Many years ago when I was at school, and everything was in black and white, I had a school friend whose dad was a head gardener. So occasionally I would visit the garden of Titsey estate in Surrey, on the steep, chalky slope of the North Downs and be shown around the greenhouses. These were packed with tender plants to display in the house and included gardenias, ferns and other foliage plants and, of course, orchids. From memory, they were largely cattleyas, grown for their large, flashy flowers that made elaborate corsages, and cymbidiums that were either displayed in their pots or cut. This was before the advent of the many small cultivars and most were huge plants with arching foliage in suitably large pots.
I had a ‘thing’ about orchids at the time, which followed on from my ‘thing’ about cacti, neither of which has totally left me. It may be hard to believe when every supermarket and filling station forecourt has orchids for sale, but in those days, and we are going back 45 years, orchids were not widely available and they were expensive and exotic.
Now things are very different and moth orchids (phalaenopsis) are the most popular flowering houseplants, if not the most popular houseplants of all. Their popularity must be down to the fact that they die slowly and look good even if you don’t do anything to them for a few weeks. But, of course, they will last a lot longer if you treat them kindly.
As moth orchids have risen to the top of the pile, other orchids live rather in their shadow even though these too are more readily available than ever before. Among the yellow oncidiums, cherry, pink and white miltoniopsis, dainty dendrobiums, green and purple zygopetalums and spidery brassias, you will still find some cymbidiums and, because they are so familiar as cut flowers, these are the typical orchid to many people.
In some ways these are easy orchids to grow but they do need different conditions to the moth orchids and they are a good choice for a sun room, cool greenhouse or cool, bright windowsill and they are not good houseplants for a snug, cosy, warm room.
While most of the common houseplant orchids live on the branches of trees in the wild, cymbidiums do not have quite the same head for heights and some live on or near the ground on rotting tree stumps. The common hybrids must have a loam-free compost though so stick to orchid compost when you come to repot them, which will not be necessary for a year.
Cymbidiums need fairly bright light compared to most others and every year they produce a new pseudobulb at the base and their stems creep along the compost, gradually forming a large clump. My plant (another IKEA bargain) was bought with flower buds in November so is in full flower now but it will bloom in spring in future, the normal flowering time. At present it sits on the west-facing windowsill and gets very good light. Once flowering is over, and the old stem is cut off, I will keep it moist and, once we get to the end of February my aim will be to get it to grow. All spring and summer I will keep it moist and well fed, once a week, to get it to produce strong growth and nice, fat pseudobulbs. The thin, pointy shoots that appear soon from the compost surface, will grow into a fan of leaves and the bigger the pseudobulb is by autumn, the better the flowers will be. I will put the plant in the greenhouse, which is frost-free, in March and it will stay in there but many gardeners put their plants in the garden in summer, from late May to September. In theory you should feed with a high nitrogen fertilizer, such as Baby Bio, in early summer and switch to a high potash fertilizer such as Phostrogen, in late summer, to encourage flowering.
Keep the plant bright and cool at all times and make sure you feed the plant well and it will reward you with lovely flowers every year. Just do not be mean with the watering and feeding. Orchids have a strong will to live and will hang on, looking miserable, for many months or even years before they die.