Twisted Sisters


by Ken Slump

Posted by Sys Admin almost 3 years ago.

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Orchids with Extraordinary Petals

ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MOST orchid growers learn to appreciate quickly is the family’s seemingly endless diversity. I, like most, enjoy many kinds of orchids, but a personal favorite is a type that blatantly defies the general guidelines for orchid judging. Rather than following the full, round and flat dictum, these blossoms carry petals or segments that are narrow, long and twisted.

The characteristic is shared among several unrelated orchid genera and its evolutionary purpose is interesting to contemplate. Petals with a mesmerizing corkscrew habit were certainly not designed for human enjoyment, but more likely have significance for the orchids’ pollinators. Curiously, orchid examples exist with twisting floral segments that are carried up, down, or all around.

DENDROBIUMS  The antelope dendrobiums are aptly named. They often carry their twisted petals in a generally upright stance in a similar way to the horns of their grazing namesakes. More than 40 species with this trait compose Section Spatulata within the diverse Dendrobium genus. Their distribution range includes parts of Java and the Philippines, New Guinea, northern Australia and a few of the Pacific Islands. Antelope dendrobiums’ typical habitats are usually hot and humid, which helps explain why many of the species are infrequently cultivated. Also working against them is that many produce their inflorescences on towering plants that sport canes from 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) in length and sometimes longer.

One of the best looking flowers of this type is produced by Dendrobium stratiotes. Its canes typically reach about 3 feet (1 m) in length. The long lasting flowers have twisted vertical petals of yellow-green and a white lip that typically displays contrasting violet veining. It has been a popular parent of hybrids. Dendrobium Kalagas (Lili Marlene × stratiotes) is one that I have enjoyed in my own collection.

Happily, a more diminutive species of the antelope sort is found in Dendrobium canaliculatum, which comes from Australia. Although somewhat variable, most have white or pale yellow flowers with yellow tipped sepals and petals, and a lip with purple markings. Culturally they do best with plenty of light and require a fast-draining medium or slab culture. Among the popular hybrids from this species are Dendrobium Blue Twinkle (Betty Goto × canaliculatum) and Dendrobium Banana Royal (Liholiho × canaliculatum).

If you have the room and sufficiently warm, humid conditions, look for Dendrobium taurinum or Dendrobium lasianthera. Either may produce canes reaching 6 to 9 feet (2 to 3 m). Both produce dramatically different flowers with pink, rose and burgundy tones that many consider to be the most beautiful within the section.

SLIPPER ORCHIDS  For twisting down, look to the petals among some of the Asian slipper orchids. Paphiopedilum glanduliferum and Paphiopedilum parishii are examples of slipper species that usually produce flowers with some twisting to the petals, but the best example in the genus is likely Paphiopedilum philippinense. It has long been a favorite among growers and hybridizers. Like most of the multifloral paphiopedilums, it seems to thrive in intermediate to warm conditions with bright light and a moisture retentive growing medium.

Mirror examples are found among their New World counterparts in the slipper-orchid genus known as Phragmipedium. Spiraled petals can occur on nearly any of the species with long, linear petals, such as Phragmipedium longifolium and the more diminutive Phragmipedium pearcei. Yet, similar to the paphiopedilums, there is one phragmipedium with longer drooping curls than the others, the incomparable Phragmipedium caudatum.

Phragmipedium caudatum is a large species with rather stiff, upright foliage. The remarkable petals of the flowers often extend to a length of nearly two feet. The petals of some examples tend to be more wavy than spiraled. Flower color varies too, as some lean toward yellow or green, others more bronze to reddish-brown. The plants usually produce several flowers that open successively so they can be enjoyed over a long period. 

The species thrives in intermediate to warm conditions with bright light and abundant water. Phragmipedium Grande (longifolium × caudatum) is a hybrid that is equally impressive.

MORE CHOICES  Finally, for twisting all around, we look to the Central American species Trichopilia tortilis. It is arguably the most twisted of all, as both its sepals and petals curl in a corkscrew fashion.

One could perceive the general form of the fragrant flower as rather Cattleya like, based on its trumpet shaped lip. The showy blossom often spans nearly 5 inches (12.5 cm). The lip is usually white with a yellow throat that is spotted brown or red. The long, narrow and twisted floral segments, however, lend the flower an otherworldly appearance.  Their coloration is generally a creamy hue marginally with shades or blotches of pale to darker lavender, warm beige or sometimes a salmon hue extending along their length. The best examples typify subtle, but attractive, species orchid coloration at its best.

Despite appearances, the genus seems to be more closely related to Miltonia and other Oncidiinae than it is to Cattleya. Trichopilia tortilis forms a compact plant of generally easy culture in intermediate conditions. Good humidity, moderate light and average moisture requirements indicate that it should be a suitable candidate for many collections, but it remains somewhat uncommon.

Orchid growers with collections of high quality flowers of exceptional form can sometimes be left feeling a little flat. The easiest solution is to incorporate some orchid flowers with a twist.

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