Cattleya Orchid Care: Characteristics and Cultivation

Cattleyas are all epiphytic plants in nature , i.e. plants which, in their natural habitat , grow on trees and rocks . Their stems range in height from 5cm to about 1m. They have leathery, thick leaves, varying in number from one to three, carried to the top of the stem and this is wrapped in thin sheaths which wither every season. The floral parts are independent and spread out, the sepals similar to each other and the petals wider. 
The column is smooth, wingless and bears four pollinia, two for each of the two anther sacs. Most species are deliciously scented. But it’s better to proceed in order and go back in time to where the story began.

The origins

Many amazing things were discovered by accident and it was by accident that the first Cattleya plant reached Europe. The story goes that in 1818 a certain Mr. Swainson, a collector of mosses and lichens in Brazil, collected some powerful plants with leathery leaves to tie them around some specimens from his collection, which he had to send to Europe. When this material arrived, William Cattley , a very famous horticulturist, realized that these strange plants were something unusual and so he took them into consideration. The first flourished in 1824 and was studied by Lindley, a celebrated botanist, who affirmed that it belonged to an absolutely new genus for science. Lindley compiled a description of the plant and gave the new genus the name of Cattleya, in homage to the lucky owner. The specimen was called Cattleya labiata autumnalis, for its stupendous labellum and for the flowering, which fell in autumn.

In the following decades many other Cattleyas were discovered: Cattleya mossiae in 1838, Cattleya gigas in 1848, Cattleya trianaei in 1856, and so on. However, few specimens were imported and many did not survive the long journey.

Cattleyas were highly prized by horticulturists and bought at very high prices by wealthy collectors , but their future commercial importance did not begin until 1891. In that year, large numbers of Cattleya labiata were found and their purchase by two different companies, one English and one Belgian, brought about great movement in the world of orchid nurseries.

There were fierce arguments over the authenticity of Cattleya labiata autumnalis, and naturally each of the two companies hoped to be left alone in possessing the coveted orchids. In the end it was decided that all were indeed the precious Cattleya labiata but the existence of so many specimens of the same species caused the market to collapse. The ease of communications with steamships brought a swarm of collectors to South America, who sent hundreds of thousands of Cattleya plants back to Europe to importers from various countries.

The plants were auctioned off to professional and amateur growers. While one after the other hundreds of types of Cattleya were discovered and classified by the botanists of the time, many of these flowers appeared so similar to the Cattleya labiata that they were considered varieties of this species, rather than different species. The innumerable varieties of C. labiata were from the very beginning the favorites because of their large, showy flowers: from their discovery until the 1970s they have remained the orchids that have attracted the most attention.

Cattleya unifoliata and Cattleya bifoliata

Cattleyas, on the basis of their peculiar morphological characteristics, are grouped into two distinct groups: the group of Cattleya unifoliata and the group of Cattleya bifoliata .

  • The first group, due to similarity with the species that created it, is also defined as the Cattleya labiata group. They all have only one leaf per pseudobulb and usually bear fairly sized solitary flowers .
  • The other group of Cattleyas is that of the bifoliata , with two, sometimes three leaves for each stem .

These are very elegant and graceful plants, quite different from the Cattleya labiata. The flowers are smaller, with narrower flower parts. In some types the flowers are very waxy and appear in clusters of five to twenty on each stem.

For convenience, the innumerable varieties of C. labiata are currently treated as separate species, but C. mossiae was initially called Cattleya labiata var. mossiae , C. trianaei was called C. labiata var. trianaei and so on for all the others belonging to the group such as C. dowiana, C. eldorado, C. gaskelliana, C. lawrenciana,C. lueddemanniana, C. mendelii, C. percivaliana, C. rex, C. schroedere, C. warneri, C. warscewiczii . All these very similar species are now grouped into the same Cattleya labiata group as different species.

Cattleya roots

The fascination of all orchids, Cattleyas not excluded, starts from the roots due to their impressive behaviour. Sometimes they penetrate the little litter that forms in the hollow of a branch, other times they tenaciously adhere to the bare trunks of trees. In plants, the function of the roots is to anchor the plant to its environment, absorb water and mineral salts and accumulate reserve substances.

