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Pointy-Petaled Beauties


Orchids for the Season

Maybe just because most of the hype for orchid shows and sales is in the spring and summer we don’t normally associate orchids with fall. In fact there are wonderful, easy-to-grow orchids for Southern California that bloom all year long.

Starting at the end of the alphabet is the genus Zygopetalum. Most of the selections available are hybrids of several species from Mexico and South America. All are wildly banded, spotted, or mottled in shades of white, yellow, lime green, brilliant purple, and maroon. They have five pointed petals (well, actually three are sepals) that radiate outward to form dazzling stars with a sixth wider one (most often of another color scheme) that forms a broad apron below. At least four and often more of these beauties bloom in succession on a slender stalk. Like many orchid species, these are supported by a pseudobulb topped with leathery green leaves. And like many orchid species, they are naturally epiphytic (living high in the canopy of forest trees, attached only by a few slender roots) so take to culture in pots filled with bark or another special orchid medium. Depending on the cultivar, there may be Zygopetalum flowers in abundance for several months starting now.

Also hitting its stride in late summer through fall are some charming little Oncidium cultivars. One of the most readily available new offerings is named Twinkle and is a cross between two of the smaller species (O. cheirophorum and O. ornithorhyncum). These delightful miniatures have short clumps of foliage topped by delicate, arching inflorescences. These branch freely and support hundreds of small pale yellow or white flowers with an intoxicating fragrance. Sometimes referred to as small dancing lady orchids, they are easy to grow in pots indoors or on a protected patio with dappled light.

Moth orchids in the genus Phalaenopsis are entirely sculptural. From their two or three broad leaves to their single arching flower spike, they create their own little dramas wherever you choose to display them. The flowers resemble moths in that two of their petals are broadly rounded and held stiffly to either side. While the third petal that has morphed into an insect-like central sculpture and the three surrounding sepals will be as brilliantly hued, these two steal their thunder by suggesting a winged creature just lighting for a moment in splendor. Most orchids have long-lasting blossoms and Phalaenopsis are no exception. You can count on weeks of pristine beauty as each flower opens in turn.

One Mexican genus of orchids has carved out a special place in many a novice grower’s heart and garden by its absolutely stunning floral displays coupled with cultural requirements that are laughably simple. Mount these orchids on a tree, a slab of bark, or a piece of driftwood and give them regular water through the dry months and they will reward you with effusive floral displays year after year. Sure, they’d like a little supplemental fertilizer, but they won’t sulk and refuse to bloom just because you forgot one time. Laelia flowers resemble the “classic” orchid flower used in corsages (those are usually from a closely related genus Cattleya) with a larger, frilly central petal rolled into a trumpet shape, attended by two more broadly elliptical ones. The sepals are narrow and form a star-like backdrop. The most famous species is Laelia anceps, and it has many forms and hybrids to sample. They range from the palest rosy lilac to magenta and lavender with pale white or yellow throats. Very showy.

One last genus to mention is Dendrobium. Many of the species are from tropical (read “hot”; read “humid”) zones and won’t do well outside here. Others, however, are from higher and cooler elevations and can grace our patios and gardens quite happily. A couple to consider are D. kingianum and D. densiflorum. D. kingianum and its cultivars form arching spikes of medium-size flowers in shades of white and pink. If the Phalaenopsis orchids look like moths, these look like little swallows swooping through the air. D. densiflorum has densely packed inflorescences (remember our little Latin lesson?) that also drape elegantly over the edge of a pot or tree branch (their natural habitat). They have yellow to golden central funnel-shaped petals surrounded by the usual contingent of sepals and petals in pale yellow to cream.

For advice and to purchase any or all of these garden specimens, Santa Barbara is blessed with two fabulous specialty nurseries. Visit Cal Orchid (calorchid.com) or check out the open house and sale on November 5 and 6 at the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate (sborchid.com for information).



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