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Orchid, Corsage

Plant of the Week

Corsage Orchid
Latin: Cattleya labiata

Picture of Corsage Orchids with violet flowers.
Cattleya orchids were responsible for  igniting the orchid collecting craze that remains with us to this day.

I came of age just after the days depicted in Grease - those innocent times when all the cool cars had fender skirts, the girls wore poodle skirts and you always got your prom date an orchid corsage. The orchid was a cattleya.

For much of the last two centuries, the word orchid and cattleya were almost synonymous, but that has changed. Today, this showy tropical jewel has faded from our collective memory as new, easier-to-grow species have displaced it. To grow cattleyas really well requires a greenhouse, so Dendrobiums, Phalaenopsis, Vandas and other windowsill-friendly orchids have become more popular in recent years.

Of the 40 species known, Cattleya labiata is worth singling out for it was the species on which the genus is based and the plant responsible for starting the 19th century orchid craze. It’s a tropical epiphyte growing in the treetops in the northeastern part of Brazil where it still occurs in its wild state.

Plants produce a creeping rhizome and thick, fleshy roots. From the rhizomes arise numerous pseudobulbs - erect, swollen, elongated, often shriveled structures adapted for storing water. From the end of these a single, flat, oblong, 10-inch long leaf appears.

From the juncture between the pseudobulb and the leaf, flower scapes form producing three to six lavender blossoms that are as much as 6 inches across. Lavender and white forms occur in the wild, but the magic of hybridization has produced a rainbow of colors and forms. This first cattleya was sent back to England in 1818, so legend tells us, as packing material for other rare tropical plants. The shipment ended up in the hands of William Cattley, a wealthy plant collector and early orchid enthusiast. Cattley potted some of the "packing" material and had flowers that same year.

In 1820, Cattley hired a young plant enthusiast - John Lindley (1799 - 1865) - to help him publish a book describing his fine plant collection. In 1832, Lindley received his Ph.D. from the University of Munich, and that same year, published a description of Cattley’s orchid, naming it in honor of his early sponsor.

Orchid collecting and growing was a fashionable pursuit among wealthy Englishmen of the day. Nurseries, the Horticulture Society and wealthy patrons all sent plant collectors to far flung parts of the world looking for new orchids. Lindley accepted the challenge of developing a system of classification for these new introductions as they arrived in England. His system, modified and expanded to encompass new discoveries, is still the basis for orchid classification, making him the father of orchidology.

Cattleyas do best with "intermediate" conditions, meaning they grow best when nightime temperatures are around 65 degrees but no warmer than 85 during the day. The high humidity and bright conditions provided by the greenhouse are also to their liking, but they must not have full sunlight during the summer or their foliage may sunburn.

Being epiphytes, cattleyas are grown in a coarse bark media that retains very little water. A typical potting soil is a death sentence for the plant. Coarsely chopped tree fern bark, redwood bark or large nuggets of pine bark mixed with charcoal have all been used. During periods of active growth, they’re fed with a diluted fertilizer solution.

Watering is reduced during the winter when the plants go into a kind of semi-dormancy, but increased in the spring as new growth and flowers appear. Underwatering during this period reduces blooms but overwatering kills.

They are usually divided every three years, with each division having at least six pseudobulbs. Clay pots are best for cattleyas as it reduces the chance of overwatering.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - February 18, 2005


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.