“Monkey” Orchid

So, we get a lot of calls and emails asking if we have “the monkey orchid”. The short answer is no, we do not. But we get enough inquiries about this that we think a little consumer education is in order.

Orchis simia

There are two different orchid species with the common name “monkey” orchid. Neither is suitable for home cultivation, so you’re not likely to find either of them available from any reputable orchid grower. You may see offers for plants or seeds on the internet: buyer beware!

One species is Orchis simia. This is a terrestrial orchid native in central and southern Europe and eastward across southern Russia, the Caucasus, Iran, even in North Africa. It grows in the grasslands and scrub woodlands, typically on limestone soils; not for your orchid collection unless you have scrub woodland on limestone, in a temperate climate zone. (image © Hans Hillewaert /via Wikimedia Commons)

Dracula simia

The other species is Dracula simia, an epiphyte from the cloud forests in Ecuador and Peru at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. Unless you can provide cloud forest growing conditions (constant moisture and temperatures in the 45-55F range) this plant will not be happy in your care. Dracula orchids are sometimes available from species specialists (Andy’s Orchids) and Eucuadorean vendors (Ecuagenera), but this particular species is very rare even in specialist collections. (image © Dick Culbert /via Wikimedia Commons)

“Blue” Orchids

Another question we get frequently is whether we have “blue” orchids. Well, yes and no, depending on what “blue” orchids you’re looking for. If you’re looking for the “blue” phalaenopsis available in supermarkets, garden centers, wholesale clubs and many other retail outlets, then no, absolutely not, we don’t have them.

Dyed phalaenopsis

These flowers are artificially dyed and we don’t sell them. Look at the base of the inflorescence, you can see the spot where dye has been injected, sometimes rather clumsily. From time to time several other “colors” are also available in these dyed flowers. They’re all artificial. If you like the look – we don’t – then go ahead and buy the plant wherever you find it. We don’t sell them. (again, buyer beware: despite rather a lot of internet buzz and hype, these orchids are not even remotely rare, they’re just ordinary white phalaenopsis that have had dye injected into the stem)

Delphinium oxysepalum

We do sell some orchids that are naturally “blue”, but the color is not the same. Some garden flowers – delphiniums come to mind – are naturally blue. The color pigment, delphinidin, is produced naturally in the flowers. Orchids are genetically incapable of producing this particular pigment, so there are no orchids with natural delphinium-blue flowers. “Blue” vandas are probably the best-known blue orchids. The color is a different pigment, one of the anthocyanins, which also produce red and purple flower color. There are some orchids related to vandas which also produce blue pigments in the flowers. Check out the various vandaceous orchids in our catalog. (Delphinium  image © Opioła Jerzy /via Wikimedia Commons)

“Ice” Orchids

Please, this is yet another urban legend, fostered by waaaay too much bad information on the internet. It does have a fairly legitimate origin – using ice cubes to water orchid plants in floral arrangements – but it is not the proper way to care for the plants long-term. And there’s no such thing as an “ice” orchid, although there are temperate zone orchids native in places where there’s real winter.

No drain holes in this container!

In recent years, blooming orchid plants, especially phalaenopsis, have become very popular for use in floral arrangements. Typically the arrangement includes a blooming orchid, maybe with some other plants and/or decorations, in a decorative container like a basket, cache-pot or similar thing, usually top-dressed with moss. These containers don’t have drain holes, so it’s impossible to water the plants without drowning them. One of several ways to water the orchid in the arrangement is to place a couple of ice cubes on top of the moss. The ice melts and drips a little water into the root zone. No water collects in the bottom of the container. A better way to water the arrangement is to lift the moss carefully and spray room-temperature water gently onto the roots. These are tropical plants, ice is not their friend.

For more information on the proper care of phalaenopsis orchids, check out our culture sheet here on the site, or visit the American Orchid Society’s website, where there is a wealth of orchid care information.

Do you have it in a smaller size?

Probably not. Orchids aren’t shoes; for the most part any given population of plants will all be about the same size. They all come from the same seed capsule, germinate at about the same time, and grow to maturity at about the same rate. Occasionally we have plants that have been in the greenhouse a long time, and some of them have grown larger than the others, some have been divided during repotting, so we might have a few that are larger or smaller than the rest. But by and large, all of the orchids from a given hybrid population will be the same size (and the same price, which is the reason for the question in the first place). When we do have size options for catalog plants, we include them as well.

On a related note, when we offer new hybrids, we have a limited number of the plants, and often, they are sold out in 12-18 months. In order to get more (if something proves especially popular), we would have to “re-make” the hybrid. That means getting the two parent plants to flower again at the same time, pollinate the flowers, wait for the capsule to mature (this alone can take 6-9 months), send the capsule to the lab, hope for germination, wait another year or two for the baby plants to grow, transplant the baby plants, and wait for them to mature. For vandas, this is a five to seven year process. And we won’t have any guarantee that the “remake” plants will bear strong resemblance to the first batch.

“Black” Orchids

Ah, legendary “black” orchids, from the old comic strip “Brenda Starr”… hints of big, voluptuous cattleya-type flowers, jet black. How exotic and rare! Forget them, they don’t exist, sorry.

