenon and still confined to just a couple of growers, mostly in Hawaii and Australia.

And yet there is every possibility that Latourias will join phal-type Dendrobiums as the most popular groups of the whole genus. Here’s why: they’re pretty easy to cultivate and flower, a bunch of them are minis or compact in habit, and in many cases their flowers can stay in perfect shape for 3 or more months! They flower quickly from seed, and are not seasonal in their flowering habit, so twice a year blooming is quite possible. Second generation hybrids are now coming onto the scene, promising even better flower colors and presentation on compact,fuss-free plants. You have to wonder why they remained little known for so long. One issue, as with so many new areas of breeding, is that not only were there few species in the hands of commercial growers, but the species and their breeding potential were not well known—and their relatively low fertility with other Dendrobiums made hybridizing look like a bad bet. Another is that Latouria species do have their bad points: their tall, narrow psuedobulbs make for ungainly plants that tip over if you breathe too hard on them, and the flowers can be hidden under the top leaves. These shortcomings are being addressed by both line-breeding of species and hybridizing.

As early as 1909, breeders were cross-ing Latourias with other Dendrobiums, but modern breeding within the section didn’t start until the 50’s and 60’s, with only a handful of hybrids registered by pioneering Australian grower Hermon Slade and a few others. Then in the late 80’s and 90’s, hybridizers began hitting their stride. Roy Tokunaga, the ‘R’ in H & R Orchids and one of the top Latouria breeders, relates that he and others saw the potential of Latourias as specimen plants, and started looking for species that could grow well in warmer climates and were not too tall and spindly, with good flower counts and presentation.

Latouria Species and Hybrids

Let’s look at the individual species and the magic they can make when crossed.

Possibly the most popular species for modern hybridizing is D. atroviolaceum; it’s compact, has nice purple-spotted white flowers that are large for the size of the plant, grows easily and can remain in bloom for up to six months. A pretty plant in its own right, it is the parent of a number of well-known hybrids such as Andree Millar, Roy Tokunaga and Wonder Nishii. Roy Tokunaga went one better and found a particularly dwarf clone of this species, ‘Pygmy’, and is remaking old
crosses with it to produce more compact plants, as well as new hybrids.

Next up is a charmer, D. aberrans, a true mini with pseudobulbs only a few inches tall. From the tips sprout little white flowers, blush pink around the labellum; they last and last and last—some claim up to 9 months! Its primary hybrids Maiden Charlotte and Mini Snowflake, are near-perfect windowsill orchids, being under 6” high, with clusters of long-lasting pretty white flowers that dance above the leaves.

D. alexanderae has red-spotted, twisted petals and a red-veined, dagger-shaped lip. It was once suspected of being a hybrid of D. spectabile, but is now considered a valid species. It is one of the taller-growing species in the section, but its size can be controlled in hybrids such as Green Elf and Spider Lily. It’s also fragrant, with a warm, honey-like scent that may be passed on to its progeny!

D. convolutum is the best known warm-growing, green-flowered species; many of the others come from high cloud forests and are more difficult to grow. It stands about a foot high, can flower any time during the year, and the flowers typically last 4-6 months. Growers use it to extend the flowering season and longevity in hybrids, although its green-to-chartreuse color combined with a wine-red lip is not everyone’s cup of tea. Combined with D. atroviolaceum it produces Andree Millar, and with D. aberrans makes Aussie’s Pixie. Other well-known hybrids include Gerald McCraith, Green Elf and Key Lime.

D. johnsoniae may be the most gorgeous Latouria: its large white flowers have upswept petals and tepals like wings, and red lines in the lip. These qualities have earned it awards as a straight species, unusual for a Latouria; it’s a parent of such distinguished hybrids as Roy Tokunaga and Stephen Batchelor. Its flowers also last for months and can occur in any season.

D. macrophyllum is very common in New Guinea and surrounding islands; its wide native habitat means it grows well in a variety of conditions. It’s one of the tallest, with psuedobulbs over 2 feet high. Like many Latourias, its flowers are covered with hairs on the backs of the petals and tepals. Flower count is up to 25 per spike, and its green-to-yellow flowers have a good size and shape. It was parent to many early Latouria hybrids, such as New Guinea, Nellie, and Caprice. It also appears to be more fertile with Dendrobiums from other sections, leading to interesting breeding possibilities.

D. rhodostictum is another compact gem similar to D. johnsoniae in size and looks: its white flowers have purple spots on the lip margins and are held above the foliage, they may have a light fragrance. Roy Tokunaga liked it so much he named one of its primary hybrids Nora Tokunaga after his wife; it’s also the other half of the popular Maiden Charlotte.

D. spectabile is weird. Really weird. Its flowers look like alien monsters, with bizarrely corkscrewed petals and sepals, yellow-green with heavy maroon spotting. It has a strong, sweet fragrance, rare in this group of species. It grows upwards of 2 feet tall, with spikes rising up above the leaves. As a parent, its twisted habit becomes more dramatic than grotesque in hybrids like Adara Nishii and Woodlawn. It appears to be growing more popular in the latest crop of hybrids, perhaps as growers look for something completely different.

One of the things that makes Latourias interesting to me is that their breeding potential has barely been tapped. The vast majority of registered hybrids are simple primary crosses, but more complex second generation hybrids are starting to show up. As with many orchids, a number of Latouria species show a lot of variation among seedlings, which growers like Roy Tokunaga are exploiting as they gain more experience with breeding and growing. Introducing parents from other sections has the potential to open up new colors, flower shapes and scents, much as the hot/cold Australian hybrids brought new shades and shapes to the tough, cool-growing Dendrocoryne species. The future is looking mighty bright for Latourias!


