How to Plant, Grow and Care For Cattleya Orchids
Looking to add some cattleya orchids to your indoor or outdoor garden this season? These tropical flowers are both popular, and stunning to look at. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through everything you need to know about cattleya orchids and their care.
Recall in your memory a time when you observed an orchid wrist corsage, fragrant and exotic. Recall the smell and the intricate details of the bloom, perhaps ruffled petals of purple and white with a whisper of yellow glowing from the inside.
The orchid in your memory is more likely than not, a cattleya. This type of orchid is dubbed the “queen orchid” and “corsage orchid” and has long stood the test of time in fashion and in the hearts of gardeners alike.
Cattleyas are more than just a pretty face with a full, pouty bottom lip. Very few orchid species are fragrant, and the cattleya has the most fragrant flowers of the more common orchids that are widely available. This quality, along with the impressive size and complexity of their blooms, makes the cattleya a highly treasured plant, with greatly anticipated blooms.
Cattleya Orchid Plant Overview
Plant Type Perennial Epiphytes
Season Spring for blooming
Pests Aphids, Mealybugs, Scale
Exposure Bright Indirect Sunlight
Disease Water Mold, Root Rot, fungus
Plant Spacing Individual Containers
Species up to 120 with many natural hybrids
Planting Depth Shallow
Soil Type Bark Mix
Native Area Central and South America
Height up to 2’
Plant With Palms and Succulents
Hardiness Zones 10-12
Watering Needs Once Per Week
About Cattleya Orchids
Cattleya orchids have some of the most enchanting blooms in the orchid world. While they generally have fewer blooms than other genus of orchids, the flowers are impressive, large, fragrant, and frequently more than one color.
The cattleya orchid is native to Central and South America, predominantly from Costa Rica, south through Argentina, with some varieties growing as far north as Mexico.
Like most orchids they are considered epiphytes. This means that they are essentially air plants. They grow on structures like trees, where they develop a root system that clings to the supporting structure and collects moisture from the air by way of humidity and rain.
Originating in the Americas, there are as many as 120 recognized species of cattleya orchid, as well as a number of natural hybrids.
They are classified by leaf formation and fall into two groups: unifoliate (sometimes referred to as monofoliate) and bifoliate, referring to the number of leaves which appear on each pseudo-bulb. The Pseudo-bulb is the portion of the plant that will produce a bud, and eventually a flower.
Unifoliate cattleya orchids develop only one large leaf per pseudobulb, and include the most common species of the genus, Cattleya Labiata.
Each of these pseudobulb/leaf formations produces a single flower, ranging from small (2”) to large (up to 8”). Their flowers range in color from purple to yellow, and often a combination of more than one color.
The nature of these plants to bear only a single bloom may seem like a letdown considering that they only bloom once per year, however, these blooms tend to be quite showy, and long lasting. Once you have seen a cattleya in bloom, you will undoubtedly enjoy its care and keeping.
The less common of the two classes, bifoliate cattleya orchids produce two leaves per pseudobulb. Each pseudobulb produces a stalk of small to medium sized blooms, with some species producing up to 40 flowers per stalk, making this type quite showy and spectacular.
The color variations of bifoliate cattleyas are widespread and comprise pink, lavender, brown, green and yellow.
Both unifoliate and bifoliate cattleyas have similar flower formations. The blooms consist of three sepals, which are commonly green and leaflike. In the case of the cattleya, however, they are generally the same color as the petals, of which there are also 3.
Two large upper petals crown the flower with one larger, lower petal called the labellum (or lip) which is larger in size and usually more varied in coloration.
It is inside of this larger petal, or labellum, that the flowers column is located. The column contains an ovary and stigma, and this is where the bloom produces and stores pollen. Hummingbirds are big fans of the cattleya orchid as they provide an ample source of nectar.
Propagation from seed is not the most satisfactory method for orchids, because of their very long maturation period. It is possible for cattleya orchids to be grown from seed, however, it will take up to 7 years for this plant to mature and it won’t bear flowers until the time of maturity. For this reason, most propagation is done by division.
Propagating orchids is much simpler than most plants because of their epiphytic nature. If an orchid is divided and kept in much the same environment as the parent plant, it should thrive with very simple care.
The cattleya plant is made up of pseudobulbs, each one giving way to another duplicate of itself, along a horizontal root system called a rhizome. This characteristic is known as sympodial.
Some orchid genera are monopodial, meaning that they grow vertically from a single pseudobulb. Sympodial orchids tend to be easier to divide, which is a good thing for cattleya growers who like to share!
