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Orchids that are tough-as-Cymbs by Malcolm Campbell

Orchids look so darn exotic and breathtakingly beautiful, that they are construed as being difficult to grow. While there are some pretty basic considerations to be made with regard to the media in which they grow best and they need some protection from the sun and wind, on the whole there is a great range of very tough orchids we can grow all over Australia. The usual advice is to erect a shade-house or shaded lean-to, if you want your investment to live after flowering. It's probably fair to say that most orchid growers started with the hardy winter or early spring flowering Cymbidium orchid and its myriad of cultivars. Growing these to perfection can be a consuming life-long passion for the mere mortal, but if your hunger for the exotic is still languishing, then please consider these hardy orchids. I call them the "tough-as-Cymbs".

A selection of exotic orchids and their cultivars or hybrids that flower after the early-flowering Cymbidiums can greatly extend your interest in the shade-house. The exotic Lycaste, Zygopetalum, Paphiopedilum and Neogardinerea as well as our native Dendrobium, Sarcochilus and Cymbidium species are just as hardy as the Cymbidium cultivars, when a few concessions are made. Most of these tropical and sub tropical orchids are epiphytic, that is they live on the branches of trees within the forest canopy and grow in partial shade. That shade is considerably denser in tropical forests so orchid species there, require about 75% shade when grown in a bright sunny environment like Adelaide or Perth. Tropical rain falls mainly in the warm humid season, so they 'frown' on winter watering. If you still live in Southern Australia, then you will need to protect your tropical orchids by spreading poly-film over shade-cloth in Winter, then remove it for the Summer and Autumn.

Most of the genera of orchids already mentioned are not particularly sensitive to the cold weather of winter, but rather the cold and wet conditions.

Best of all, these 'tough-as-Cymbs' go on flowering long after your average verandah-grown Cymb has blown the whistle on Spring.

The keen orchid grower will probably know the cultivars of Lycaste skinneri or L. viginalis which is its synonym but I have to admit that 'Luciani' is my favourite. Just as hardy as the Cymbidium cultivars, but needs that 75% shade in Summer and if you can resist the temptation to Winter-water too often, it will go on flowering for 2-3 months. In Summer when watering needs to be regular so that humidity is retained, try to keep the water off the flowers, because they mark easily. This species and its cultivars can be over-wintered at 10-130C, which is probably a good deal cooler than your average shade-houses in Winter, unless you're in Canberra! Lycaste are easily divided just as you would the Cymbidium pseudobulbs, using the same light, soil-less media of aged pine-bark chips and isolite. Isolite is the name for the foam balls that surface when you water your containers. Fertilize only in the summer growing season, with water soluble fertilizers. Some of the Australian cultivars that have been bred in New South Wales by Fred Alcorn and John Apperley are amongst the best in the world, so there are plenty of quality Lycaste varieties to choose from.

Try saying Paphiopedilum hirsutissimum after a hard day. I had to say it about 12 times from memory before I convinced "Gardening Australia's" TV producer, Ros Lawson, that I knew what I was taking about. Incidentally Ros' hand poured the Champagne (which in 1991 we were allowed to call the bubbling brew, but not so today) for the TV segment too, but we didn't drink it. Well at $3 a bottle would you?

I would have loved to just call them "Slipper Orchids" like everyone else, but "Gardening Australia" viewers and readers are known to be discerning, so we persevere. The "Slipper Orchids" are stunning and some of them will be beyond the purse-strings of all but the enthusiast, but they thrive in the 75% Summer shade and Winter poly-film to keep water from them in the cool almost-dormant season. They have no pseudobulbs, in which to store moisture and nutrients, so regular watering is critical in the warm humid growing season. They still require infrequent watering in winter, which is best applied to the media as tepid water mid-morning. They also appreciate a finer media mixture with no sand in it at all.

The Zygopetalum species and their cultivars have some very prominent stripes and spotted flower spikes, with 4-7 flowers to a spike and lots of spikes per pot. They look exotic and Z. intermedium flowers for up to a month in April-May. Other species flower in Summer and some of the cultivars flower in mid-Winter. They resent Winter rain on their foliage also and will rot even if you leave water on their foliage, so water very carefully. They also like the 75% shade in Summer and 51% in Winter which is normal for Cymbidiums too, so they can easily be grown as companions, using the same media and fertilizers. They certainly don't need any additional heat to grow and flower them to perfection. Well if you live in Queenstown they might!

Some of our native orchids from the top end and the Queensland coastal regions are certainly worth growing to extend the life of the Cymbs shade-house too. Without delving too deeply there are many Dendrobium forms and a plethora of cultivars but I love Cymbidium canaliculatum, with its robust massed spikes of tiny maroon flowers and sturdy grey leaves, that are quite unusual for orchids. They look as though they would be more suited to New Zealand Flax. Another charming little native is Sarcochilus with its orange-perfumed flowers and the cultivar 'Melba' is particularly hardy and decidedly cute. These tiny white clusters are very keenly sought after by the Japanese Orchid enthusiasts who seem to visit us in increasing numbers these days, seeking out these little floral orchid gems that are as tough-as-Cymbs.

Further reading

Handcock, Ralph. and Smith, Margaret. Orchids month by month, a guide for Australian Gardeners, Second Edition, published by Child & Associates Frenchs Forest, NSW, 1981.

Handcock, Ralph. and Smith, Margaret. You,too, can grow Orchids, a guide fro Australian Gardeners, paperback edition, published by Child & Associates Frenchs Forest, NSW, 1990.

Hodgson, Margaret. Paine, Roland & Anderson, Neville. A guide to Orchids of the World, published by Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, NSW, 1991.

Isaac-Williams, Mark. L, An introduction to the Orchids of Asia, published by Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, NSW, 1988.

Rentoul, J.N. The Hybrid Story, in the "Growing Orchids" series, Lothian Books, Port Melbourne, 1991.

Rittershausen, Wilma. [Ed.] A gardener's guide to growing your own Orchids, published by Salamander Books Ltd, London, 1988.

Tibbs, Mike & Bilton, Ray. Orchids an illustrated identifier and guide to cultivation, published by New Burlington Books, London, 1991.