Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Epidendrum? Encyclia? Anacheilium? Prosthechea? by whatever name Prostechea cochleata is a lovely orchid

Wild plant in situ, Rio Abajo Forest

Wild plant in situ, Rio Abajo Forest

Wild plant in situ, Rio Abajo Forest

Large flower form in an orchid collection

A close up of the lip of the previous flower

Many flowered plant at an orchid show

Close up of the lip of the plant in the previous photo
The much coveted alba form of the species
Prostechea cochleata is an orchid that is native of Puerto Rico, unlike it is relatively common and not hard to find in its favored habitat.  In the forests of the island it can be found growing in trees, on boulders and on the ground in well drained slopes.  I have seen it growing on top of boulders exposed to full sun in areas of high humidity but this is rare, most common is to see it growing on trees.   The flower is showy and quite distinctive due to its habit of orienting the lip of the flowers upward unlike most other orchids in which the flower rotates on the axis of the flower stem until the lip is at the bottom.  This orchid is part of a distinctive group of orchids formerly known as cockleshell Epidendrums or Encyclias due to the shape of their lips.  I have seen plants of this species from the foothills of the Luquillo mountains and also from the mountains of Maricao.  About fifteen years ago I visited a local dam and noticed that there were a few plants of this species growing on the boulders at the roadside on top of the road.  Intrigued by finding these plants in such an unlikely location I started looking around and soon realized that there were thousands of plants growing in the boulders that covered the face of the dam.  Many of the plants had flowers but most of the flowers were small and unremarkable.  Some of the plants had lips that were smaller than any I have seen.  These small lips have a shape reminiscent of a shovel rather than the typical cupped lip.   It you think you could go there collect to your heart content and then sell the plants there are two things that will pop your bubble.  First the flowers were smaller than most and any grower will be displeased at finding, when the plant blooms that his plant is inferior to almost all plants in cultivation.  But there is a more weighty reason why these plants will never be collected.  They were all killed.  Someone felt that the face of the dam should not have all that vegetation growing on it and killed everything with herbicide.  When I returned, years later, there was not even a single plant was in evidence
I have had this orchid for many years and it both easy to keep and to flower. The pseudobulb is spindle shaped and topped with two leaves.  I have seen two types of plants of these species.  One type produces an inflorescence that blooms with a few flowers, another produces a inflorescence that elongates and keeps producing flowers for an extended period.  Most of the plants that I have found in the wild are the type that produces the few flowered inflorescence.
The only thing that has been a threat to my plants is snails and slugs which in my garden find these plants irresistible and will feast on them.  Another plant had a slight case of star scale but this pest is easily controlled.  Low humidity and erratic watering can stunt this plant.
This species has entered horticulture and are many prized clones in cultivation.  The alba form is particularly sought after.  The flowers of the alba forms I have seen have been small and aside of the fact that they have a pleasing combination of white and yellow their shape and size has been nothing special.   I have seen some exceptionally large flowers of this species at orchid shows but large flowered plants are not common.  I have also seen plants with densely packed many flowered inflorescences that seem the product of some degree of selective breeding but these are rare.  There are triandrous, cleistogamic forms reported from Puerto Rico but I have never found one of them in flower in the wild.  James Ackermann says in his book on orchid of PR and the Virgin Islands that the triandrous forms are the type most common in Luquillo.
I used to have two clones of this species, they had unexpectedly different fragrances.  One had a slight pleasant fragrance, the other had a strong unpleasant urine – like smell.
This plant has been known in the last few years as an Epidendrum, Encyclia, Anacheilium and as a Prosthechea.  So you will find information on this orchid under all those names.