Orchids are commonly thought of as delicate plants for indoor use, yet there are at least three species that can readily be grown outdoors in Southern California. There are an additional four species I have observed thriving outdoors on separate occasions, although I cannot vouch for their general suitability for outdoor growing in our area.
Cymbidium: Locally, this is the best orchid for growing outdoors in containers. I recently received a photo of a glorious cymbidium orchid growing in a container in Huntington Beach. The photo was taken six years after its caretaker, Janet Guillen, divided an orchid she inherited when her mother passed away. She had split the original plant in two, planted the divisions in Miracle-Gro Potting Mix in medium-sized containers, and situated them on a patio sheltered from direct sun.
Cymbidium orchid in Huntington Beach. (Photo courtesy of Janet Guillen) When I asked Guillen what she does in terms of maintenance, she replied, “I just water them,” but also wanted to know what to do going forward since roots were growing through the bottom of her pots. Many orchid species, and cymbidiums in particular, flower at their maximum potential when crowded. In the case of cymbidiums, roots can be growing over the side of the pot or through drainage holes and continue to bloom heavily for many, many years.
There is a great temptation to repot when roots are not confined to the interior of the pot, but you need to be aware that should you divide your plant, you may have to wait several years until you see flowers again. In nature, cymbidiums may be either epiphytes (tree dwellers), lithophytes (meaning they grow on rocks), or terrestrial (meaning they grow directly in the earth). There are also miniature cymbidiums that grow as small as eight inches tall with tiny flowers to match.
Interestingly enough, if you keep Cymbidiums exclusively indoors, they will never bloom. According to Tony Glinskas of Huntington Beach, who is a member of the Cool Growing Orchid Society of Orange County, “Cymbidiums must have about a 20-degree Fahrenheit change in temperature between day and night in the fall or flower spiking will not occur. I have seen cymbidiums bloom in Hawaii only because they truck them up to the high mountains for a few days to get that temperature spread.”
Glinskas adds that “most orchids require more light, humidity, and temperature variation than we normally have in our homes.” The one exception is the ubiquitous moth orchid (Phalaenopsis), seen wherever indoor plants are sold. Its temperature range for growth resembles that of human beings (a constant 60-85 degrees) although it will need 10-12 hours of daily light exposure to bloom the way it should.
When I first visited the unforgettable garden of Richard Lynch in San Pedro, large clumps of cymbidiums planted in the ground had burst into bloom. Speaking with him the other day, he tells me that due to the many different cymbidium cultivars that he grows, he sees a steady show of cymbidium flowers starting in November and continuing at least through the month of March.
Epidendrum: I first encountered this plant, known as reed orchid due to its slender stems, growing in a large flower bed in Granada Hills that faced south but backed up to the facade of a house. It has been my experience that walls have a moderating influence on extreme temperatures where plant growth is concerned. This was definitely the case here although these orchids are known for growing in both full sun, which may turn their stems red, and partial shade.
Epidendrums make excellent container plants as well and, like cymbidiums, bloom in a wide range of colors including yellow, orange, red, burgundy, bronze, pink, lavender, purple, and white. Inflorescences consist of clusters of small, star-shaped blooms. I have encountered Epidendrums – whether growing in the ground or in containers – throughout the San Fernando Valley, and all points south of there. They spread vegetatively through underground rhizomes.
Bletilla: Known as Chinese ground orchid or simply hardy orchid due to its cold tolerance down to 25 degrees, this is a carefree terrestrial orchid that is highly suitable for use as a ground cover, proliferating through its aggressive rhizomes, and I once saw a front yard in Sherman Oaks that had been completely overtaken by it. Flowers are fuchsia, purple, or white, and resemble diminutive versions of Cattleya or corsage orchids.
Oncidium: Its common name of dancing ladies refers to the form of its small yellow flowers that are studded in great profusion along its stems. I once saw this orchid growing in a container under an arbor in Thousand Oaks.
Zygopetalum: Planted in the ground, I witnessed the purple flowers of this most fragrant of all orchids and enjoyed their scent as it wafted through the San Pedro garden previously mentioned. This orchid’s caretaker informed me that it blooms on and off throughout the year.
Dendrobium: I was privileged to encounter pink rock orchid (Dendrobium kingianum) in a small backyard planter in Westwood. Its delicate blooms were quite enchanting.
Laelia: Closely resembling cattleyas, with which they freely hybridize, there are cold-tolerant cultivars that grow outdoors as far north as San Francisco. My first encounter with a Laelia was when I saw a dazzling specimen vining up the trunk of a large cycad in Glendale.
You are invited to tell me about your orchid-growing experience so I can share it with readers of this column.
A musical version of “The Secret Garden” is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, located in The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. This is a classic story of personal transformation, as well as achieving family peace, through the restoration of a garden. Performances will continue through March 28th and tickets are available online at centertheatregroup.org.
Manzanita Arctostaphylos densiflora var. Howard McMinn.(Photo by Joshua Siskin) California native plant of the week: I am astonished each year at the spectacular bloom of my manzanita, a plant that never gets any attention from me except when I gaze or gawk, glare or stare at it. Each year, it blooms with more flowers than the year before and it has been doing this for the past two decades.
I am privileged to have planted Arctotsaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn,’ a variety second to none when its abundant bloom and symmetrical form are considered. It is slowly approaching its ultimate size when height and girth will reach eight feet.
Alas, I have never seen the fruit (manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish) for which this plant is named. There can only be one explanation for this: the native bees responsible for causing vibrations that move pollen to stigma – which is needed for fruit and seed development – are not present in this part of California when this manzanita is in bloom.
With all manzanitas, these native bees grasp hold of the flowers and through “buzz pollination” or sonication dislodge pollen, allowing it to move down the flower, an inverted urn, until it rests on a stigma. This same phenomenon happens with the flowers of blueberry bushes, which are relatives of manzanita and prove this relationship with urn-shaped flowers of their own. Manzanitas run the gamut when it comes to form with mat-like ground-hugging species, compact bushes, large shrubs and trees all included in the wide-ranging repertoire of the Arctostaphylos genus.
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