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Growing in the Desert Column

(List of Growing in the Desert columns)

Succulent Cymbidium Orchids - Try Something Different

by Mark Dimmitt

Photos by Mark Dimmitt unless noted

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

Orchid collectors grow orchids; succulent collectors grow succulents. But why do so few succulent collectors grow succulent orchids? There are many, and some are adapted to our desert climate. I’ve already dealt with the most extreme desert species, Eulophia petersii (January 2010). Here’s another worth trying, and it’s one of several that are called “black orchids”.

The Asian genus Cymbidium has numerous species that grow in the ground in moist, cool-tropical habitats. Their hybrids (Figure 1) are extremely popular in mild-climate areas such as Southern California. They are not very succulent, although they do have water-storing pseudobulbs at the base of their long grasslike leaves. More important, they fare poorly in the desert because our autumn nights are too warm for the plants to set flower spikes.

Cymbidium canaliculatum (Figure 2) an oddball in the genus. It is widespread across tropical northern Australia, where it grows on the branches of eucalyptus trees in hot, arid climates. It is a very succulent species; it has to be in order to survive several months a year with no rain. An abundance of one-inch, chocolate-scented flowers are borne in spring; they range from green to dark brown (Figure 3).

The species is quite difficult in cultivation, but hybrids with standard cymbidiums are robust and easy to grow in hot climates. Cymbidium canaliculatum is dominant in its hybrids, so all of them to date have the small, dark, chocolate-scented flowers and succulent foliage. The most commonly available is a grex (cross) called Little Black Sambo (Figures 4 and 5). Cym. Australian Midnight (Figure 6) has an even darker flower. Look for them in orchid nurseries; succulent dealers have not yet discovered these wonderful plants.

These orchids have thick roots that need a coarse potting medium for good growth. My favorite mix for nearly all plants these days is coir (coconut husk fiber, not dust). Pure coir chips (quarter- to half-inch), or a mix of coir and pumice or perlite works well for cymbidium hybrids. A peat-based medium also works if it’s made coarse by adding at least 1/2 by volume of large pumice or perlite (sponge-rock).

The plants need very bright light; the best location provides full morning sun and filtered afternoon sun. Water and feed them generously during the spring to fall growing season. They seem to need drier conditions in winter to set flower spikes, but don’t let the medium become bone-dry. The plants can tolerate temperatures in the low hundreds in summer, to near freezing in winter.

Flower spikes become visible in February or March; they bloom for several weeks in April and May. Little Black Sambo’s spikes are arching, while those of Australian Midnight are more pendant. These hybrids are vigorous growers and can become very large plants. Divide clumps in spring after the flowers fade; break or cut out at least 3-growth divisions.

List of Growing in the Desert columns