Cattleya orchids and their relatives are amongst the most spectacular flowers in the world.  Originally from South America, they are now grown world-wide with some of the leading growers and hybridists here in Sydney.  Hydridisation within the alliance has produced not only a massive range of colours but variation in the size of the plants.  While the new miniature class of cattleyas has small growth, the flowers are disproportionately large and often intensely coloured in reds, yellows and purples.  These smaller varieties are well suited to the balcony or courtyard.  There has been extensive hybridisation with the epidendrum/encyclia alliance to increase the range of plant size and flower colour.

Do not be put off by the thought of tropical rainforest orchids growing in our temperate climate.  Although at a higher latitude, many cattleya alliance species grow at moderate to high altitude in a climate very similar to Sydney.  They are epiphytes, living on trees, where they have good air movement and completely free drainage of their roots.  These are the conditions we need to emulate to successfully grow them.

A medium to large bark orchid mix, changed before it breaks down, is ideal.  Often this change is forced by the rapid progress of these plants, outgrowing the pot in that time.  Do not worry about roots trailing out the bottom of the pot; this is a sign of good growing conditions.  Regular weak fertiliser is a must during active growth with watering every few days in warmer weather.  In our winter the plants’ growth rate slows.  They should have a rest and be kept relatively dry for several months until they take off again.  Cattleyas thrive in hanging pots with free air movement as they have in nature, sometimes many metres from the ground.  In that situation they receive broken sunlight for much of the day and they need this to flower.  Under a fairly open tree or 50% shadecloth facing north are ideal conditions.

It is recommended to begin with hybrid plants rather than species as they are esier to grow and flower.  With the rapid destruction of their habitat, species plants are becoming rarer though thankfully orchid enthusiasts in South America are producing some nursery-bred species before they are completely extinct in the wild.

The Eastern Suburbs Orchid Society has an orchid show on the third Monday of every month at 8pm, St Luke’s Church Hall, Varna Street, Clovelly.  Visitors are always welcome.