Orchids last much longer than every day flowers – typically 1 to 3 months – and this has contributed to their century and a half of popularity. This bounty of blooms seems to go on forever yet the remaining months of the year are flowerless while the plants are concentrating on growing new leaves and roots. Thus, hobbyists are left to gaze at greenery that is, well, not too exciting.
Orchid foliage rarely wins beauty contests.
Hobbyists are known to describe their leaves in non-aesthetic terms. They talk about the vigor or the overall health. But orchids are primarily grown for their flowers and there is great anticipation as the first buds of the season appear. But wouldn’t it be nice if the greenery were as exciting as the flowers?
For the grower who wants year-round beauty, there are choices.
Though the flowers are relatively insignificant, “Jewel Orchids” will knock your socks off with their brightly striped dark velvety leaves. This small group of lesser-known terrestrial genera include Ludisia, Macodes, and Anoectochilus. Propagation is made easy by simply chopping off a side growth and planting it.
Phalaenopsis lovers appreciate the showy multi-floral species which have lush marbled greenery in addition to branched inflorescences. P schilleriana (pinks), P philippinensis (yellows), and, P stuartiana (spots) are the building blocks of today’s hybrids but are not commonly sold due to their slightly finicky cultivation requirements. These species are best grown attached to a piece of wood or basket rather than in a pot.
The best all-around choice for the foliage conscious is a subsection of the Paphiopedilum family called the ‘Maudiae’ type. The name refers to one of the very first Paph hybrids to have mottled leaves called P Maudiae (callosum x lawrenceanum) which was bred in 1900 by the English firm, Charlesworth. The seedlings produced flowers and greenery that were different from one another. The base color of the leaves varied from light to dark green and had fascinating markings. These Paphs were an instant sensation with the early European collectors.
If a grower could get P Maudiae to bloom, that was even better. The flower was just as intriguing as the greenery and featured a pouch-like labellum that resembled a lady’s slipper. The entire genus of Paphs was given the nickname, Lady Slipper.
Paphs are small and dozens can fit on a windowsill. Their care is similar to Phalaenopsis which prefer indirect light and constant moisture. Blooming times are random but there is plenty of notice since a new vegetative growth is required.
There are sizable plant societies devoted to just Paphiopedilums which meet and have seminars and shows. The National Capital Orchid Society (www.ncos.us) in Washington, D.C. hosts an annual forum in which speakers discuss the latest trends. One of the categories for judging is “Best Foliage of a Potted Slipper Plant.”
Even in today’s fast paced life, paphs retain their old world charm since each plant is grown from seed. Nearly all other orchid genera are mass produced through a process called cloning in which the mother plant is duplicated thousands of times. Until scientists figure out how to clone paphs, every lady slipper is unique – and that includes the charming foliage.