Form Conspires with Color To Impart Intrigue to Orchid Flowers
WHILE MANY TYPES OF ORCHIDS are appreciated for cheerfully full round flower shapes, some orchid blossoms express the opposite point of view. Certain orchid flowers have such narrow pointed floral segments that have a spidery appearance. Others are constructed or colored in ways that make them appear almost predatory.
When it comes to arachnid orchid shapes, you cannot top Brassia, a genus whose species and hybrids are popularly called spider orchids. Brassia includes about 30 species from the tropical Americas that are of generally easy culture.
The spider moniker comes from their long pointed sepals and petals, which in some examples can extend more than 12 inches (30 cm) from top to bottom. The petals are usually shorter than the dorsal sepal and often resemble arms reaching skyward. These are not creepy-crawly spiders. On the contrary, they demonstrate an upbeat posture.
Brassia verrucosa has flowers that are typical for the genus. The species contributes to the pedigree of the awarded Brassia Spider’s Feast (Chieftain × verrucosa) and Brassia Spider’s Gold (Arania Verde × arcuigera). If you appreciate the diversity of orchid flowers you are certain to enjoy the exuberance of a well-grown Brassia when in bloom. Few orchid flowers appear more animated.
A more threatening pose is as-sumed by the blossoms of Brassavola cucullata. Its long and often twisted sepals and petals typically hang menacingly downward. The lip has a long slender lobe at its tip that also resembles an appendage. It does not take much imagination to see the column as the head of a ghostly spidery creature. There are certainly other Brassavola species and hybrids that have narrow segments that lend the flowers a spidery look, but B. cucullata does it best.
There are Bulbophyllum species and hybrids that are hauntingly handsome too. Bulbophyllum medusae, a species named after Medusa, one of the snaky-haired monsters known as Gorgons in Greek mythology, is unique. The distinctive inflorescence of this Asian species consists of many flowers borne in tuft-like umbels. The tentaclelike segments are reminiscent of a sea anemone or perhaps better, a floating jellyfish.
A close relative of Bulbophyllum is the hybrid Cirrhopetalum (syn. Bulbophyllum) Elizabeth Ann (longis-simum × rothschildianum). It also sports a remarkable inflorescence of blossoms that combine to impart a tentacled predatory appearance as well. This hybrid is quite easy to grow into an impressive specimen plant.
When I study the flowers of Prosthechea (syn. Encyclia) coch-leata, a squid or octopus comes to mind. This is another easy-to-grow orchid with an odd, yet appealing blossom. It can flower at almost any time of year and stays in bloom for long periods. It is often called the cockleshell orchid after the appearance of its lip.
No list of orchids-for-the-season would be complete without mention of the species and hybrids of the genus Dracula. The genus is closely allied to Masdevallia and contains about 90 species. As a general rule, they require moist, cool, shady conditions. Many are rather easy keepers if conditions are right and produce comparatively large colorful flowers.
While Dracula specimens are not perhaps as threatening as their name implies, some are certainly sinister and a bit hypnotic when viewed up close. This is particularly true of those with darker shadings and tones.
There are orchids, however, that do appear as though they are preparing to take a bite of you. Pescatoria (syn. Bollea) coelestis and its cousin Pescatoria cerina are but two that often look as though they have their mouths wide open ready to strike.
These species come from different parts of Central America but have rather similar growing requirements. They do best with a growing medium that does not completely dry and high humidity, lower light levels, and somewhat cooler temperatures.
There is also a voracious quality to the style of many Stanhopea flowers. This can be particularly evident when they are viewed from below. Some species have blossoms that resemble raptors in flight; others look more like the heads of prehistoric carnivores.
The genus includes about two dozen species that range throughout the American tropics. Most thrive in high humidity and moderate shade. Because their inflorescences grow down or sideways from the pseudo-bulbs, they must be grown in open baskets that will allow the flowers to emerge. Stanhopea nigroviolacea (syn. tigrina var. nigroviolacea) is among the most dramatic.
For me, one of the most hauntingly beautiful orchids is Phragmipedium caudatum. Its arching and drooping dorsal sepal and complementary synsepal combine to give the flower a cowled appearance. The long sinuous petals add a sinister touch and many examples have a bewitching coloration and patterning. This Central American species was first described in 1840.
Like most phragmipediums, it needs intermediate temperatures. As they lack water-storage organs, these plants must be kept fairly moist. Some growers even set their pots in trays of standing water when in active growth. Moderate light levels seem best.
We must include the ghost orchid — Dendrophylax (syn. Polyradicion, Polyrrhiza) lindenii — in this dis-cussion, although few will have had much experience with it. It is a small, leafless epiphyte that is distributed from South Florida through Cuba. I recently kept a young mounted specimen alive for a couple of years, but lost it when I left it to its own devices in Florida last summer.
Dendrophylax (syn. Polyrrhiza, Polyradicion) lindenii sports a remarkable little blossom that is rather star-shaped with a lip that some liken to a frog. Although white, the flower is hard to spot in the shady swamps where it thrives. I hope I have the opportunity to see one in flower someday.
Another orchid whose flowers offer a somewhat ghostly apparition is Trichopilia fragrans. When viewed from the front, each white flower appears to be mostly lip with narrow sepals and petals forming drooping appendages about it. This is another Central American species that grows in intermediate conditions. These plants need a well-drained growing medium, yet need abundant moisture throughout the year.
As your orchid collection expands, seek out some plants with particularly unusual flower forms or shapes. Growing them may not be as scary as you think.