My favorite orchid

Encyclias 2
Encyclia cordigera var. rosea (center) surrounded by the white-lipped semi-alba form of the same species (left), Encyclia randii (top right) and Encyclia profusa (bottom right)

In the twenty-four years that I have been growing orchids, I have bloomed several hundred species and have seen thousands more at orchid society meetings and shows.  Of them all, my favorite is Encyclia cordigera var. rosea.  I love everything about this plant:  the rich purple color of its flowers, the fragrance they produce only when the sun shines directly on them, the predatory appearance of the hooked sepals, the glossy pseudobulbs that can be as large or larger than a goose’s egg, and the leathery leaves that arch above.

There are three color varieties of E. cordigera in nature and in cultivation, all of them worth growing.  Encyclia cordigera var. rosea is the most common variety in cultivation, and in my opinion is the best.  My favorite clone is typical of line-bred specimens that have been selected for rich color and a flat lip. The fragrance of this plant is just wonderful.  It reminds me of hybrid tea roses.:

Encyclia cordigera var. rosea. A clone that is typical of plants available from orchid nurseries.

I also have a second clone of E. cordigera var. rosea with a slightly paler lip whose edges curve down, but the flowers are at least a third larger than the first clone.  This one came labeled as E. cordigera ‘Rubynz,’ but I have not been able to discover anything about the origin of that clonal name.

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Encyclia cordigera ‘Rubynz.’ It’s flowers are larger than any other Encyclia that I have seen.

The second form of E. cordigera has pigmented sepals and petals and a white lip with a single spot of magenta near the center.  My clone of this color form has a sweeter fragrance, more like candy than roses, with a hint of talcum powder.

The white-lipped form of Encyclia cordigera

This color form is sometimes erroneously labeled E. cordigera var. randii because of its similarity to a Brazilian species named Encyclia randii.  But although they have a superficially similar color scheme, these are very different species, both in vegetative appearance and cultural requirements.

The true Encyclia randii from Brazil. E. cordigera can been seen out-of-focus in the background at right.

The third form, Encyclia cordigera forma leucantha has flowers that lack all red pigment, resulting in a white lip with green sepals and petals.  In my clone of this form, the talcum powder smell is stronger, although the fragrance is still pleasant.  The inflorescences are much shorter than those of the other two forms, so the flowers sit just above the leaves instead of arching well above them.  I’m not sure if that is a characteristic of all E. cordigera f. leucantha or just my clone.

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Encyclia cordigera forma leucantha

Ruben Sauleda and Pablo Esperon have recently argued that the E. cordigera with magenta-spotted white lip should be considered a separate species, Encyclia macrochila, based on its distinct color and the different appearance of its hybrids compared to those of E. cordigera var. rosea [1].  They do not mention E. cordigera f. leucantha, so it is not clear whether it would remain E. cordigera or become a form of E. macrochila.  In any case, it remains to be seen whether this interpretation becomes more widely accepted by botanists.  I’m not rushing to change my plant tags yet.

E. cordigera  (including E. macrochila) is native to seasonally dry lowland forest from Mexico to northern South America, so it likes to be grown warm and bright in a mix that dries fairly rapidly after watering.  I use chunks of scoria (red lava rock) in clay pots.  My plants are grown in the half of the greenhouse that isn’t covered by shade cloth, so the sunlight is diffused only by the 8 mm twinwall polycarbonate (and accumulated dirt).  In the summer, they go outside under 30% shade cloth.

The plants have a very predictable growth schedule.  They initiate new growth in late spring, and by autumn the new pseudobulbs are mature.  The plant then sits dormant for a couple of months, but I can usually see the inflorescences starting to grow by late January.  In my greenhouse, E. cordigera f. leucantha blooms first, with the flowers opening in early to mid March.  About three weeks later, the white lipped form blooms, followed by var. rosea in mid April.  Individual flowers last about six weeks, so the bloom times of three forms overlap, and I often have plants in bloom through the end of May.

The previous year’s pseudobulbs also grow roots in the spring, before the growth cycle starts over again, so repotting is best accomplished in late winter.  Unlike many epiphytic orchids which root on new growth, E. cordigera is not a species that you want to repot when the new pseudobulbs are growing. If you damage the roots by repotting in late spring, the plant will have to sit almost a year before it grows enough roots to recover.

With that one caveat though, E. cordigera is a generally easy species to grow and will reward even minimal effort.  It’s definitely one of my retirement home plants–that is, plants I’ll grow when I am old and decrepit and can only take a few favorites with me to the retirement home.

Encyclia cordigera var. rosea backlit by the sun


Sauleda RP and Esperon P (2016) The proper name for a central and South American species of Encyclia Hooker.  New World Orchid Nomenclatural Notes 20:1-10.  Link

Cattleya maxima ‘Hercules’

Winter has come roaring back for a few more days, but in my greenhouse it is still spring…or maybe autumn.  My Cattleya maxima ‘Hercules’ is currently flowering, but the usual bloom season for this species is late autumn.  I’m not sure what has induced it to flower now.  This particular clone seems to be a bit erratic.  Some years it skips flowering altogether, and then when it finally decides to bloom, the previous year’s growth flowers at the same time as the current year’s.