There are a few species in the Catasetinae (Catasetum relatives) with extremely dark brown-purple flowers, and a well-known California Catasetum hybridizer, Fred Clarke of Sunset Valley Orchids, has made some incredible hybrids with these plants to create amazingly dark flowers. Gene Monnier, former owner of JEM Orchids in Florida (now out of business, sorry), also created some extremely dark-flowered hybrids in this group.

Fredclarkeara After Dark ‘SVO Black Pearl’ FCC/AOS

We occasionally have plants of Fredclarkeara After Dark, or Monnierara Millenium Magic, the two most common “black” orchids on the market today. We seldom have enough of them to put them in our online catalog; if we have them at all they are available only at the nursery. But before you throw money at us (or at any other grower who may offer them, including Sunset Valley Orchids), you should understand the care and feeding of these orchids.

The plants can be leafy and very attractive, but they have a very pronounced, leafless resting season when they are completely dormant. This resting phase can last for months, and the plants need to be kept quite dry during that time. Otherwise they will sulk, at best, or rot away (at worst). Some catasetum growers remove the plants completely from their pots during this time, and keep them lying, dry, on the growing bench so that no moisture accumulates around the roots. So if you really want one of them, be prepared for a few days’ flowers, probably once a year. Fred and other breeders are working hard to increase the flower life and blooming frequency of these beautiful orchids, but please know that your “black” orchids are not going to last the way phalaenopsis flowers do. Sunset Valley Orchids has a great summary of Catasetinae growing information on their website.

What does “blooming size” mean?

Orchids, like all flowering plants, have to reach maturity before they can bloom. They are quite unlike many garden plants which can grow to maturity and bloom in just a few months.

Vanda seedlings in flask

Orchid plants have to grow for several-to-many years once they are potted out of their seedling (baby) size. For some orchids, like phalaenopsis, the plants can reach maturity in as little as three years. Many cattleyas and vandas, however, require five to seven years’ growth before they are mature enough to bloom. “Blooming size” means the plant is mature enough to bloom.

That said, many orchids (including most species orchids) are quite seasonal in their flowering period. As an example, many of the dendrobium species we sell are spring-blooming. So even though we show a photo of the flowers in the catalog, if you purchase Den. aggregatum in the summer, it will not bloom until the following spring. The plants are “blooming size” – they are mature enough to bloom in their proper season, given proper care. (For more information on the proper care of these plants, please refer to our “orchid care” pages here on the site). Other orchids, once they reach maturity, may bloom more than once a year, again with proper care. Some vanda hybrids fall into this group. Hybrid cattleyas, on the other hand, bloom only once on each growth (pseudobulb and leaf), so the plant will not bloom until it has completed a growth cycle. That may be more than once a year, but this varies from hybrid to hybrid.

If our description says “seedling”, or “medium size”, this means the plants are immature and require some growing time to reach maturity. Depending on the type, this may mean several years of good care.

Hybrids, Mericlones, Species?

So what’s the difference between a hybrid vanda and a mericlone vanda? And why did the hybrid flowers on the plant I received look different from the catalog photo?

When we – or any other grower – cross two orchid plants, we’re looking to improve the next generation. If all goes well, the cross produces a seed capsule after a few months, and the capsule goes to the laboratory for germination. The baby plants spend the first year or two in lab flasks before being potted up to continue growing. These baby plants have a pod (female) parent and a pollen (male) parent, and their flowering characteristics will be some combination of the genetic traits inherited from both parents. So hybrid orchids can and will vary, sometimes quite a lot, once they reach maturity.

Thus, if we cross two pink vandas, most of the resulting plants will probably be pink but some will be darker or lighter, with more or fewer spots. And a very few might even be purple, depending on the details of the parent plants’ ancestry. If we cross a pink with a purple, the resulting plants can bloom in just about any color in the pink to purple range. They can and do vary considerably.

V. Princess Mikasa ‘Rosado’ HCC/AOS

Mericlones, on the other hand, are lab-created “clones” of a particular plant. Most often, that plant has been selected for superior characteristics – excellent color, or large flowers, or frequent blooming, or some other set of desirable traits. It’s cloned in a laboratory and is – or should be – genetically identical to the original. So it will look exactly like the original. Very rarely, mutations happen in the lab processes and the resulting plant may be different from the original, but by and large, mericlones are identical to the original and to each other. It’s possible to see mericlones of superior, even awarded, hybrid orchids, and superior species orchids as well. Mericlones will always have a cultivar (“cultivated variety”) name in single quotations on the plant tag. Selected, superior plants, and awarded plants, will also have a cultivar name on the tag. An example is the three different mericlone cultivars of V. [Ascda.] Princess Mikasa that we offer from time to time: ‘Rosado’ HCC/AOS is pink, ‘Indigo’ AM/AOS is dark blue-purple, and ‘White Angel’ is white and green.

V. Princess Mikasa ‘Indigo’ AM/AOS

Species orchids are the plants found in nature, but they have been in cultivation for more than a hundred years. During that time, growers have created tens of thousands of hybrids starting with crossing species, but many growers also breed the species exclusively, to produce more and better species orchid plants (and to reduce pressure on wild plant populations). So species populations can vary, too, depending on their genetics. Most species orchids are very seasonal in their flowering; they bloom once a year at a specific time. A few can bloom more than once a year, but the cycle of growing and blooming depends on the environment, and the plant’s genetic heritage.