Phrags, Phrags, Phrags

Phragmipediums are my current passion. Where do they come from? Their native habitat is restricted to Central and South America and in general they resemble Paphiopedilums.

My first, a division of longifolium variety `Charma' was purchased by me in '88 at a local society auction at a very fair price. It settled down very nicely in the Volpe greenhouse soon to flower for what I thought would be a reasonable time of perhaps four to six weeks. However, this was not the case. The plant stayed in bloom, believe it or not, for at least a year, its inflorescence reaching over three feet. It started on the top shelf, being lowered to the second and then the bottom shelf. It kept going and going, flowering sequentially, as many phrags do, which was very pleasing to me. However, I decided enough was enough and cut off the spike. I truly did not know if, left to its own devices, it would stop flowering or continue until the plant expired. I still do not know the answer nor will I put any orchid to that test. To be truthful I got tired of looking at that flower. Needless to say, `Charma' wet my appetite. Now there was a challenge! Wherever I went, whether it be sales tables at a society meeting or orchid show or auctions, to which there were many, I rarely saw phrags being sold. I then realized how rare and closely guarded these plants were. However, about a year later, I hit pay dirt. To my amazement and delight, I literally stumbled upon a sales table with about a dozen varieties of phragmipedium divisions. Names I had never heard of before - Grande, caudatum, Sedenii, schlimii, lindenii, and equadorense. I gathered all I could carry in my arms and went in search of my husband. How could I possibly ask for all of them! Well, he took one look at my excited face and within moments they were mine. I cannot possibly describe to you the exhilaration I felt -- I danced all the way home. The plants quickly acclimated to our greenhouse conditions and within the year started blooming. First to show her stuff was the stately Schroderae. Her color is a rich rosy pink with petals measuring approximately 5 inches, twisting down past an elongated full pouch. The inflorescences branch with maturity. When grown well in an 8 inch pot a mature Schroderae should give at least two to three spikes yielding three to four flowers each. Also being a sequential bloomer, they stay in flower two to three months, dropping their oldest flower as the new bud emerges. (When this happens, don't be surprized to see a perfectly formed flower lying on the bench below the plant as it makes room for the next bloom.) The parents of Schroderae are caudatum and Sedenii. Other pink varieties such as schlimii, Sedenii, Cardinal, Rosy Gem and Carol Kanzer are a delight to own and are easily grown.

If you tend to favor a larger flower and the more unusual, I'd like to say a few words about Grande. Grande is caudatum crossed with longifolium. I've touched briefly on longifolium at the beginning of this article (who can forget `Charma'). I'll later tell you about caudatum, but the two together have mated very nicely to form Grande. It is a large yellowish green flower with some mahogany in the pouch and long twisted petals sometime reaching 12 - 18 inches in length. There are many varieties of Grande ranging from light to dark color forms. Since 1778, man has been either discovering Phragmipedium species or busy hybridizing to create more exotic flowers for our enjoyment. In 1981 a species, besseae, was discovered in Peru. It is a source of amazement that an orchid of such intense vivid color could have escaped detection for so many years. This relatively small plant bears several flowers in succession with the most striking jewel-like tones of reds and oranges. The flower is rather small, approximately 2 1/2 inches wide and 2 inches vertically. Needless to say, after such a find, there have been many busy bees (also known as hybridizers) at work to produce larger and/or more floriferous and colorful hybrids.

As I've been writing this article during the busy holiday season, something wonderful has appeared in our greenhouse. A first bloom seedling of Eric Young has emerged. The parents are besseae and longifolium. This original color was a slight disappointment since I thought the flower looked rather pale in dorsal and petals with pouch being light orange. After a week or so into bloom, I was amazed to find the color getting brighter and brighter. Currently, there are two very intense rich orange flowers in bloom with a new bud due to open shortly. This plant is a delight to see in these dark winter days. He can stay!