For most unifoliate cattleya orchids, each pseudobulb will only produce a single bloom. An old pseudobulb will never bloom again, but should be left attached to the plant, as they provide support and nutrients for new growth. A healthy plant can produce multiple pseudobulbs over the course of a year, so multiple flowers during a blooming period is not unheard of.
To propagate by division, it is best to wait until a plant has about 8 pseudo-bulbs and divide the rhizome in half so that both divisions have an adequate support system and some new growth. Each part can then be repotted, and it will continue to produce more pseudo-bulbs over time.
If you simply must grow a plant from a seed, the primary thing that you will need a sterile environment, as orchid seeds are very sensitive to bacteria and fungus.
Growing an orchid from a seed can be done in one of two ways, symbiotic germination and asymbiotic germination. Orchid seeds are incredibly small and vulnerable to bacteria and fungus, so be sure to acquire your seeds from a reputable source.
Orchid seeds do not store their own nutrients, and they will not germinate without help from an external source. In their natural habitat, this comes in the form of mycorrhizal fungi.
The fungi have the ability to absorb nutrients, and also, to attach to the orchid seeds. The seeds are then able to use photosynthesis to convert the nutrients and make them useful for their own growth.
This process is nearly impossible to mimic outside of a controlled laboratory environment, which most hobby gardeners do not have at home. For this reason, I will stop here and move on to discuss asymbiotic germination, which can generally be achieved by dedicated home gardeners with plenty of precision and patience.
Asymbiotic germination is done through a method known as flasking. Flasking is the in vitro fertilization of orchid propagation. Because orchid seeds are very tiny and have no endosperm, they do not have much energy available to them. In the wild, as we have discussed, they have a symbiotic relationship with fungi which breaks down the nutrients so that these tiny seeds can absorb and utilize them.
Because the process of symbiotic germination is so difficult to replicate, this method of flasking has a similar effect that can be done in a more controlled manner. Orchid seeds are germinated in a glass flask with a nutrient rich substance which is bioavailable for the seeds.
The seeds need to grow inside the clean flask environment for up to 2 years in some instances, and then will take several additional years before they mature and produce flowers.
If you’re wondering just how tiny these seeds are, break open a vanilla bean. The vanilla bean is the seed pod of the vanilla orchid. Inside you will find a gritty, dark brown substance, this is made up of millions of tiny seeds.
Growing Cattleya Orchids
If you live in zones 10-12, growing orchids is truly as easy as tying them into a tree and allowing them to attach themselves to the supporting limb. Orchids can survive outdoors in these zones with very little attention. For the rest of us, there are a few important factors to consider, and orchids will all need to be indoor plants for at least a portion of the year.
Cattleya orchids are slow growers, taking 4-7 years to mature when grown from a seedling, however, a mature plant can be divided to create a new plant, and the resulting plant is already mature and should flower inside of a year if well cared for.
Your most useful tool in growing cattleya orchids is your power of observation. With a few other factors in mind, growing cattleyas is a satisfying process that will result in some of the most unique and lovely blooms in the garden. Let’s discuss the best practices for creating a hospitable environment for your cattleya orchid.
Orchids are epiphytic, meaning that they grow on the surface of another plant or organism, and derive their nutrients from the air, rain, and surroundings. In their natural environment, most orchids require no soil at all, just the bark of a tree to attach to.
Orchids thrive with an abundance of air circulation around their root system. If you plant an orchid in regular potting soil, you run a high risk of root rot, as they don’t do well without the right amount of air circulation.
Orchid potting mix is widely available and it’s a great medium to start with if you’re not quite ready to make your own potting mixture. If you like to mix your own potting soil, a good orchid mix would be about 50% bark, 25% sphagnum or coco chips, and the remaining 25% a combination of charcoal, pumice, perlite and peat moss.
As mentioned above, cattleyas need a lot of air circulation around their root systems because they will rot if their roots don’t dry out in between waterings. The best receptacles for planting orchids will have ample air circulation, and the ability to drain completely after watering.
Orchid pots typically have patterns of holes around the sides of the pot. Orchid baskets are also wonderful, as they are wood, and it is easy to mimic the natural environment this way.
Once you have selected your pot, cover the bottom of the pot with your potting medium. Position the oldest part of the plant against the side of the pot, with the oldest pseudobulb about an inch below the rim.
Fill in around the plant with more potting medium, tightly. Because of the loose nature of this type of potting medium, it can be useful to use wire or clips to hold the plant in place until it has started to root into the medium.
