It is nearly 200 years since the first “slipper” orchids or paphiopedilums were discovered and brought to England. This species, Paph. venustum, is still in common cultivation today. The first hybrid paphiopedilum was made in the 1850’s and the hybridisers have never looked back. As with many genera, the hybrids are easier to cultivate than the species.
Amongst species paphiopedilums, colours range from browns and greens to pinks and whites or to intensely dark reds and purples. The tall dorsal standing behind the pouch is often attractively striped or spotted. Most species have their own distinctive shape and range in size up to 15 cm across.
The hybrids are now extremely complex but they are often hardy and rapid growers. Some have achieved an almost perfect circle of flower segments presenting the coloured pouch against a patterned backgroud, standing well above the leaves. Almost any colour combination that you could desire has been made. The newer vinicoloured hybrids are particularly striking. Many hybridists are now going back and making some of the primary hybrids again but now with award winning parents to further improve the quality of plants available. Hybridisation has widely extended the flowering season so that something will be in bloom for up to eight months a year.
In addition to the flowers, the foliage of paphiopedilums is most attractive. Some plants have glossy pale to dark green leaves while others have tessellated and mottled light and dark green, sometimes with purple shading on the underside. The leaves form a fan with new growths increasing in size over the previous growth.
Paphiopedilums in general prefer less light and more moisture than many other orchids. Little or no direct sun is required though good ventilation is essential. The potting mix needs to drain well but hold some moisture. Several specialist mixes have been devised and are available through societies. Sydney’s temperate conditions suit the majority of paphiopedilums though a few need some warmth in our winter.
As in many parts of the world, the native habitat of many species is under severe threat or has already been destroyed leaving only the cultivated plants as surviving examples of their species.
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.