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Beginning with Cymbidium Species
by Noe Smith
For many orchid growers, species orchids hold a special attraction; no less so when it comes to species Cymbidiums. There is a special attraction to species Cymbidiums and although they don't appeal to everyone, many growers appreciate their natural beauty, varied flower forms and the variety of size, habit and flowering times. From the species Cym. dayanum and erythrostylum, which flower in early to mid-autumn, through to Cym. suave, madidum and canaliculatum, which flower through late spring to early summer, species Cymbidiums can reward their growers with flowers for almost the whole year.
The majority of Cymbidium species need little, if any, special treatment above what would be provided for any Cymbidium hybrid. Most species are readily available with a little searching and patience. While most may not feature in orchid nursery catalogues, they are often available from other species collectors among Cymbidium club members and divisions, mericlones and seedlings do come up from time to time.
It is not my intention to attempt the definitive work on Cymbidium species in this article (it would take much more space than several issues would allow and there are several outstanding books and web sites which provide much more information than I could); rather, to provide enough information to dispel any doubts a new grower of Cymbidium species may have about giving them a try and to describe some of the more commonly available and easily-grown species.
Many of the most commonly available Cymbidium species originate from highland areas in India (Sikkim, Assam, Khasia Hills), Nepal, Burma, Northern Thailand, Vietnam and southern China at altitudes ranging from 400 to 3000 metres above sea level. At these altitudes, the climate range is generally moist temperate. While some Cymbidium species do grow in natural habitats closer to sub-tropical, we will not be discussing those in this article.
For anyone contemplating adding Cymbidium species to their collection, there are a number of species which provide an ideal starting point due to their general availability and/or the fact that they are no more demanding culturally than most Cymbidium hybrids. The species described in the following paragraphs are some of these.
Cymbidium tracyanum is one species commonly available and is usually seen on club benches in April or May, depending on which state you live in. Arguably the most distinctive of the species, Cym. tracyanum is easily recognized by it's twisted petals and sepals and distinctive spotted and striped patterning.
Flowers are generally cream to green, heavily overlaid with reddish-brown to dark red. Its labellum is white, spotted with purple/red. Cym. tracyanum is a large-growing plant with long, arching spikes carrying fifteen or so large flowers. Specimen-sized plants with multiple spikes can look quite stunning.
Beware of an old primary hybrid which is still quite common and is often incorrectly labeled as Cym. tracyanum. It flowers in August to September and has more pinkish-coloured flowers. Although the flowers resemble Cym. tracyanum in shape, it is not Cym. tracyanum. Culturally, Cym. tracyanum will grow and flower under the same conditions which suit Cymbidium hybrids.
Cymbidium lowianum – a personal favourite – is the cornerstone for many early hybrids. The striking red "vee" on Cym. lowianum"s labellum can still be clearly seen in the labellums of many of today's hybrids. Cym. lowianum is a moderate-sized plant which carries arching spikes of around fifteen to eighteen largish flowers. There are three colour forms of Cym. lowianum; the type form has green petals and sepals, often with a bronzy overlay, and the labellum is white with a bold red "vee". There is also an alba form where the flowers are a clean apple green and the white labellum has a yellow "vee" (horticulturally known as Cym. lowianum var. concolor or Cym. lowianum 'Concolor').
Editor's note: Unfortunately Cym. lowianum 'Concolor' is another victim of mislabelling – often hybrids are sold as this particular form of the species in Australia. The shape of the bloom overall or the width of the lip can be used to help confirm the identity.
The third form of Cym. lowianum, originally known as Cym. i'ansonii, is coloured mid-way between the other two; its labellum carries the same pattern, but is coloured an orange-yellow. Like Cym. tracyanum, lowianum grows under the same conditions as most Cymbidium hybrids.
Editor's note: Cym. iansonii is now considered a synonym of Cym. lowianum var. kalawense.
Cymbidium insigne comes in two colour forms; the type form produces pink blooms with white labellums spotted purple/red, while the other form is an album variant which produces pure white blooms with no purple pigment in the petals, sepals, or labellum. Flowers are large and more than twenty or so are carried on very tall and thin, but surprisingly strong, spikes.
