Cattleya Orchid Care


The cattleya, favored by the florist and valuable as the parent of large and showy hybrids, is perhaps the orchid best known to the public.

There are over forty species of Cattleya. In their native state the plants grow in thick clusters on trees—frequently mahogany or a type of acacia—and are so well protected by giant stinging ants that the only way to harvest them is to cut down the tree.

The Cattleya plant lacks beauty to the uninitiated, being composed of longish, rounded pseudobulbs, which advance rhizome-fashion along the surface of the potting mixture, and are topped by one, two, or three long green leaves of firm leathery texture.

The average Cattleya 'puts on' or grows one new pseudobulb a year. After several new bulbs have been formed the old ones tend to lose their leaves and roots, becoming backbulbs.

These back-bulbs are frequently referred to as poor relations, owing to their habit of sapping the energy of the growing end of the plant. If severed and placed in a warm, moist spot they will usually respond by sending forth new growth and roots to start a new plant.

A tiny swelling or dormant eye will be found at the base of each pseudobulb in a Cattleya plant. In proper time the eye of the youngest bulb begins to swell and break into growth, acquiring new leaves and sending out new roots.

A new pseudobulb is formed and, in a healthy, well-cared-for plant, each will be finer and larger than the last. In case of injury to the forebulb, one of the dormant eyes of an older bulb will break.

From among the leaves at the top of the new growth the flower sheath will form. Very disconcerting to the beginner is the habit of some species of growing or 'throwing' sheaths at the time the new growth is made up.

This means that after the new bulb is completed there is a long period during which the flower sheath remains empty of buds, and the amateur despairs of ever having a flower.

Some Cattleyas even have double sheaths, which also disappoint the eager grower. Finally, after repeatedly holding the plant against the light in search of buds, he is rewarded by discovering small dark spots at the base of the sheath.

At last the flower buds are 'set' or have begun to ripen. Species differ in the length of time required for maturing or flowering.

The Cattleya is among the larger and showier of the species orchids—species meaning 'native' as opposed to 'hybrid.' Coloring ranges through all shades and tints of purple, from amethyst and violet to magenta and deep red.

Brown, yellow, and green species are found among the genus. Many of the species have alba varieties, whose flowers are pure white with a touch of green or yellow at the throat.

Important among the Cattleyas are the labiata group, those possessed of a fine, large lip, which makes them valuable as the progenitors of commercially desirable hybrids as well as for their own beauty and prodigality.

These labiates have some representative blooming, with trustworthy regularity, at every season of the year. The intermediate or 'Cattleya' house satisfactorily serves this group.

The Cattleya permits division as long as three or four bulbs are allowed. Each year in the life of the Cattleya adds a new growth at the front end of the plant, and certain species may occasionally grow in two and, more rarely, in three directions. As the new bulbs form, the old ones frequently begin to lose their leaves and roots.

They become 'poor relations,' a drag on the living plant. On being severed from the living plant the backbulbs, as these old drybulbs are called, will, if placed in a warm, moist spot, start life over. After two, three, or perhaps four years these will be new plants and will flower.

The advantage of the backbulb type of propagation over the growing of seedlings is that the flower will exactly resemble that of the original plant, while in the seedling there is no way to tell whether it will resemble one parent plant or the other or be something entirely different.

When it comes to cattleya orchid care, this one requires direct sun. Cattleyas, native to Central and South America, are found hanging on trees in the tropical rain forests. The burning sun of midday is usually kept off the plant by foliage directly overhead.

The grower, guided by this knowledge, lets Cattleyas be exposed to the sun, but provides shade in summer during the warmest part of the day, for sunburn must be avoided.

The increased exposure to sun necessitates a corresponding increase in humidity to prevent the pseudobulbs from shriveling.

When watering Cattleyas, it is well to soak the pot thoroughly and then allow the potting material almost but not entirely to dry out.

The pots should not become completely dry since the bulbs may shrivel and plant growth may be retarded for at least a year. Yet, if there is any doubt, it is far better to err on the dry side.

When it comes to cattleya orchid care, dryness will deter growth, but too much moisture will kill the plant. If water remains in the pot and does not dry out in a week or ten days, it is likely that the roots will have rotted off.

The pseudobulbs will shrivel and the leaves droop. Many amateurs mistake this for an indication of dryness, and treat the pot to another drubbing, thus rotting the remaining roots and probably killing the plant.

A plant that shows signs of shriveling from lack of roots will often respond to a daily gentle overhead spray. Laelias and other plants with light, heat, and air requirements similar to the Cattleyas need about the same watering treatment.

Laelias like slightly more water after complete growth and before flowering. After flowering they will require slightly less.

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