Thursday, March 31, 2011

Epiphyte Day: The Secret Life of Oncidiums

Onc. cornigerum, Curtis's botanical 1836
-- An April Rainforest Garden Epiphyte Day Post --

My first successful orchid experience (after slaughtering a couple of Phals.) was a Miltassia Charles M. Fitch 'Izumi.' I've written about this plant several times and it continues to be one of my favorites. If someone were to ask me to recommend a first orchid, I would steer them toward something in the Oncidium Alliance.

The genus Oncidium comprises over three hundred species, most of which are epiphytes. The Oncidium Alliance includes related genera like Miltonias, Odontoglossums, and Tolumnias. Oncidiums, at least the ones we see for sale, produce sprays of flowers on long, arching inflorescenses. They want more light than your Phalaenopsis, but can tolerate less light than Brassavolas and Cattleyas. Most Oncidiums are happy in warm temperatures and appreciate a 10-15 degree temperature swing between day and night. They like to dry out between watering sessions, but are forgiving.

For me, the appeal of Oncidiums is the effect created by the mass of flowers crowding an inflorescence. It's a big, colorful show where the whole of the display is more than the sum of its individual flowers. That said, the individual flowers are very cool unto themselves and, like snowflakes, have slight differences in the color patterning. A second advantage of an Oncidium orchid is its lush foliage, providing visual interest all year long. Dark green leaves are an indication of insufficient light. Yellow leaves suggest too much light. Dark spots on the leaves -- speaking from experience -- are usually signs of sunburn, but they could also point to a fungus problem if sunburn isn't a possibility. Finally, many Oncidiums have an amazing scent. The best known of these is probably Onc. Sharry Baby, which gives off an awesome chocolate smell (specifically, Swiss mocha with a dollop of vanilla).

Oncidiums are a perfect starter-orchid because Oncidiums tell the owner in a variety of ways when they’re unhappy. My beloved Brachypetalums show few red flags when they're in trouble; the leave might have a nice gloss while the root system rots away to nothing. Oncidiums, by contrast, are like a Tall Flags Pageantry Corp. When an Oncidium is unhappy the psuedobulbs will wrinkle, the leaves will develop pleating, and the visible roots will start to resemble straw. 

I'm not an expert on Oncidiums, and I only have three (including a de rigeur Sharry Baby) but I think I've discovered a secret to their care: dragging them into the shower. I know some people take their orchids into the bathroom to give them a humidity boost. I propose something a little more radical. I take them into the shower and let them experience a full blast of water. The leaves seem to love it, staying perky all through the dry Midwestern winter. I've stopped worrying about the effect of soap, the heat, and the volume of the water -- it doesn't seem to matter. It's a poor substitute for a rainforest, sure, but it's the best we can do in Zone 5.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Separation Anxiety

My limited experience with orchid shows has taught me a few things. First of all, as Dalton from Roadhouse would say, "expect the unexpected." Orchid damage is the biggest fear, so I've packed them with utmost care. The Paph. was easy enough, but the Phal. needed elaborate consideration. I could have used more pillow stuffing, I think. 

These two spent last weekend in Springfield Missouri and are headed to Omaha this weekend. Expecting the unexpected, I didn't know what to think, but both did really well in Springfield. Our society exhibit also rocked.

I wasn't there to see our exhibit, the show, my plants, or the competition, so I had some separation anxiety. I knew they were in expert hands but I was still relieved to hear that they didn't spontaneously immolate or something. Wish them luck in Omaha!

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Place for Ice

I had the delightful opportunity to work a few shifts at the information table at the Kansas City Orchid Show. A high percentage of individuals introduced themselves like this: "Hi, I bought an orchid about six months ago and I've been giving it three ice cubes like the instructions said. Why isn't it blooming?" Always diplomatic, I discussed how the ice cubes help avoid over-watering, but invite other problems like root shock and under-watering. It works for some people, but I heard some sad orchid tales during my time at the table. I always suggested that the way to overcome the death of an orchid was to buy another or three.

Masdevallia Highland Monarch
There might be a place for ice, however, with cool-growing orchids. We bought a large used aquarium from Pet World wherein we placed our two Masdevallias. They want good light, high humidity, and temperatures ranging from 50-65 F. The aquarium is working out so far, but it's difficult to get it nice and cold. I've been adding two cups of ice twice a day and that's managed to keep the temperature about 5-7 degrees cooler than inside the house. It's a start. The summer will pose additional challenges, but I'm sure Lan Lan and Sabine will have something figured out by then.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Back from Surgery

Riley, post-operation, with a kitty IV tube
Riley sailed through surgery yesterday morning and spent the night recovering at the Clinton Parkway Animal Hospital. They recovered a dime-sized bladder stone that had been causing him all sorts of pain. Trixie visited him yesterday and, when he got to say hello, he toppled over and his face fell into the food bowl. Poor little freak! He tried to meow, but could barely manage it. This morning was a different story. Riley truly looked forward to returning home and was telling everyone within a wide radius his sad plight.

We let him adjust alone for some hours and then released him into the general population. Emboldened with new freedom, he went upstairs and promptly fell asleep on the bed next to Lan Lan. Griffin joined them a few hours later.

We were worried that Riley would have to wear one of those funny cones and that the other kitties would make fun of him. He has stitches, but no cone. He's already eating, scratching the scratching post, and acting cute. We're looking forward to a speedy recovery.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poor Little Guy!

The Cats and Catts house requests that you send Riley your best thoughts, wishes, and prayers because he's undergoing surgery Tuesday to remove a bladder stone. He's also having two teeth extracted. All in all, it's been a rough time for the little guy. The kitties are rallying around him in support (or so we imagine).

Griffin & Riley, Best Friends
We're really thankful for our vet, Dr. Olson, at the Clinton Parkway Animal Hospital in Lawrence for his expert care and bedside manner. Trixie and I really appreciated his willingness to explain Riley's problems.

ultrasound arrow points to Riley's bladder stone
Riley is sometimes the worst kitty in the house and sometimes the cutest kitty in the house, but today he's definitely the saddest kitty. We're going to do our best to make him comfortable until Tuesday's surgery and we ask you to keep him in your thoughts. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scary Spice

Lan Lan wandered into the frame and created a frightening scene. As the photographer, it was a bit like being in a shark cage and having one of the weirdest sharks in the ocean swipe at you. She was circling around Paph. spicerianum 'Green Mystery' x 'Mallingham' HCC/AOS from Windy Hill Gardens. This is an extremely cute species. The jade pouch and fringed petals are cool, but the flower's white dorsal with the regal red stripe is its main drama. It's hard to see in the photo, but the dorsal sepal looks diamond-dusted, catching the light in a particularly magnificent way.

Paph. spicerianum 'Green Mystery' x 'Mallingham' HCC/AOS
Harold Koopowitz's Tropical Slipper Orchids has a thorough description of this species. He reports that Paph. spicerianum is named after someone named Lady Spicer and it's a key species for complex-standard hybrids, and -- more so than most other Paph. species -- the dorsal reflexes, or falls forward, a short time after opening. According to Koopowitz, the sloped dorsal is a good quality, evolutionarily speaking, because it creates a gutter for rainwater to run off the back of the flower. This is poor quality, however, from a showing/judging perspective because a straight dorsal reveals the flower in its full glory. Is this flower more beautiful when it's showcasing its functionality compared to when the dorsal is straight and flat? Lan Lan prefers the former and I favor the latter, but we both agree that it's a super awesome flower and one we'll both be keeping our eyes on.