In the genus Cattleya, being epiphytic orchids, the roots are usually large, fleshy, covered with a hard and spongy crust called velamen, a protective element capable of capturing and retaining atmospheric humidity, but also of permanently welding the root to the bark of the tree. An interesting element of orchid roots is the fact that they can also partially carry out a photosynthetic action both at the apex, which, in fact, is green, and on the whole surface.

Sympodial development model

Like many other orchids, the Cattleya genus has devised a sympodial development model , which literally means “multiple feet”. It consists of a rhizome , i.e. a continuously growing meandering stem which, with a perfect solution of continuity, projects itself infinitely along its entire length, externalizing its roots which firmly anchor the plant to the ground or to the bark of the trees.

Following the alternation of the seasons, at periodic intervals – for example annually – the rhizome lengthens from the apex or laterally, developing fleshy stems which subsequently enlarge to assume a flat or cylindrical, small, large or enormous appearance depending on the species. This new structure functions as a precious reserve of nutrients and water, useful for coping with long periods of drought. It properly takes the name of ” pseudobulb “, as, although it looks a lot like the bulbs, it has a clearly different function and structure from the latter.

For greater safety, at the base of the pseudobulbs the plant also develops “eyes” which remain dormant indefinitely and then resume the normal life cycle giving rise to a new shoot if, for a fewreason, a pseudobulb should fail. Finally, one or more leaves sprout at the apex of the pseudobulb, followed by the button and the flower stem. Cattleyas , Oncidiums, Odontoglossums are the genera of epiphytic orchids that have assumed this behavior.

Monopodial development model

Only by way of comparison we provide here some elements to distinguish another development model which does not characterize the genus Cattleya, but rather other genera of Orchids such as Phalaenopsis and Vanda . This model will be addressed here only briefly, as it concerns orchid genera that are not the subject of this discussion.

The monopodial development model is another choice of behavior to grow and develop, totally different from the previous one, it was made by an exclusive group of epiphytic orchids that do not progress in length but in height , giving life to a stem which, potentially, it is capable of stretching itself indefinitely.

This type of growth is defined monopodial (“only one foot”) as the plantsthey do not have any rhizomes but roots on which the stem of the plant is directly welded . As the stem progresses, the adventitious roots sprout from the nodes and fix the plant to the bark of the host tree, while more often than not, the inflorescences are born from the axil of the leaves that follow one another along the stem. With this system the plants, which sometimes seem to have neither a beginning nor an end, can make their own way in the thick of the forests to reach the light.

Mycorrhizal symbiosis

Towards the end of the last century a relationship was discovered between the orchid and a mushroom , a phenomenon known as mycorrhizal symbiosis . This phenomenon is to be ascribed as common to all representatives of the Orchidaceae family. This discovery is to be referred to the studies of Noel Bernard, winner of a competition for teaching natural sciences in 1898 and professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore.

A real stroke of luck allowed him to discover a very important element in the field of orchidology: during a walk not far from the barracks to which he was assigned, he found a few hundred Neottia seeds about to germinate. He took numerous specimens and discovered the process of germination and symbiosis, the first foundations of which had been defined by Link.

The fundamental difference between orchids and other plants is the constant presence of fungi in the roots. Noel Bernard examining the seeds under a microscope did not detect the presence of fungi. However, they manifest themselves in the seedlings. The hypothesis was then formulated that the orchid seeds were invaded by the fungus during germination in the soil. In concluding that no orchid escapes this phenomenon, he deduces that the union between mushroom and seed is necessary for the development of the orchid itself.

Bernard succeeded in isolating some strains of fungi, after having extracted them from the cells of the orchids, and following a cultivation in a sterile environment on a gelled nutrient layer, he conducted various experiments in parallel:

  • in seed culture without fungi he noticed that the seeds did not germinate, the embryos turn green but the development remained blocked for several months;
  • in culturing seeds with mushroom stumps he noticed that the orchid seed developed easily and regularly.

Mycorrhizal symbiosis is a mutualistic symbiosis between plant roots and fungal hyphae. The roots live in association with a fungus with which they develop an exchange of nutrients. This relationship brings mutual benefit to both components, the mycobiont (fungus) and the phytobiont (plant). The fungal hyphae, with their practically unlimited growth, greatly increase the absorbent surface of the roots by bringing minerals and other nutrients to the plant. C

onversely, the latter gives the fungus sugars and photosynthetic products. All orchids in nature are mycorrhizal , i.e. they live inserted in this relationship which is already established inside the seed.

