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pink cattleya orchids Photo Credit: www.OrchidPlants.info

Cattleya Orchids

Cattleya orchids are one of the favorite varieties for corsages and are often used in bridal bouquets and wedding table decorations. Most have a distinctive and delightful fragrance.

Even though their bloom can be very exotic and of spectacular size, cattleya and their hybrids are considered to be one of the easier orchids to grow in the home.

Cattleya orchids require fairly high light intensity combined with consistent air movement and good ventilation. Mature plants should be allowed to dry slightly between watering. If you are in doubt about watering; less is better.

During the growing period we water twice a week, alternating water and fertilizer. You can purchase the expensive stuff in 25 pound sacks that the 'experts' try to pass on to you, and - yes - we have done that. However, a good water soluble 30-10-10 or even 20-20-20 fertilizer which is commonly available at most any garden center will do just as well. We pre-mix the fertilizer in a 5 gallon bucket and apply at half strength with a hose siphoner. Reduce watering and stop fertilizing to prevent weak growth during the colder months - but never let them dry out completely.

Most of our cattleya orchids are in clay pots with plenty pebbles on the bottom for drainage. Slotted orchid pots are nice and pretty, but cost more than standard pots. In addition, they can become unsightly because roots will grow out of these slots and around the pot, also making it difficult when it comes time to repot. We use clay azalea pots and knock out most of the bottom for better drainage. Some of our larger specimens are in redwood baskets.

Potting medium consists of mostly medium grade tree fern mixed with about 25% shredded redwood and coarse sponge rock. Tree fern costs a little more than pine bark, but it makes for a cleaner, longer lasting mix with less tendency to break down and accumulate molds or fungus. We purchase our potting mix ingredients in quantity, but you can find small 1/2 to 1 cubic ft sizes in most larger garden outlets.

The optimum time to repot and/or divide cattleya orchids is cattleya orchid roots when the newest growth is over the pot edge and new roots are just beginning to emerge. Cut back all long roots that are growing over the the edge of the pot to a length of about 2 to 3 inches. Sever the lead growth from the plant to include at least 3 healthy mature pseudobulbs. With a sharp knife, cut deep down into the potting mix and around the severed part in order to get a good portion of the roots in a kind of a 'plug'.

If the mother plant is large and healthy, the remaining part of the plant (so-called back bulbs) can be left in the pot if the mix and the plant itself are in good condition. Just add new medium to fill the space left after removing the front lead. Check the first stem where the cut was made. If it has one or more plump and green nodes near the rhizome, it will send out new leads behind the cut and these will develop a new root system. Often times such cattleya orchid back bulbs will produce new leads and flower sooner than the newly potted front portion.

It should go without saying that any time you are cutting on a cattleya or any orchid, either when repotting or just taking cut flowers, you should always use freshly sterilized utensils between plants to prevent the spread of virus. We use a small propane gas torch for this purpose.

Before repotting the new lead, clean up the plant by cutting off any remaining spent flower sheaths and remove all old and dry material on the bulbs. This is also a good time to check for scale insects and to take measures to get rid of them. If the leaves have spots of water or chemical residue on them, gently remove that by rinsing with water while rubbing with your thumb and forefinger, then let the cutting dry naturally. For stubborn chemical spots, try to rub them off with a mixture of 50/50 milk and water, then rinse and let dry. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can treat the cuts with sulphur or powdered fungicide but we don't think it necessary with a healthy plant.

When ready to continue, select a pot large enough to accommodate the plant plus room for about 2 years worth of new growth. Put a generous layer of pebbles in the bottom of the pot for drainage. You can use ordinary pebbles - about 1 to 2 inches in diameter or purchase 'river rock' or small pond pebbles at your home improvement center.

Next, add a layer of potting mix over the pebbles. Position the orchid plant with the cut end at the very edge of the pot and fill in all around and under the roots with more mix. Use your thumb or a tool to firmly press or tamp down the mix so that it compresses tightly around the roots and into the pot. Don't be overly gentle - you want a tight fit to the roots. To finish off, you will need one or more metal clips to stabilize and support the plant. You can also add a stake and tie the individual stems into an upright position. Last, but not least, don't forget the label with the name of the plant and the potting date. You will find this very useful the next time the plant is in need of repotting.

Now, unless you are dealing with an unbloomed seedling that has been potted on into a larger pot, in which case you may want to provide lower light conditions for a few days, the newly potted cattleya orchid can go back to the regular growing area to be treated the same as the rest.

Don't forget to clean the used pot by scraping off roots that may still adhere inside and outside. We usually let roughly cleaned pots wait under the potting bench or outside somewhere until we have enough to fill a container. A 5-gallon bucket works great for a number of pots. Soak 24 hours in a strong solution of one gallon bleach to 4 gallons of water. We also clean and recycle the drainage rocks in the same manner. Used metal stakes and clips can go in the same bucket but should be taken out and rinsed in clear water after about an hour to prevent the onset of rust.
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