Wire Baskets and Mounts Allow These New World Orchids to Flower Naturally
SOME THINGS IN LIFE ARE VALUED because they are fleeting; others are treasured because they are like nothing else. Stanhopea orchids are guilty on both counts. They are truly one of the most bizarrely beautiful, if short-lived, flowers. However, what these orchids lack in flower longevity, they amply compensate for in other ways. The New World genus, called el toro (the bull) in Mexico, includes at least 60 species that were named in honor of an early 19th century Englishman, the Right Honorable Philip Henry, Fourth Earl of Stanhope.
I’ve admired the unique blossom of Stanhopea (its botanical as well as common name) since the first time I saw it nearly 25 years ago. When I began to grow orchids years later, three species of the large plants were among my first acquisitions. They are reputedly rather easy to grow if you can meet their cultural needs (a simplistic statement that surely applies to most every type of plant).
HOW TO GROW A peculiarity of stanhopea is that the inflorescence develops at the base of the pseudo-bulb and typically grows downward through litter and debris accumulated in its tree-crotch or rock-crevice habitat. If you grow stanhopea in a pot, the flower buds will usually seek their way into the growing medium, never to see the light of day. The most satisfactory way to grow them is mounted, so that emerging flowers are not impeded, or in orchid baskets, where the flower spikes can find their way through the slats or wire.
Most of the genus benefits from temperatures of 80 to 85 F (27 to 29 C) during the day and 60 to 65 F (16 to 18 C) at night, and bright, indirect light — mine seem happy near the phal-aenopsis. They do need a rather humid environment, and the growing medium must not get too dry.
For a couple of years, I grew my three young stanhopea plants in wooden baskets lined with long-fiber sphagnum moss. I filled the basket with a typical orchid bark mix. Later, I read a warning in Rebecca Northen’s Home Orchid Growing that she discovered undeveloped flower stems blocked by the slats of wooden orchid baskets, so she recommended wire baskets with at least 1½-inch (3.8-cm) spacing. I moved my plants to 12-inch (30-cm) diameter wire baskets, lined them with long-fiber sphagnum moss and filled them with a coconut husk chip mix.
THE FIRST FLOWERING I’ll never forget my excitement when I saw the first flower spike emerge from one of the young plants, Stanhopea embreei, early in spring about a year later. For the record, it grew laterally out the side of the basket, rather than straight down. I began to eagerly anticipate my first stanhopea flowering.
The inflorescence seemed to take an eternity to mature. During its development, I convinced myself that the pendulous buds were undersized or were going to shrivel and drop at any moment. They grew slowly, and had not opened by the end of April when I was scheduled to travel to the 16th World Orchid Conference in Vancouver. I was quite certain that my house sitter would be the one to witness them, so I asked her to photograph them for me.
Upon my return from Canada, I was pleased to find that the two buds were still developing and had grown to the size of small hen’s eggs. I began to hope that they might be in flower for the show-and-tell table at our May orchid society meeting, but that was not to be. The May meeting of the orchid society came and went without stanhopea flowers.
During a morning orchid inspection a few days after the meeting, I finally noticed the seams of the stanhopea sepals beginning to part. It is written that stanhopea blossoms open quite rapidly, often with an audible “click.” I pulled up a seat and decided to spend a bit of time observing the process.
Open rapidly they did. It was amazing to see the inflorescence shudder as the sepals popped open. I did not hear any noise, but the fans in my growing area are loud. The lateral sepals quickly stretched vertically, the petals rapidly curled over the dorsal sepal, which positioned itself at a near 90-degree angle to the axis of the flower. The remarkable lips of the blossoms are sort of hooded and horned. They defy description. The two flowers opened before my eyes, almost simultaneously, in about an hour’s time.
Stanhopea flowers are not brightly colored, but the creamy-white flowers of Stan. embreei are among the showier ones, with tiny spots of maroon over the sepals and petals and some bright yellow on the lip. I had been told that most stanhopea flowers last only two or three days.
Flowers of such brief duration must attract pollinators quickly. Stanhopea flowers accomplish this by producing a strong, intoxicating fragrance. My Stan. embreei soon filled the sunroom with a heady scent that was to me an astringent blend of vanilla and pine.
The flowers, as promised, only lasted three days, but they were well worth the wait. I recommend every grower have the experience of flowering one. If genetic engineering eventually enables us to create stanhopea orchids with flowers that last for weeks, or even months, they certainly will not be any more interesting to observe, and perhaps losing that ephemeral quality will, in fact, take away a bit of what makes them special.
When I reduced my orchid collection a couple of years ago to a number I could transport back and forth between Colorado and Florida (a work that is still in progress), I determined that I could keep only one of the three sizeable stanhopea plants. The one I chose was Stanhopea nigroviolacea.
Any of the species and their hybrids make a worthwhile addition to an orchid collection. Some produce flowers in pairs, others have clusters of several to many blossoms. While the plants, when out of flower, are attractive, you’ll want to keep a chilled bottle of champagne (or ginger ale) on hand and invite some friends in to celebrate their wonderful, if brief, floral display.