I'm sure you've noticed when speaking to a fellow orchid lover and you ask what their favorite genus or flower is, the reply is often -- "whatever is currently blooming". Although our current bloomers are the phrags in the preceding paragraphs, I absolutely cannot wait to see signs of spiking in my caudatums. In my eyes, of all of the phrags in this genus there is nothing that can top this spectacular species. Without a doubt they are my very favorites. Some refer to caudatum as the `Mandarin Orchid', I guess because of the supposed oriental faces, accompanied by the drooping `mustache' that is apparent in the blossom. If you've never seen one, I would tell you to look for a phrag that was marvelously enchanting as well as wonderfully weird. The caudatum can be easily recognized by the length of its ribbon-like petals. If left untouched as they continue to lengthen they could reach 24 to 30 inches. Many have said they grow to these lengths to reach the ground, enabling insects to climb up to pollinate the flower. The flower is usually large, 6 to 7 inches in length and yellowish with green veins. The stems grow to about 24 inches tall putting out 2 to 4 flowers which open simultaneously. How can one not be in awe when seeing this striking plant!

Well, at this point in time you must be tired of hearing about my charges so I'll begin to discuss some important particulars, that is, how I grow them. I should add that if you already grow phrags successfully, please do not dramatically change your culture, but perhaps you might glean a few pointers that may help you to improve your growing. You've heard the old saying, "If it works don't fix it." We grow our phragmipediums in an airy atmosphere with humidity at 70%. They require fairly high light, 2000-3000 ft. candles, but not as bright as cattleyas. The exception is my besseas. They are grown under a slightly lower light on the back shelf of the greenhouse. The temperature is set at a minimum 58 oF and rises to 68 oF giving them a 10 degree differential. In sunny or warmer weather they may reach as high as 85 oF. Remember, air movement is essential. I water very early on sunny days, perhaps 2-3 times per week in the summer and maybe once a week during the colder winter months. Always be on guard, DO NOT leave moisture in the axles. Moisture combined with cold night temperatures may cause problems. Since phrags are never really dormant you may water them freely throughout the year. I also separate all of my orchids by pot size and can tell when a plant needs watering by the pot weight. In other genuses this works very well and there tends to be no over or under watering occurring. The phrags seem to take a little more water than other orchids, but I do not keep them "dripping" or "soggy". However, I am growing each in a small plastic saucer of water, being sure the water level does not completely cover the drainage holes at the bottom sides of the pot, since I believe the roots need both moisture and air.

In repotting your plants you should be sure to look for hairy like roots with white tips. If you find this condition you can be assured your root system is doing well. Since phrags bloom randomly as their new growths mature, I have found success in repotting after their blooming period even though some growths are already half matured. Repotting does not seem to have an effect on their blooming.

I use plastic pots with Styrofoam peanuts at the bottom and a very open potting medium. It consists of equal parts: medium and small bark, medium and small perlite and medium and small charcoal. I believe the charcoal plays an important role in growing a healthy plant. I once decided to pre-moisten the above ingredients but found it to be such a mess to work with that the plants are now potted with dry mix and watered very heavily once a day for two days.

We now come to fertilizing. You should perk up and read carefully. I regularly use Grow More 20-10-20 (with non urea nitrogen) and occasionally 6-30-30 (also non urea) throughout the year. However, twice a year, April and then again in October, I supplement with a top dressing mix of equal parts dried blood and bone meal. To gauge how much to use, a 5 inch pot is given a full teaspoon and an 8 inch pot gets a full tablespoon. Immediately after the top dressing is added, the plants are drenched thoroughly. Remember, dried blood is all nitrogen and by using this above recipe the plants are given a good boost and multiple growths are produced each year. The bone meal aids in robust blooming. ( Warning to house growers! Dry blood is not desirable for indoor growers as it has a strong, quite unpleasant odor.) You will hopefully appreciate the end result of these culture tips as we did when our Phragmipedium schlimii `Birchwood' AM/AOS received a 90 point CCM at the Affiliated Orchid Show in Cherry Hill in 1992. It had 15 flowers and 9 buds on 6 infloresences.

As for pests and diseases, Phragmepediums do not seem to be as susceptible to those nasty little creatures that can make a grown orchid grower cry. I am a firm believer, however, in preventative maintenance and we regularly spray all of our greenhouses with pesticides and fungicides using a respirator mask and protective clothing. With all that we've read over the last several years regarding endangered species, my husband Joe has been dabbling in his spare time in propagating and flasking orchids. I might add that a great deal of time, patience, and equipment goes into such an endeavor. Perhaps at a later date we'll have much to celebrate and report back to you on new phragmipedium arrivals in the Volpe greenhouse.

Well, I've now given you all of the information on how I grow the genus phragmipedium, so now it's up to you. I hope you've found this article both enlightening and informative and when its all said and done one can only wonder how fantastic nature really is.

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