Orchid seeds are very small, so much so that they look like dust, and this characteristic facilitates their dispersion at the slightest breath of wind; on the other hand, they have a scarce nutrient reserve to feed the embryo. It is the hyphae of the fungus that enter the embryo, envelop it, stimulate it and favor germination, they are the ones that bring the nutrients it needs; then as the phase progresses the hyphae are confined more and more in the root system. The seeds cannot germinate outside this context and this makes mycorrhizal symbiosis an essential phenomenon for the development and growth of orchids.

This phenomenon has represented one of the most difficult obstacles encountered by orchidophiles in the past, when they set about cultivating the seeds without obtaining any result precisely due to the lack of the then unknown symbiotic mushroom, a circumstance which favored the emergence of innumerable legends on the system chosen by orchids to be born.

Cattleya flower

In the imagination of each of us, the orchid is synonymous with a flower, since it is by far the most striking element in the whole plant, on which the absolute attention of the observer is concentrated.

Those of orchids are, among all the flowers, those that have undergone the greatest transformations in form; it is considered one of the plants that has reached one of the highest evolutionary levels in terms of flower specialization and reproductive techniques. Their bizarreness amazed Charles Darwin himself who writes about the complexity of these flowers: “According to the observations of various botanists, and according to my own, many other plants undoubtedly present analogous and very perfect adaptations, but it appears that they are really more numerous and perfect in Orchids than in most other plants. ”

To attract pollinating animals they have turned into traps, they imitate the shape of an insect’s female or they give off their scent during the insect’s reproductive season or they still create sacs or spurs rich in sugary secretions. In the genus Cattleya, the floral parts are independent and spread out, the sepals similar to each other and the petals wider. The labellum it usually consists of 3 parts: two side lobes that roll up on the column and a central lobe that is stretched out. In some types the median lobe is very different from the lateral ones; these are often fleshier, especially in types belonging to the bifoliata group.

In others, the lateral lobes continue the central lobe, as in the labiata group. The column is smooth, without wings and bears 4 pollinia, two for each of the two anther sacs. The Cattleya flower, which is the most varied imaginable, is nevertheless built around a structure common to the whole family, divided into three fundamental sections. The external whorl consists of three sepals of similar color and shape.

The internal whorl consists of three petals: two similar in shape and color and one different. The third petalof autonomous shape and color it is called labellum and has the fundamental task of guiding pollinators towards the sexual organs. Its colors are often flashy and its shape is sometimes quite unique. The sexual organs, stamens and pistil , are fused into a single body called gynostemium or column .

The column has at its apex a mobile cap called scutellum which protects the pollen grains gathered in masses called pollinia in number of 2, 4, 6 or 8. The pollinia are placed in a housing equipped with a structure called rostellum which prevents contact between pollen masses and stigmatic cavity. The pollinia are connected by a filament called caudicle to an adhesive disc called viscidium.

Cattleya Orchid – Characteristics and Cultivation

Cattleyas are robust plants which can be grown at home with success and satisfaction as long as you follow a few simple rules which can be summarized as follows: lots of light and little water .

Give the plants a very bright exposure , near a well exposed window in winter and outdoors during the summer , in a corner where they receive the morning or late afternoon sun . The color of the leaves is a good indicator of luminosity, light green leaves mean that the light is correct and the plant will be floriferous, robust and resistant to disease, if instead the leaves are dark green it means that the light is insufficient , flowering will be poor or absent and the plant weak and easy prey to all kinds of problems and diseases.

As good epiphytic plants , Cattleyas have aerial roots and for this reason they are grown in a bark -based compound which allows good aeration of the root system . The important thing is to water a little : most of the orchids that perish in the hands of beginners die drowned from too many waterings , therefore wet only when you are sure that the plants are certainly dry: it is still preferable to have plants that are drier than too wet .

If you place a saucer under your plants, fill it with pebbles or expanded clay so that the pot does not come into contact with any water in the saucer .

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