Envision the orchid. No matter the species, the graceful flowers hold an exotic mystique all their own--and the mystery is often overwhelmingly compounded when one fancies trying to grow them. Fears of temperamental plants which bloom only in perfect greenhouse environments are enough to keep the average gardener from venturing into the realm of orchid culture.
To every rule, however, there is an exception, and for those living in temperate Southern California--especially along the coast--the exception is the cymbidium.
"Southern California has really become one of the world's centers of cymbidium growing and hybridizing," explained Dr. Harold Koopowitz, director of the UC Irvine Arboretum. "The climate is just so ideal here, and it's relatively inexpensive to flower them."
The relatively low maintenance and low cost could be why an increasing number of cymbidiums are found on private patios and balconies, as well as in commercial establishments such as hotels, restaurants and model homes here. Most smaller blooming plants begin around $15 retail at the average nursery, but costs can extend into the hundreds of dollars for the extremely large plants often sold only in outlets specializing in orchids.
In considering the plant solely as an ornamental piece--like cut flowers--the initial cost becomes reasonable. The provocative blooms, spaced evenly along sturdy spikes, can last up to three months. When blooming is complete, usually in May or June, the spider-like leaves will continue to develop from the parent bulbs. When a few simple steps are followed, the leaves will maintain a clear, apple-green color and the plant will initiate a whole new generation of spikes in November.
"If you can grow azaleas and camellias, then you can grow cymbidiums," said Pat Rowland, a sculptor who was drawn into cymbidium culture about 30 years ago. Rowland now oversees the Rowland Collection in Garden Grove, and classifies herself as a cymbidium hybridizer. "The only thing that they will not stand is lack of water, and you almost can't over-water them--as long as the mix is in a good drainage position."
By "mix," Rowland refers to the material placed around the bulbs and roots--usually a blend of orchid bark and potting soil, packed loosely, to promote flushing.
"You can tell if you're not giving your plant enough water; the tips of the leaves turn brown," adds Paul Brecht, also a 30-year cymbidium grower and owner of Brecht Orchid Gardens in Costa Mesa. "Salt burns the tips of the leaves, so when you water, do so heavily, through and through, and then let it dry, then water again."
Water, blended with a water-soluble fertilizer, is the standard method for feeding cymbidiums. Two varieties are used: low-nitrogen (blue) for July through November, and high-nitrogen (red) for the blooming season, December through June, according to Brecht.
The biggest complaint of amateur cymbidium growers is their difficulty in initiating flower growth. Beyond watering, to ensure a cymbidium bloom, the plant must be given more sun than shade. Rowland's 5,000-plus plants and seedlings are sheltered by mesh screens which filter 50% to 60% of the sun's harshest rays while allowing good light.
Brecht, who shades his cymbidium boarding area where local plant owners house their foliage for care and feeding until blooming, feels that full sun can also be good for the plants. If the plants don't bloom, he advises, put them out with the rose bushes--in direct sun. He does point out, however, that the further inland the plants are grown, "the more midday protection they need," or the leaves will burn. If protected, they can withstand up to 100-degree temperatures.
Sun plays a major role in the final color of the flowers, some varieties fading when the blooms are exposed to direct sunlight, others deepening. "These are not pigments like we think of pigments," Rowland said. "They're acids and they react to the different rays." She cites as an example the anthocyanin, which brings out red in the blooms. The white flowers will take on a pinkish cast if the blooms are not brought into the shade.
Air circulation and a regular drop in temperature--a natural occurrence in Southern California--is also a vital part of orchid culture, which is why cymbidiums do not grow well--if at all--in the house. "I always tell everybody," Rowland said, "that if you want to enjoy your cymbidiums in the house, that's fine, but when it comes evening and you get ready to go to bed, put that plant outside with the cat--it needs that breathing, that cooler air."
Color often is the primary factor in most growers' orchid selection. "The colors of these flowers are as much in fashion as high fashion," Rowland said. "Right now, the pure whites that we're just starting to bloom are popular, while two or three years ago we didn't have enough reds to satisfy everybody."
"I'm to the point where I'm selective (in buying orchids)," explained Laurence McElrea, a cymbidium hobbyist. "First you start buying everything, then you start getting a little selective, and then you get to the point when your area starts filling up so you're willing to sell off."
When the plant fills its pot and the bulbs are protruding from the top, it's time to transplant to a larger container--or divide the plant. cymbidiums are easily propagated through division, done simply by removing the plant from its pot, cutting back the old roots and slicing between the bulbs with a sterile knife. The new pot should allow space--approximately three to four inches between bulbs and pot rim--for two to three years of growth or bulb multiplication.
For further information on cymbidium culture:
The Cymbidium Society of America, Orange County branch, meets the second Thursday, November through June, 8 p.m., at the Westminster Community Service Building, 8200 Westminster Ave.
The Newport Harbor Orchid Society meets the third Tuesday of each month, 8 p.m., at the Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Avenue, Costa Mesa.
The South Coast Orchid Society Inc. meets the fourth Monday of each month, 8 p.m., at the Whaley Park Club House, 5620 Atherton St., Long Beach.