Editor's note: there are actually two white forms of Cym. insigne. The first is just a white-coloured version (such as Cym. insigne var. album FCC/RHS) but is not a true genetic alba. The other is a genetic alba, which lacks the ability to produce the red-purple pigments. If seeking out this species, be sure to clarify which type you are getting.
Cymbidium sanderae is another moderately large growing plant with long arching flower spikes. Its flowers are of medium size, perhaps 75 to 80 mm across. Flower colour is white, set off by heavy dark red blotching on its white labellum. One particular clone named 'Emma Menninger' is described as being a tetraploid (4n), as opposed to the normal diploid (2n), with its generally fuller and more shapely flowers being attributed to the doubling of chromosomes in the tetraploid form.
Editor's note: prior to 2001, Cym. sanderae was generally treated as a synonym for Cym. parishii by the RHS. The two have since been reclassified and separated, with the true Cym. sanderae existing only as a single clone (often sold as Cym. parishii 'Sanderae') and the tetraploid conversion 'Emma Menninger'. It carries 10-15 flowers and can form both basal and axillary spikes. Cym. parishii, also known as Cym. eburneum var. parishii, only carries 3-5 flowers and seemingly only produces axillary spikes. Unfortunately, the latter is frequently sold as Cym. sanderae.
Cymbidium erythrostylum is a more compact growing plant than those mentioned so far; correspondingly, its flower spikes are shorter, though its flowers are quite large. Cym. erythrostylum has a very distinctive flower form with its forward-pointing petals shielding a small labellum lined with red; its sepals are large and full-shaped and a bit unruly-looking. The petals and sepals are pristine white.
The overall effect is quite beautiful and due to its compact plant size, an impressive specimen can be produced with many flower spikes in a 200mm pot.
Cymbidium iridioides, previously known as Cym. giganteum, produces long, arching spikes with up to 20 scented blooms up to 100mm across. The flowers are coloured from ginger-brown to red and the labellum has a yellow centre outlined by red blotches. While somewhat similar to Cym. tracyanum, it is neither as showy nor as large and does not have the sinewy, twisted petals and sepals of Cym. tracyanum. Never-the-less, it is an attractive species, especially when the plant grows large enough to carry several flower spikes.
Editor's note: The early primary hybrid Cym. Bennett-Poei (tracyanum x iridioides) is unfortunately often confused for this species.
Cymbidium erythraeum has similarities to Cym. tracyanum, though it produces smaller flowers at around 80mm across. This species is particularly attractive in its own right and can make a fine specimen plant capable of carrying many spikes and flowers. Flower form is similar to Cym. tracyanum and flower colour is predominantly green with degrees of red/brown on the petals and sepals. The labellum is white with a red midline and a few scattered red spots at the edges, making a highlight against the darker petals and sepals.
Cymbidium elegans is a most distinctive species due to its yellow bell-like flowers. The flower segments are long and thin, but because they remain pointing forward, the flowers retain their long bell-like appearance. The plant is quite compact with narrow leaves and the flower spikes grow up and then arch over, with the weight of the flowers giving a cascading effect. Specimen plants can look quite stunning with spikes of up to 30 closely-packed flowers cascading out from the foliage.
Cymbidium dayanum easily produces specimen plants and can produce several spikes from each bulb. The pendulous spikes are capable of carrying up to twenty flowers of around 40mm across. While the flowers are quite starry and taller than they are wide, they are most attractive, being coloured ivory-white with broad red mid lines in petals and sepals. The labellum is almost totally red with a white centre bordered in yellow. Cym. dayanum is not a large-growing plant and a specimen can easily be achieved in a 200mm pot.
Cymbidium devonianum & Cymbidium floribundum
There are two other species which are commonly available – the miniature species Cym. devonianum (left) and Cym. floribundum (right).
Editor's notes: Cym. devonianum varies quite a bit in its colouration. It has been used more recently in hybridising to add dramatic, dark labellums to hybrids.
Cym. floribundum (formerly Cym. pumilum) is responsible for the majority of miniature hybrids, such as the well-known Cym. Sarah Jean. There are two colour forms – a brown-red (the type form) and plain green (known as Cym. floribundum var. album). The latter is an interesting case, as even when crossed with other true genetic albas, the offspring are rarely alba forms.
Sources of information on Cymbidium species include:
- "The Genus Cymbidium" by David Du Puy and Philip Cribb
- Stephen Early"s Cymbidium Species Website (see our links page)
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