Cattleya Culture - Part 5


The following article first appeared in the American Orchid Society BULLETIN Volume 52, Number 7, July 1983 as the last part of a five-part series. While now over 25 years old it still remains an excellent source of infomation. It has been edited to conform to modern nomenclature.

THE SUBJECT OF HOUSING for cattleyas, especially its historical development, really warrants an entire article. From the earliest "stoves" of England where the plants were smothered in sweltering heat and humidity, to today's energy-efficient greenhouses that do everything for you except enjoy the flowers, cattleya accommodations have taken many and varied forms.

The earliest American greenhouses copied the English design. Insofar as the northeastern United States is similar in climate to England, this was a satisfactory solution. These earliest houses were typically long and narrow with relatively low-pitched roofs. The side- and end-walls were of block construction to at least a height of 4 feet, often to the eaves. The roof and side-walls above the block were glass. Top vents may or may not have been used, but bottom vents were usually present. Heating was by under-bench pipes fed by a steam boiler. Shade was supplied by roller blinds suspended above the glass. These blinds were quite practical, as they could be raised and lowered quickly to take maximum advantage of the often scarce sun.

As orchid growing moved west and south, it was found that lighter and airier greenhouses could be utilized. Because the burden of snow needn't be borne in more temperate areas, structures could be built using light-weight materials. Glass was extended to the ground to maximize light factors. This was possible as heating was not as great a problem. With the lighter materials, longer, wider and taller structures were possible. While outrageously large and complex conservatory-type glasshouses have been around for years (the Palmengarten, Kew Gardens, and New York's Enid A. Haupt Conservatory are good examples), perhaps the best commercial examples of large greenhouses were built by Lord & Burnham. These majestic, steel and glass structures paralleled American industrial progress, and were fine examples of 20th-century American functional architecture.

Hobbyist greenhouses have typically followed commercial structures for their form. English greenhouses in the mid-1800's were smaller copies of the often elaborate Victorian conservatories. Many of the "hobbyist" greenhouses of the period had an almost baroque appearance from the elaborate ironwork that supported the many, relatively small panes of glass. As the orchid growing fever spread to the less-advantaged masses, newer and lighter-weight methods of construction helped to keep initial costs down. With the dramatic rise in both energy and material costs of the last 10 to 15 years, hobbyists are turning less and less to older commercial structures for examples to follow. Because smaller hobbyist growers can more easily afford to rebuild and/or experiment with greenhouse engineering than can larger commercial growers, today we see the amateur taking the lead in new and efficient greenhouse design. The AMERICAN ORCHID SOCIETY BULLETIN has been a valuable showcase for many of these projects.

What does one need to look for in a greenhouse? A description of the "ideal greenhouse" will give us an idea. This greenhouse is longer than it is wide, with the long axis running north-south. There are no large trees or buildings nearby to obstruct the sun. It is relatively high, around 12 feet at the peak, and constructed out of wood or steel with glass glazing. The glass or fiberglass should extend to ground level. Shade is provided by saran suspended above the glass or by roller blinds. Under-bench pipes supplied with hot water or steam provide the heat. Benching is heavy-wire mesh or wood slating and is designed to allow easy access to all corners. (If you can't reach it, you won't take care of it!) Gravel or crushed rock covers the floors, helping to conserve both humidity and heat as well as keeping shoes from getting muddy. Ventilation is best provided by a ridge vent, and by bottom vents in addition, if at all possible.

Rlc. Horizon Flight 'Happy Landing', JC/AOS; Grower: Fordyce Orchids

Rlc. Horizon Flight 'Fancy Free', AM/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston

Rlc. Horizon Flight 'Fiery Rainbow', HCC/AOS; Grower: Stewart Orchids

This "ideal greenhouse" is best suited for mild climates. In warmer areas, a simple shade house of saran or lath is often preferred. Glass or fiberglass may be necessary to protect the plants and flowers from the elements. In cold areas, the house can be lower and the glass need only extend to bench level. This will help to conserve heat by reducing radiating glass area. Many other measures can be taken in cold areas to reduce heat loss. These include caulking seams, double-glazing, berming, and passive heat-storage methods.

Of course, not everyone can afford the money or space for a greenhouse. With the modern trend toward smaller-growing hybrids, it is becoming increasingly easy for the windowsill and under-lights growers to enjoy cattleyas. A bright east or west exposure, or a lightly shaded south exposure work best for cattleyas. Plants grown in the home will really enjoy being summered out-of-doors if conditions permit.