Cattleya orchids can tolerate, and actually need a fair amount of light as far as orchids go. The rule is about 2,000 to 3,000 foot-candles, or about 65% shade, 35% sun. These numbers are important as cattleyas will not bloom if they don’t get a sufficient amount of sunlight.
In terms of light, observation of the plant is key. If you pay attention to your cattleya’s leaves, it will tell you when it is getting the right amount of light. If the leaves of your cattleya are deep green, it is likely not getting enough light. The leaves should be bright, light green.
Orchids can also get sunburned if they get too much direct sunlight, particularly intense afternoon sun. If the leaves turn a reddish-brown color, they are probably getting too much mid-day sun, and would benefit from more filtered light than direct. In very humid climates, a cattleya can tolerate a bit more sun, as they don’t run as high a risk of scorching.
In most climates, orchids need to come indoors during the coldest months. An east-facing bathroom window is a great place for orchids in the winter. If the window is south or west facing, a sheer curtain to diffuse the light will create the right environment.
Because of their habit of growing in the air, orchids don’t like to stay wet between waterings. Most cattleyas do well being watered once per week if kept indoors.
Water only when the potting medium is almost entirely dry. Increase watering when the plant is about to bloom, as the flowers need a bit more moisture, but be careful not to keep those roots soggy.
Outdoors, if they are in pots with ample drainage, a cattleya can be watered every few days. The roots and potting medium should dry out, almost entirely, between waterings. This varies, of course, depending on the climate in which they are being grown.
Climate and Temperature
The ideal temperatures for a cattleya are between 70°-80° during the day, and 60°-64° at night. This makes them a good house plant for most homes. The issue with orchids living indoors, is that they prefer a relatively humid environment.
A humidity level of at least 50% and up to 80% will make them happiest. A brightly lit bathroom is just about the perfect place for a cattleya and most types of orchids.
If you don’t have a bathroom with a window that provides enough light, higher humidity can be achieved with a humidifier, or a saucer of water and pebbles set beneath the pot. Misting won’t do much harm, but is not likely to do much good either, as the water is absorbed by the roots.
Orchids do like to be fertilized regularly. Use a standard 10-10-10 fertilizer at half strength, once per week during the blooming season. During the off season, fertilizing can be reduced to once every 2-3 weeks.
That means that during the blooming season, you should fertilize nearly every time you water your orchid. Once every few weeks, flush the potting mix with non-softened water to wash away any buildup of salts on the root system.
If your orchid is in the right potting medium and has the right amount of light and moisture, there is very little else to do until it outgrows its pot. But if your orchid starts to look pot bound, you can repot it in a larger pot. Alternatively, you can divide your plant into two or more new plants, and re-pot accordingly.
Regular pruning of a cattleya is not necessary. Knowing that each pseudo-bulb only produces one flower might make it difficult to keep from cutting off the old back bulbs. However, these back bulbs and their leaves continue to provide important nutrients and photosynthesis for the new bulbs, so that they can produce new flowers.
There is one pruning method that will force your cattleya to produce additional pseudo-bulbs, and therefore, additional flowers. As this involves cutting the orchid’s rhizome, or main root, it should only be done using sharp, sterile tools. The rhizome is more susceptible to disease and fungi than the leaves.
This process involves cutting the rhizome, ½ of the way through, between each of the new “eyes” that the rhizome has grown. Each of these eyes will become a new pseudo-bulb. By cutting the rhizome open in between two eyes, the plant will create an additional eye in the place that has been cut. Cutting all the way through the rhizome will result in cutting the supply of nutrients to the newest growth, so this should be avoided.
With so many varieties of cattleya to choose from, it isn’t difficult to find more than a few special gems. These are some of the more common and easier to find varieties that will thrill every year with their fragrant blooms.
Also known as the crimson cattleya or ruby-lipped cattleya, this is truly the queen orchid. The blooms are large and showy (7’-9’), and usually a deep rose color with a crimson lip.
This is a fall blooming orchid and once mature, it is not uncommon for a plant to produce as many as 5 or 6 of these impressive blooms at a time. There are many beautiful hybrids to this variety as well, and some of those orchid varieties bloom in bright pink shades.
Cattleya Gaskelliana has large flowers (6”-7). The blooms on this orchid range in color from medium amethyst purple, to pure white. The lip is large and a deeper shade of purple, sometimes with white or yellow accents.
The blooming season is from March to June. A relatively easy plant to maintain, the gaskelliana has an impressive show to maintenance ratio.
