Orchids for Beginners and Tips for Starting an Orchid Collection

Here we introduce some orchids for beginners, and others that are suitable for hot greenhouses, and give hints on buying and starting a collection. We will then be going on to cover aspects of cultivation.

When a potential orchid-grower takes a look round at the range of orchids offered by orchid nurseries it is all too easy to become bewildered by the sheer number of plants available, all with completely different descriptions. It is therefore advisable to visit an orchid nursery and make a first choice with expert assistance. If an orchid nursery is not within easy reach, order direct from one that offers beginners’ collections, or visit one or two of the many orchid shows held throughout the country. Chelsea Flower Show is a good place to start as it always has a large section devoted to orchids. In addition there are many reliable books available, with illustrations to help the beginner understand the long lists of names quoted in catalogues.

Orchids for beginners

Hybridization has created easily-grown orchids of great variety and beauty.


The most widely grown orchid plants are the cymbidium hybrids. The blooms are used extensively for cut flowers, and they can often be seen in florists’ shop windows. These are quite large-growing plants, with pseudo-bulbs and long, narrow leaves. Their flowering season extends throughout the winter and spring months. The flower spikes are produced from the base of the leading bulb during the summer, and grow steadily until they reach a height of 90cm-1.2m (3-4 ft). They can carry an average of 12 large, colourful blooms that will last in perfection for a good ten weeks. These long-lasting qualities, together with their ease of flowering, make this group the most popular in cultivation today. The colours found among the cymbidiums range from pure white, through many delicate shades of pink and yellow, to the stronger reds, bronzes and greens, all with contrasting-coloured lips. Where room permits a large collection of these gives a wonderful show of colour for nine months of the year.

Cymbidiums have all been hybridized from a mere handful of original wild species coming mostly from India and Burma. From the earliest days of hybridization, new varieties have always created a good deal of excitement and as generation after generation of hybrids have been bred so the size, shape and colour of the plants has become larger, rounder and more exotic. One specialized line of breeding has produced cymbidiums in miniature form, the plants and flowers being half the size of the standards. These varieties are often more acceptable for the smaller greenhouse. Today the species are seldom seen in collections, the hybrids having surpassed them in every way, and the latest always being the most eagerly sought after.


Next to the cymbidiums, and second in line for popularity are the beautiful odontoglossums and their allies. Like the cymbidiums, the odontoglossums have been interbred for many generations and will cross-pollinate with several closely-related genera. These crossings have given the odontoglossums added colour and new shapes, and they and their allies now cover a very wide range of different types. Many `meristem’ plants (that is, those propagated by a particular method) are available, in every colour of the rainbow, with an endless array of intricate patterns and markings on the petals and lip.

The odontoglossums are smaller-growing than the cymbidiums and are bulbous, with less foliage. They are continuous-growing, with their flowering season spread throughout the year. The plants will bloom upon completion of their bulbs, that is approximately every nine months, but they do not always produce their flowers at the same time each year. The blooms will last for eight to ten weeks, depending on the time of year: not quite so long during the summer as the winter.

The original odontoglossum species are high altitude plants, growing at great heights in the Andes. In some cases they grow almost on the snow-line, at heights of up to 1800m (6000 ft). At this altitude they are subjected to nightly frosts that do them no harm. Therefore they like very cool conditions under cultivation, and if a greenhouse becomes overheated during the summer, they will do better if placed outdoors in a suitably shady position.


cattleya saskelliana from VenezuelaWhere slightly warmer conditions are available, you can try the large, glossy ‘chocolate box’ cattleyas. Here again we have a large group of plants, highly bred and intercrossed with their closest relatives. The largest and most flamboyant are the result of careful, selected breeding. Their huge blooms, up to six at a time, have a colour range from pure white, through many shades of yellow, to pink and rich mauve. Mostly the lip is large, rounded and much frilled around the edges.

Although considered a little too large for today’s cut-flower requirements, they are the most exotic of plants to grow for pleasure. The blooms will last approximately two to three weeks and they flower in either spring or autumn. Often, a well-grown plant can be encouraged to bloom twice in one year. The best types available are often meristem plants.

The cattleyas and their allies are bulbous, their bulbs being long and club- shaped. One, or sometimes two, thick leaves are carried by each of the bulbs, which flower from their tips. The young buds are protected by a sheath, through which they grow to eventual flowering.

`Slipper’ orchids

The well-known ‘slipper’ orchids include yet another large and varied group of orchids that differ from all other forms by their pouch-like lip. These plants are generally modest in size, without pseudo-bulbs, and produce a number of lateral growths. The species is usually found growing on grasslands, or on rocky outcrops with very little soil, the roots keeping just beneath the humus. The foliage can be plain green in colour, or mottled and marbled in attractive patterns. The undersides of the leaves are often a dark purple.

The species are widely grown and have different flowering seasons. The winter varieties are in bloom by mid winter (December), and carry a single bloom on a slender stem. These will last for eight weeks or more on the plant, and the larger the plant the more flower stems it will produce in one season. The spring-flowering varieties quickly follow the winter ones, and these in turn are followed by the summer- and autumn-flowering types. It is possible to grow nothing but the delicate paphiopedilums and have some in flower all the year round. The species vary greatly one from the other, and contain among them many combinations of colour — brown, green, purple, yellow, red, as well as white, all in numerous variations. The white and yellow varieties belong to a group of stemless paphiopedilums that are plants of small stature and have the most delightful of flowers sitting just above the foliage. Closely related to the paphiopedilums are the phragmipediums, a small genus noted for the few species that have long, trailing, ribbon-like petals. These lateral petals will extend while the flower is opening, growing 2-3cm (1 in) a day until they attain a length of over 45cm (18 in). Taking these petals between finger and thumb and extending them at full length creates a flower 90cm (3 ft) or so across, surely the largest flower in the world!

The paphiopedilums and phragmipediums have steadfastly remained well at the top of the popularity list, and although many fine hybrids are grown today, the true species are still widely grown and admired for their graceful, handsome flowers.

12. July 2011 by admin
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