C. Beaufort 'Claire', AM/AOS; Grower: South River

The smaller Cattleya alliance hybrids available today in increasing numbers have many advantages for home orchid growers. That they occupy less space goes without saying. Their more compact growth habit allows them to more easily receive sufficient light without burning, always a problem with standard-size hybrids. Because the dwarf Laelia, Sophronitis and other species that go into these types are generally more tolerant of a wide range of conditions, their hybrids also tend to be more tolerant. Many will endure both cooler and warmer conditions than their larger cousins. Another advantage is that the smaller types as a whole tend to be more prolific in the production of new growths. There are few sweeter things in the "Orchid World" than a 4-inch pot filled with a brightly flowered, dwarf Cattleya hybrid!

Ctt. Orglade's Early Harvest 'Lenette #2', AM/AOS; Grower: Lenette Greenhouse

As another of my hobbies is cooking, cookbook titles that relate to the various articles of this series have gone through my mind. For example, "I Hate to Pot Cattleyas" would have been a good title for the article on potting. This article would probably be best titled "The Joy of Cattleyas". After all, why do we grow the darn things anyway? Sure, some are a challenge to grow; and it is certainly challenging to grow any of them really well. However, I doubt that anyone would grow cattleyas for the foliage alone. It's those flowers!

Before discussing the aspects of what to look for in a cattleya flower and the plant that produces it, some hints on how best to flower cattleyas are in order. First and foremost, one needs to grow the plant to its maximum potential. Obviously, a less-than-well-grown plant cannot produce flowers that demonstrate full potential. The first four articles of this series should help you to grow better plants.

C. Amber Glow 'Magnificent', AM/AOS; Grower: Kensington Orchids

There are a few "grooming" (not a safe word to use around A.O.S. judges!) tips that can greatly enhance the display of flowers. While it must be admitted that there definitely are techniques to make a flower better than it really is, for judging purposes, these are clearly illegal, immoral and unethical. We will not discuss these techniques here. Helping a plant to display its flowers properly is not prohibited, however. We find that plants positioned so that their leads face toward the maximum light (usually south) have less trouble with new growths and/or flower buds becoming trapped under foliage. Since spikes naturally tend to orient toward the maximum light, this allows them to grow straight and tall with the buds well-spaced and separated. Unless a plant has been earmarked for specimen culture, where good light is needed all around the plant, it is a good idea to place the plant facing south or the maximum light, and to leave it. If it must be moved, mark the pot so that it may be kept in the same basic orientation when it is put back.

C. William Farrell 'Bernice', HCC/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photographer: R. Clark

If the flower spike requires staking, do it progressively as the stem elongates. Waiting until the stem is already bent or crooked usually renders the project impossible. Once the flower stems begin to grow, do not move or rotate the pot just to watch the buds. Rotate the pot only if the buds are trapped under foliage. If a plant should be unnecessarily moved at this stage, the flower stem will tend to grow toward the new direction of the light source, giving it an unnatural twist. The plant should be left in its flowering area until the flowers are fully ripe before being moved. Only in this way will they mature fully and properly.

When misting or watering, try to keep water off buds and blooms, as it may spot or bruise them. Any sort of chemical spray or dust should be avoided for the same reason. Flower buds are very tender and great care must be exercised not to bruise or damage them. What may seem an insignificant nick on a young bud will grow many times larger as the bud expands into a mature flower. Flower stems are also quite brittle as they grow and are all too easy to snap. Many an enthusiastic grower has had to wait another year to see that promising seedling flower because he was careless in examining his "baby".

C. Peters Creek 'Superb'; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photo: John Royston

Again, we see that proper observational habits and (un)common sense are the answers to many of the flowering "problems" that might arise. Well, how do we avoid the other type of flowering problems? The poor, weakly colored, shapeless blooms? The blooms that won't appear? The flowers that are crippled and streaked two blooming out of three? The flowers that only appear on enormous plants not justified by the flower quality? The flowers that last only a few days before folding?

At the outset, it needs to be understood that a bad orchid requires just as much time, effort and money to grow as a good one. This has two important ramifications. First, with energy at such a premium today, you simply cannot afford to grow plants that do not perform satisfactorily. Second, your time is worth something. Why waste it growing an inferior clone when you can grow a superior one just as easily? After all, you have spent time reading this series to learn how to grow your plants better. It only makes sense to study hybrid lines and growth habits so that your purchases may be more intelligently and, hopefully, successfully planned.

C. Ruth Gee 'Goldkist', AM/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston

It is the responsibility of growers and hybridizers to provide plants that not only have attractive flowers, but good growth habits as well. How the plant itself grows is an often-overlooked facet of a "good orchid". There has been increasing emphasis on "dwarf hybrids, as well as those with a more compact growth habit. While this is laudable indeed, especially insofar as these hybrids are generally quite brightly colored, there are clouds to go with the silver lining. Many of the species being utilized to "miniature" hybrids are not orchids that fit into the "easy-to-grow" category. The rupicolous laelias [now considered to be members of a greatly expanded genus Cattleya] can be especially intractable. Fortunately, the other parent, if properly chosen, in combination with the miniature species can help to mitigate the poor growing habit.

