Originating from Costa Rica and the Lesser Antilles south to Argentina, the Cattleya orchid family boasts a genus of 113 species with showy flowers ranging from white to purple. The specie was titled after William Cattley in 1824, an English botany enthusiast and also the first person being able to bloom a Cattleya. The name was given to the orchid family by William’s friend and colleague, John Lindley. Cattley imported plants from Brazil to England when he noticed a strange bulb used as packaging material. Her then cultivated the bulb and it grew into ‘The Queen of Flowers’ as it is known today.
This occurred after William Swainson discovered the plant in Pernambuco, Brazil in 1817 after which it was sent to Glasgow Botanical Gardens for identification. He later requested that a few plants are sent to William Cattley who managed to bloom them in less than a year. Surprisingly, another 70 years gone by before the plants were rediscovered in nature after a confusion relating to their location.
Today, Cattleyas are not surpassed by any of the other orchid families in the race for the most popular orchid. Even though in some areas or among some individual growers other orchid families are very popular or even the preferred, the Cattleya has been the driving force of the orchid trade and has done the most to stimulate orchid growing as a hobby.
Cattleyas are recognised for their large, eye-catching flowers, and were used extensively in hybridisation for the cut-flower trade until the 1980s when pot plants became more popular. This orchid family consists of forty-eight species excluding many hybrids. The flowers can vary in size ranging from 5cm to 15cm or even more. The number of flowers carried can vary from a single flower, up to ten flowers per stalk. Bloom colours can range from whites and yellows to deep reds and lavender, most colours except for true blue and black.
A typical Cattleya flower shows off three rather narrow sepals and three usually broader petals of which two petals are alike; the third is quite different with its noticeable lip, featuring various markings and an often frilly border. With this specie, each stalk grows from a pseudobulb and leaves are thick, leathery or fleshy.
The specie are referred to as epiphytic because of its ability to grow on trees or rocks. Cattleyas are also sympodial which means that they grow sideways, occurring from a connecting stem which grows horizontally.
The genus is divided into two sections: the first is distinguished by the club-shaped pseudobulbs which bear but a single leaf, while the second has long, spindle-shaped pseudobulbs bearing two leaves. The flowers of the unifoliate (one-leaved) group generally are larger, with broader flower segments; the flowers of the bifoliate group have narrower petals and sepals, smaller but thicker flowers.
Despite its tropical origins, Cattleyas are easy to grow. They do not like direct sunlight, but prefer shade during the hottest part of the day. That said, they thrive in a well-lit room with consistent temperatures. Watering you Cattleyas also needs to be timed carefully; it is suggested that you only water your plant once the potting medium has dried.
How to Grow (South Africa)
It is one of the most important factors in growing and blooming cattleyas . Shadehouse should be covered with 50 to 60 % shade cloth. In the garden bright light to some sun should be given to the plants, but no direct sun in the middle of the day. Leaves should be medium green colour and pseudobulbs rigid and erect without support.
Watering is provided in two ways, in the pot by watering and in the air as humidity. Watering in the pot is dictated by size and type of pot, light, temperature and growing media. For a plant growing in a good open media, watering twice a week in summer and once every ten days in winter should be sufficient. Mature cattleyas need to dry out before you water again. As roots can be damaged easily by excess water, rather defer watering when in doubt. In summer avoid watering during the heat of the day and only water on bright sunny days in winter. Remember rain water is the best quality water to give to your plants. Misting of shade house floor and plants early in the morning and late afternoon in summer (October to March) will help increase humidity to stop plants from dehydrating.
Cattleya should be kept indoor in winter and autumn; they can grow outdoor in warm seasons.
Temperatures between 5 degrees Celsius minimum in winter and 35 degrees Celsius in summer can be tolerated. Cattleyas should experience a 10 degree Celsius temperature differential between day and night temperatures for optimal growth and flowering. Remember bifoliate cattleyas are hardier, thus tolerating lower and higher temperatures than unifoliates and that yellow and red flowering unifoliate plants need more warmth in winter. Most cattleyas are photoperiod as well as temperature sensitive, meaning that their growth and flowering cycles are controlled by day length as well as seasonal temperature variations.
The most ideal humidity for Cattleya is between 50% to 65%.
We recommend foliar feed fertilizer for sturdy growth and healthy blooming. Fertilizer must be given on a regular schedule, once a week during active growth (September through to beginning of April) in the morning or late afternoon and once a month during winter (bright sunny days when temperature is 18 degrees to 25 degrees Celsius) Do not fertilize during heat of the day or when temperatures are above 30 degrees Celsius or when to cold (below 15 degrees Celsius).
Repotting is necessary when the plant protrudes over the pot and or the growing media starts breaking down and drain poorly or when salt buildup in the media affects growth. It is best to repot just before new roots sprout from new growths or after flowering or in spring time depending on type of cattleya. Cattleyas can be grown in a wide range of materials from stone, bark sphagnum moss or rock wool mix, as long as the mix is open and drains well. If dividing a plant, 3 to 5 pseudobulbs per division is required. Stake freshly transplanted plants to keep them from moving when watering as this might damage new developing roots. As an alternative to growing in pots you can mount your cattleyas on slabs such as pieces of driftwood, or branches (e.g. sekelbos) or on trees in your garden(remember sun).Most plants respond vigorously to this form of culture as it resembles their natural way of growth and one can detect any culture defects quicker. Using a piece of nylon stocking is the best as it will stretch and not cut into the orchid or rot or rust. Ensure plants are firm on the mount as movement will damage and destroy the new developing roots. A pad of sphagnum moss over and under the roots can aid establishment, providing local moisture and humidity.
Cattleyas, apart from root rot caused by overwatering, can be attacked by pests such as scale and mealy bug. Check under the dead sheaths of the pseudobulbs for hidden scale. Thrips can occur on flower buds. Slugs and snails love new root tips, flowers and buds, as do cockroaches. For more information contact your orchid shop or nearest orchid society.