Cattleya maxima 'Hercules' flowers
Cattleya maxima ‘Hercules’

I can’t hope to compete with A.A. Chadwick’s expert description of this species and its history, so I’ll settle for commenting that this particular clone, with its dark flowers and stout pseudobulb, seems to be the highland form of C. maxima that comes from the western slopes of the Andes in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.  I like its rich color and robust growth habit, but it lacks the intricate veining on the lip possessed by another C. maxima that I flowered several years ago:

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Cattleya maxima. Lowland form?

This plant, with its smaller, paler flowers and spindly pseudobulbs may be the lowland form that grows along the Pacific coast of Ecuador near Guayaquil.  Unlike ‘Hercules,’ which rapidly fills a pot with very vigorous roots, this plant is rather fussy and often loses its roots when kept a little too wet.  I eventually unpotted it and mounted it on a piece of cork bark, but it hasn’t thrived–too dry, I think.  I wonder if my greenhouse is just too cold in winter, and that is why it is subject to root rot.  I may try potting it up again and then hang it high in the greenhouse to keep it as warm as possible.

Setting the Scene

The piedmont of the eastern USA is a plateau that separates the Atlantic coastal plain from the Appalachian mountain ranges.  Here in North Carolina, it extends almost 300 miles from the fall line  to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The piedmont is part of the Eastern Deciduous Forest ecosystem, split between the mesophytic and oak-pine regions.

In North Carolina, the piedmont falls within USDA climate zone 7 (0 to 10 F, -17 to -12 C average winter minimum).  Winter minimums only tell part of the story, though. Tromsø, Norway is also Zone 7, and most of the UK is in the warmer Zone 8.  However, our summers are considerably hotter.  In July and August, the average daily high is ~85-90 F (29-32 C) and average night time low is ~68-70 F (20-21 C).  Rainfall is reasonably well distributed across the year, but in summer it mostly falls in localized thunderstorms.  We might get a couple of inches of rain in an hour, while a site a few miles away gets nothing.

Our little patch of the piedmont consists of two acres of woodland, partially cleared in 2006 for the house and septic system.  The land slopes down from north to south and is fairly dry.  The northern 1/3 is mixed deciduous forest dominated by oaks (Quercus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) with an understory of red maple (Acer rubrum), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and American holly (Ilex opaca).

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looking north in June, 2016

The southern 2/3 of the property was logged more recently and has regrown as an overcrowded stand of loblolly pines (Pinus taeda), presumably planted by the previous owners but never thinned before the property was sold for development.  The pines are interspersed with young sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) and a few more interesting trees like sourwood and American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

looking south in February, 2015

The main sunny growing area south of the house is the drainfield for the septic system, which precludes planting large shrubs.  The drainfield is currently a weedy lawn, subsiding where the buried stumps of pine trees are decaying, but I am slowly replacing the grass with flowerbeds.

The other sunny area is north of the house where a few trees damaged by building were removed.  This area is very dry, and it is where we built the greenhouse.

The greenhouse today flanked by a row of leafless Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’, leafy Gardenia jasminoides, and a small vegetable patch with net trellises.

The greenhouse contains my collection of orchids and other tropical plants:

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panoramic view of greenhouse interior with pachypodiums and ant plants left, orchids center, and more orchids and tropical amaryllids right. The skull on the support post is from a white-tailed deer.

The majority of the property, under both the deciduous trees and the pines, is heavily shaded in summer with hard, organic-deficient clay that can only be dug with a mattock. It has been a challenge getting shade perennials to survive under the trees, but a few native orchids (Tipularia and Goodyera) and striped  wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) have established themselves naturally.  I’ll post about them in the future.

Up next:  Defences against garden pests

Germinating the blog

Although there is more freezing weather and the possibility of snow in the forecast, spring is well underway in North Carolina.  The redbud trees are in full bloom, and the early yellow daffodils are fading.  The crocuses are already finished.

This is what they looked like a couple of weeks ago:


The fence lizards are up and about.


At this time of the year, when they are intent on sunning themselves, I can often approach close enough to gently touch them.  In summer, they’ll be up a tree and hiding around the other side of the trunk before I get near.

In my greenhouse, the longer days and more intense sunlight are waking up various plants from their winter dormancy.

Cattleya amethystoglossa flowers are just opening,


while the St. Joseph’s Lily (Hippeastrum x johnsonii) is in full bloom.

Hippeastrum x johnsonii flowers

The yellow, spring blooming pachypodiums are just getting started.  This is Pachypodium bicolor, named for the slightly paler throat, unfortunately not very visible in this picture, that gives its flowers two colors:


In the background is the pale yellow form of Pachypodium eburneum.

Opposite the pachypodium bench,  a vireya (tropical rhododendron) brightens up the corner with its intense orange flowers.  This unlabeled plant is probably a hybrid of Rhododendron javanicum, or possibly the species itself:


With all this new growth and color, it seems like a good time to start the gardening blog that I have been thinking about.  My goal is to keep it going for at least a year, to document a full annual cycle of growth in the garden and greenhouse.  After that, we’ll see how it goes.