C. Starting Point 'Unique', AM/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston

When we evaluate a plant's growth habit, whether dwarf or standard, we look for several things. A relatively compact and freely branching habit is essential. Pseudobulbs and rhizome should be in proportion to the general size category of the hybrid. A 2-inch pseudobulb size is no good at all if the rhizome measures 2 inches between pseudobulbs and doesn't branch. We also look for plants that are easy to grow. If we find that a particular hybrid grex or clone is "twitchy" about when it is potted, or otherwise, we are very leery about using it/them for further breeding. Of course, a fabulous flower does tend to interfere with one's better judgment. In cases such as this, we mate the difficult grower with one we know from experience is dominant for "growability". Lastly, does the plant flower easily from every pseudobulb, or is it a hit-or-miss bloomer? Productivity is obviously an important factor, as the world's best cattleya is no good if it won't flower.

C. Starting Point 'Blaze'; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photographer: John Royston

What else can you look for in a hybrid besides flower quality? Vigor is an important asset to a hybrid grex. Breeders of experience know that there are clones that are dominant for their vigorous growth habit. Vigor is expressed not only in how the mature plants grow, but at the seedling stage as well. Many of the smaller-growing hybrids will bloom one to two years sooner than their standard-size cousins, but there are wonderful exceptions to this. Guaritonia (Cattleytonia) Why Not 'Upstart', AM/AOS (Guarianthe (C.) aurantiaca X Broughtonia sanguinea) bloomed less than four years from the pollination date! About the third clone to bloom, it is still clearly the best of the hundreds we have seen. Rhyncatlaelia (Potinara) Coastal Joy (Laelia anceps X Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Potinara) Metal Creek) first bloomed 27 months from pollination! Approximately 20% of the seedlings of Rhyncattleanthe (Potinara) Lemon Buttons (Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Potinara) Lemon Tree X Rhyncattleanth (Blc.) Bouton D'Or) have bloomed within five years of the December 1977 pollination date.

C. Irene Holguin AQ/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston

Overall quality of a particular hybrid grex is a seldom-discussed topic. Many breeders are quick to brag about that one fabulous clone that appeared in their cross, but how many will own up to the many dogs that were produced from the same seedpod? Granted, hybrid seedlings are a gamble, and there are always those not worth the mix in which they are planted. The trick, nevertheless, is to minimize the gamble. Breeders who have worked with their plants for many years know the plants' backgrounds and breeding traits. This is why it makes sense not only to buy from experienced growers, but to acquire a basic knowledge of hybrid lines as well. Studying orchid company catalogs and the A.O.S. Awards Quarterly [the Awards Quarterly is no longer in print and has been replaced by the electronic version AQPlus] are two good ways to do this. Studying the awards records can be especially valuable in learning of "hot new crosses". If a particular hybrid has garnered several (or more) awards recently, seedlings of that cross are probably a good investment. That most uncommon of A.O.S. awards, the Award of Quality shows high uniform quality of a grex in two important ways. First, the award is given to 12 or more different clones of the hybrid with award- or near award-quality flowers. It also demonstrates a degree of uniformity that allows 12 or more clones to be in flower for a judging session. We have been fortunate to have been able to show several grexes of this nature recently, including Guaritonia Why Not, AQ/AOS, Cattleya (Laeliocattleya) Susan Holguin and Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Potinara) William Farrell.

C. Peggy O'Neill 'Grand Lady'; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photogapher: Tina Lin

It is wise to remember that many of the top parents have never been exhibited, nor have some of the most interesting progeny. An excellent example of this is our recent hybrid Cattleya (Sophrolaeliocattleya) Our Joy (Salsa X Kevin Green). Neither of the parents have ever been shown, although Cattleya (Laeliocattleya) Kevin Green is our best splash-petal breeder. Sometimes you will just have to take the hybridizer's word that although a particular hybrid is speculative, it has potential. A similar case is where so few seedlings are produced that they are never publicly released. We obtained fewer than 75 seedlings of Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Brassolaeliocattleya) Horizon Flight (Rlc. (Blc.) Buttercup X C. intermedia) and have released none prior to blooming. Although only one clone has received an AM/AOS to date, none of the others have been exhibited for judging. We have kept about one-third of the twenty or so clones we have flowered for future mericlone release.

