Caring for your Cattleya orchids

When I bought my first Cattleya orchid, and the man I bought it from told me that it would flower exactly one year later. It did!

Cattleya orchid in a pot

Cattleya orchids are part of a huge group of orchids whose natal homes are throughout tropical South America and as far north as Mexico. They can also be found in the West Indies. They produce beautiful, flamboyant and brightly coloured flowers, some tiny and others as large as dinner plates. Once in flower they can remain in perfect condition for weeks at a time, although not as longs as some other orchids - Phalaenopsis, for instance.  

Cattleyas were the first tropical orchids to be successfully hybridised and made to flower and, as a result, they have dominated the orchid scene ever since the first one flowered in a collection owned by a Mr. Cattley, who lived in South London. Unlike any plants that had been seen before, the plant caused a sensation and the taxonomists of the day named the orchid after him.

Cattleya orchid flower

Although beautiful and eye-catching when in bloom, Cattleyas are not as popular as other orchids partly because each plant requires a lot of space. The plants produce large, elongated leathery leaves which, if not pegged, flop over the side of the pot. The flowers appear from the most recently grown leaf during the resting period of the plant, and so they do not require feeding during their blooming period. If the plant appears to be too crowded in its pot the best time to repot it is immediately after flowering has finished and before the new leaf growth starts.

Cattleya bowringiana var. coerulea.

In the winter the plants are happy in a position with plenty of sunshine, but once the spring and summer arrives, move them to a position where they get indirect light, or the leaves may scorch. The lowest temperature to which Cattleyas should be subjected is around 15 degrees C.

I generally water these orchids every ten days or so by submerging the pots in lukewarm water for about 1 - 2 hours. Once a new leaf starts to appear a little orchid food can be added to the water every second time of watering.

Other kinds of Orchids as House Plants...

Watering your orchid pot plants

By far the best way to water orchids is to place them in a sink or other container of lukewarm water which comes up to the top of their pots.  Because they are not growing in densely packed soil or compost, the water will easily rise up from the bottom of the pots and saturate the roots.  The plants should be left for several hours, or overnight, and the watering should be repeated on a weekly basis (although most plants will easily survive a 10 interval if you are away).  At the same time as watering, spray the leaves with a fine water mist.  Feeding should be kept to a minimum and stepped up only once new growth or flower shoots appear. Never overdo it – food is not high on the agenda of survival for plants that live perched up in trees with their roots exposed!

What about our native wild orchids?

Yes, we have many native wild orchids throughout Europe and around 30 species in the UK.  Most of them are rare, endangered or in serious decline due to the destruction of their natural habitats. They will not survive being dug up and moved either to gardens and greenhouses or to window ledges. It is also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to dig up any wild plants without the landowner’s consent.

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Any donations over and above the essential running costs will help support the conservation work of Plantlife, the Rivers Trust and charitable botanic gardens - as do author royalties and publisher proceeds from books by Pat and Sue.

Where to see wild orchids

There are many local and national nature reserves where wild orchids can be seen at the right time of year, and the network of local Wildlife Trusts can advise you on the best time to visit and also arrange for you to take part in some of the many tours that they organise during peak flowering times.

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