This prolific bloomer is an excellent variety for the hobbyist. It is a bifoliate variety and has a vigorous growth habit. This orchid can send up two stalks yearly and blooms in multiple flowers along each one.
The stalks of blooms are pale purple to white, with long thin petals and sepals, and a larger more colorful lip. The flowers are large, colorful and plentiful, this is an impressive bloomer with a winter blooming habit.
This Venezuelan variety is great for the hobby gardeners as well. It is easy to care for and produces 2-4 flowers on each stem. The sepals and ruffled petals are varied in color from purple to white, with a deep crimson lip edged in paler purple with yellow accents.
Dubbed the “Christmas Orchid” because of its blooming time, which falls around December and January.
Another holiday bloomer, this Colombian native blossoms around Easter time. The blooms are a soft blush color, with a very pronounced lip.
The lip is fluted at the end, and ruffled white edges encircle a golden inner lip with a slight blush to the outside of the lip. This is a very fragrant variety and has a beautiful delicate look.
Pests and Diseases
The tender new growth on an orchid makes it susceptible to quite a number of pests and diseases. Here again, is where those powers of observation are so important. By identifying pests and diseases early, a gardener can greatly mitigate the damage done, and hopefully, not lose any of those precious blooms. Here are some of the more common issues that affect the health and growth of cattleya orchids.
Aphids love to feed on the tender new growth of orchids. These little green insects can really drain an orchid of nutrients and cause the new growth to be stunted. A sign of aphids is the curling and shriveling of new growth, as this is where they like to feed.
Aphids feed on plant sap, and if they attack a forming bud, they can entirely deplete the flower causing it to not bloom. Another result of aphids are sticky secretions which can cause mold to form on their host plants.
The main culprit behind aphids is buying infected plants. Make sure that all plants you introduce are free of these pests. Prevention is the best defense. If aphids strike, isolate infected plants, and treat with an insecticide product until there is no trace of the insects.
Scale are one of the greatest problem pests in the plant world. These tiny insects reproduce quickly and suck the life out of plants at the same speed. They are typically introduced by purchasing infected plants.
So once again, the best defense is a good offense. If prevention doesn’t work, there are a number of ways to treat scale, although they are more difficult to eradicate than some other insects due to their reproductive rate.
Scale can be treated with both natural and chemical insecticides. An orchid with scale might benefit from repotting and disposal of the old potting material. Some safer treatments for indoor plants include neem oil and alcohol.
Another common pest that can also affect cattleya orchids are thirps. Although cattleyas are somewhat more resistant than some other types of orchids. Because of how small they are, they are difficult to detect until they have done significant damage.
They suck the sap out of flower buds, making that flower you’ve been hoping for all year shrivel and wilt. As with other insects, an orchid infected with thrips should be isolated and treated with insecticidal measures, either natural or chemical.
Cattleya Orchids are particularly susceptible to black rot. The spores from this fungus travel by water, so if there has been a lot of rain, black rot becomes a greater concern.
Most often, this fungus it is the result of an infected plant coming close to a healthy plant and water droplets splashing from the infected plant to the other. Practicing good gardening hygiene is important for the prevention of this disease.
Black rot shows up, generally, on new growth first, causing young plants to shrivel and die. This can be difficult to observe. When it begins to affect the mature growth, it will show up first in spots and then in swaths of black.
Some good practices to avoid and mitigate damage from black rot are keeping orchids off the ground outside and trimming affected leaves off at the first sign of damage. Also, keep orchids in a space with good air circulation, orchids thrive where the air is humid, and free moving.
Caused by the fungus botrytis cinerea, a botrytis infection is an issue that seems to affect cattleya orchids disproportionately. This fungus reproduces in cool damp environments, typically in spring or fall, and travels by air.
Botrytis affects a plant’s tissue very quickly, showing up first as small brown spots on soft, new growth and flowers, and ultimately decimating the plant.
Prevention of this fungus is achieved by careful watering, isolating infected plants, and maximizing airflow to reduce stagnant moisture where the spores reproduce. Botrytis can be treated with a fungicide, however, once the damage is done, there is no undoing. It is best to remove the damaged tissue and allow the plant to focus energy on new growth.
Orchids in general can be a bit intimidating. They are generally sold while in bloom, and looking their most spectacular. It can be difficult to get through an entire year before seeing your plant flower again. Orchids are a practice in patience and observation. If you create the right environment for them, they can be exceptionally fulfilling for the same reason they can be so painstaking.
Cattleya orchids are not called the Queen Orchid for no reason. With their large, magnificent blooms and wonderful fragrance, they are truly a sight to behold when they are happy and thriving.