C. Canyonlands 'Monument'; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photographer: Leo Holguin

Generalities and exceptions aside, how do we select hybrid seedlings for purchase and growing on? A perusal of the A.O.S. Handbook on Judging and Exhibition [no longer in print version but available as a feature included in a subscription to AQPlus] is a good starting point, as it defines what A.O.S. judges, at least, look for in a flower. Cattleya flowers are basically of the round type, although this is tempered somewhat by type and breeding. Fullness of the flower parts enhances the round form. Traditionally, large size was thought to also add to a round, full conformation. Judges have had to learn to modify this view with the exhibition of such clones as Cattleya (Sophrocattleya) Beaufort 'Claire', AM/AOS (coccinea x luteola) and Cattleya (Sophrolaeliocattleya) Yellow Doll 'Mini Sun', HCC/AOS (luteola x Psyche). Both of these show excellent background for further breeding, although C. (Sc.) Beaufort 'Claire' is somewhat reluctant to produce seed.

C. Susan Holguin 'Bewitched', HCC/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photographer: Richard Clark

Both of the above, as well as Cattleya (Laeliocattleya) Amber Glow 'Magnificent', AM/AOS (Derna x Anne Walker) and Cattleya (Sopholaeliocattleya) Marie Barnes 'Autumn Glow' (Helen Veliz X Orange Gem), illustrate another facet of a "good cattleya"; clear, brilliant color. Pastel colors, if not muddy or weak, are equally acceptable. Type and breeding play an important role here, too. For example, pinks of the standard of Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Brassolaeliocattleya) Peggy O'Neill 'Grand Lady' (Rlc. (Blc.) Elizabeth Hearn X C. Lynn Spencer) and Rhncholaeliocattleya (Brassocattleya) Rolling Thunder 'El Toro' (Rlc. (Bc.) Chesty Puller X C. Old Whitey) are still rare. Pink hybrids generally produce a relatively low percentage of quality clones. It is important here to stick with proven parents.

Even clones with proven breeding behind them can produce surprises. Cattleya (Laeliocattleya) Starting Point 'Unique', AM/AOS (Persepolis X Ahmad Sheikhi) is just about what you would expect from proven tetraploid parents. However, C. Starting Point 'Blaze' is quite another matter. After recovering from our shock and excitement, we realized that both parents of C. Starting Point had Cattleya Kittiwake 'Brilliance' as one of their parents. Other line-bred Cattleya Kittiwake hybrids had occasionally shown these "chip flares". "Aha!", we said, "A new avenue to shapely, non-deforming splash-petal types." Thus does observation play an important role in hybridizing.

C. Casitas Spring 'Big Boy', HCC/AOS; Grower: Armacost & Royston, Photographer: R. Clark

Improvement in already existing lines can prove more elusive. Here the breeder must carefully analyze the entire aspect of his subject. For instance, winter-flowering white cattleyas have reached what might be called a "plateau of perfection". However, a full, golden lip as in Cattleya Ruth Gee 'Goldkist', AM/AOS (Old Whitey X Esbetts) is certainly a welcome addition to "perfection"! The influence of Cattleya mossiae var. wageneri, a spring-flowering white species, has been felt through many generations of spring-flowering white hybrids in their poor form and weak substance. With selective breeding, we have obtained such shapely, rock-hard clones as Cattleya Peters Creek 'Superb' (White Chalet X Lynn Spencer) with which to breed on. Poor stem length and flower separation are perhaps the weakest points of spring-flowering, day-neutral whites. These are being gradually bred out.

Spring-flowering purples reached a pinnacle in the late sixties with the grex Cattleya Irene Holguin, AQ/AOS (Astral Beauty X J.A. Carbone). Indeed, lavender cattleya flowers of high quality are often called "Irene's" on the Los Angeles market: "When are we getting some more of those Irene's down here?" We feel that Cattleya Susan Holguin (Lc. Jose Dias Castro X C. J.A. Carbone) represents a real improvement in this type. The plants are equally free-branching, but the Cattleya Jose Dias Castro parent has cut pseudobulb size almost in half. The flowers of Cattleya Susan Holguin are slightly smaller overall, but have equally good form and much richer color. We have also flowered some more unusual types of spring-flowering lavenders. Cattleya Canyonlands 'Monument' (Mossy Beauty X Marti Lind) is as massive and full as any fall-flowering hybrid.  Cattleya Casitas Spring 'Soft Touch' (Irene Finney X J.A. Carbone) with its lovely, soft, very pale pink color may pave the way to spring-blooming pinks.  Cattleya Casitas Spring 'Big Boy', HCC/AOS, with its darker coloring but equally good form, is more typical of the cross.

In sum, cattleyas, though oft-scorned, are still the most popular of all orchids. An amazing array of colors, forms, sizes and flowering seasons adds up to a truly versatile group of plants. Outstanding cultivars are more easily and cheaply obtained than at any time in history. What will the future hold for cattleyas? You, the hobbyists, and we, the commercial growers, are even now working together to create and establish new types as popular and viable. Here's to tomorrow's exciting cattleyas! Armacost & Royston, P.O. Box 385, Carpinteria, California 93013.