So, now how do you grow all these Latourias you’re about to buy? The basic conditions are warm, humid, and evenly moist: they don’t like daytime temperatures above the 80s or nighttime temps below the high 50s. They appreciate good humidity and air movement but tolerate dry air so long as they’re well watered. Watering well means keeping the medium moist but not soggy; new growths are particularly susceptible to rotting if water gets inside the unfolding leaves, so be very careful when watering from above. Mounted plants need a good soaking 3-5 times a week, depending on conditions. Weak fertilizing once every week or so is recommended. Latourias do best in bright but not full sun; I have found that Latourias will get leaf burn in a south-facing window without adequate shading at midday; a sunny east or west window should do fine. The smaller species and hybrids are particularly fine candidates for growing under lights. All need a fairly loose, well-draining mix, so that roots stay moist but are well aerated; baskets or clay pots are best. I’ve seen very dramatic mounted Latourias, but keeping them moist indoors is likely going to be a challenge. As always, small plants in small pots need more frequent watering then specimen-size orchids in large pots.

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!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Announcing The New York City Orchid Growers' Guide

A reader, Sarah Ruane, wrote to ask a really good question: where do those in the know go to get their orchid fix in the New York City area? When I started writing her back I thought, why not make it part of the blog? So here is the first edition of the New York City Orchid Growers' Guide, your one-stop site for all the spots in the metro area where you can see orchids, buy orchids (and orchid supplies) and learn more about orchids.

In Brooklyn, here are my top picks (hey, it's my home borough, so it has to go first!):

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: their selection is mostly phals and paphs, true, but 1. the plants are usually labelled, so you actually know what hybrid you're getting; 2. they frequently carry decent cattleya hybrids as well as oncidium intergenerics, and 3. prices aren't always cheap, but are usually marked down for orchids that are finished blooming. Plus, they have one of the best selections of orchid supplies (pots, baskets, hangers, potting mixes, etc.) in the city.

Liberty Sunset Garden Center: down in Red Hook near Fairway (and in the same warehouse as Steve's Key Lime Pies). They have a huge outdoor nursery, but also a big indoor space in the warehouse, complete with indoor waterfall. Their selection is very limited, it's probably a good idea to call ahead to find out what's around, but it's such a cool space in a dramatic location that it's worth a visit (Full disclosure: I worked for them 3 summers ago). Chelsea Garden Center has a branch a block away, and they usually stock some orchids inside their store.

Fort Hamilton Flower Market: a wholesale market at 3380 Ft. Hamilton Parkway with some retail stores, I've never been myself but I understand this is a big place for finding annuals and perennials that don't make it to the retail nurseries, so it might be worth checking to see if any of them carry orchids.

In Manhattan:

Union Square Greenmarket: During the summer and fall, one of the most respected New Jersey growers Silva Orchids) will be at the market every Wednesday and every other Saturday, starting 7/11. A good selection, mainly of hybrids but also some species, all in excellent shape. These guys are pros and are happy to talk to you about orchids and how to grow them, so please stop by and check them out! Some other plant dealers have orchids from time to time, mostly generic phals.

The 28th st. flower district on 6th ave. is smaller than it used to be; but reports of its demise have been exaggerated! There are a number of stores on the avenue and on 28th west of 6th, and on a recent visit seemed to be doing brisk business. Some carry a large stock of orchids, they're mainly selling wholesale, so what they have is 100 of the same kind of phal, 100 of the same kind of paph, etc., and retail prices aren't cheap, though the plants are blooming and very well-cared for. They have a wide variety of non-orchid houseplant also, for those with multiple interests.

Chinatown plant stores: Garden City Flower Arts at 222 Centre St. between Canal and Grand; they not only have phals and oncidiums, but asian cymbidum species and sometimes dendrobium and neofinettia cultivars. Really nice folks, the only catch is plants aren't usually labelled. Another store is Manhattan Florist at 87b Bayard between Mott and Mulberry; they're smaller and don't have as many orchids.

Plantworks on E. 4th st., and Plant Shed on W. 96th off Broadway, are two good indoor stores that will probably have orchids as well as unusual houseplants, but selection will likely be small.

If you're looking for a quick orchid fix, Trader Joe's has better quality plants than the big box stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, though you'll find mostly phals, phal-type dendrobiums, and the occasional oncidium type.


The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx always carries orchids, and they have some great classic Cattleya plants and unusual hybrids during their big Spring Orchid Show (I'll be doing a lecture on miniature orchids there this spring), but expect to pay premium prices; the garden store is perhaps slanted toward the more well-heeled visitors. ;>)

Wave Hill, also in the Bronx, is a smaller but beautiful public garden, I have seen a few orchids in their shop, but nothing you couldn't get elsewhere. I have not been to the Queens Botanical Garden yet (shame on me!) but I would guess they would stock some orchids as well.

Local Orchid Societies:

this may be the closest thing to the Big NYC Orchid Secret -- at most meetings, not only do you get a lecture/presentation from a grower, they usually bring plants for sale with them! We're talking the unusual and choice items that you usually have to mail order and pay $$$ for shipping. Plus, societies usually have a raffle table where orchids are raffled off, you can get some great plants for a few bucks. Their websites will announce topics ahead of time, so if the speaker is talking about,say, Australian terrestrial orchids, and that's not your thing, you can skip it. Of course, attending or joining an orchid society means admitting that you're an addict/otaku/geek (I joined the Manhattan Orchid Society a few years back, and now I'm on the board, go figure), but hey, there are worse addictions! Here's a slightly outdated list of societies and their websites:

NY Area Orchid Societies

Best Wishes for the New Year, and Happy Orchid Hunting!!