Sunday, January 5, 2014

An abandoned orchid collection, observations on how some of the orchids have fared when neglected for a few years.

I must confess that there are few things that I find more poignant than an abandoned orchid collection.  Why orchids are abandoned?  Sometimes the owner basically losses interest in caring for the plants (I know, I know, it strains credulity, but it happens).  Other times, the hobbyist dies and the descendants, stop caring for the plants but won’t sell them because of their sentimental value.    In yet other instances, perhaps the saddest cases, the grower cannot care for them any longer and they simply lay forgotten.

A friend, who has never grown orchids, asked me for help in dealing with some orchids that had been given to him by an elderly relative.    The orchids had not received any care for three or four years I and was intrigued by the opportunity to see how orchids survive when they are left to their own devices.     When I hike in local forests, sometimes I find the vestiges of human habitation.  Most of the time all that remains is the stone stairs that were traditionally set at the front door of the house, but on occasion, you can also find a few houseplants still growing where they were planted.    In all my hikes I have found orchids only a single time.  In the highest parts of El Yunque rainforest, in some tree ferns in front of the remains of an abandoned house there were a Phalaenopsis and two Cattleyas.  None were doing well mainly due to being planted in spots that were too shady for them.  I didn’t remove the plants, the next time I returned someone had cut the tree ferns, probably to take the plants.

The orchids that were given to my friend were kept under the shade of a banyan that even though quite large did allow a modest amount of light to reach the orchids.  The plants were on plastic and metal baskets hanging from a short supporting structure made out of long metal tubes.  Because nobody had walked in the area for a long time, an understory of bushes and low plants had developed under the orchids and sometimes over the orchids, reducing the light reaching the plants even more.  Most of the orchids had the deep green color of plants growing under low light.  Of a collection that originally probably numbered close to forty plants, most were alive.  I started checking them plant by plant.

A Cymbidium, either aloifolium or findlaysonianum, had shattered its plastic basket with its roots and was hanging by a single piece of wire threaded through the center of its root ball.   This orchid was stunted and there was no indication it had bloomed in many years.     Even though it is stunted the Cymbidium  condition is good enough that a few years of the right care could help it produce full sized pseudobulbs that would bloom.

The Dendrobium moschatum was in excellent shape. It was in a basket that was completely filled with its roots.  It had four to five feet long canes that had the remains of recent inflorescences.  The area around the Den. moschatum was littered with older decayed canes and keikis (baby plants produced on the canes and inflorescences of many orchids) it had dropped to the ground.  The only thing this plant needed was to move it (very carefully to avoid sunburn) to a sunnier spot.  The keikis of this plant were gathered to be potted individually.

The base of the stems of Dendrobium fimbriatum var. occulatum had rotted away and its basket lay empty.   However, around it, and on other pots, and on the ground, there were the sections of canes that were still alive and had keikis on them.   We gathered the keikis to put them in a basket.

The Dendrobium nobile had also mostly died, but piece of old canes with keikis on them were hanging from the decaying remains of dead canes that were still attached to the basket.  There were a few large keikis that would respond fairly fast to care, but also many smaller ones whose survival, due to they being so tiny, was problematic unless they received particularly good care.

A good sized plant of Eria javanica was growing well but there were no remains of inflorescences from previous years.   Given the condition of the plant, all that is needed to get is blooming  is moving it to a sunnier spot and giving it good care in the next growing season.

In a single basket there were planted,  Cattleya skinneri, Schomburgkia tibicinis and an unidentifiable Miltonia hybrid.  The Catt. skinneri was a mass of dwarf pseudobulbs that apparently had managed at some time to produce inflorescences of two to three flowers.  All the Catt. skinneri pseudobulbs were growing in the side of the basket.  The Schomburgkia tibicinis had been put inside the basket,  the plant had produced a number pseudobulbs that had met the side of the basket when they were developing and therefore had become twisted and misshapen, only a single bulb had the normal shape for this species.  The Schomburgkia was partly buried in a mass of wet decaying tree fern, a startling sight since one would think that situation would had caused the pseudobulbs of this species to succumb to rot in a short time.   The Miltonia hybrid was growing on top of the material and was easily removed.    Most of the plastic basket was cut away but about a third of it was so enmeshed on the roots of the orchids that could not be removed without severe harm to the plants.  It was decided to let the plants together for the time being and to remove them at a later time when the plants condition were improved and they could handle the trauma to the roots better.  The plants were moved to start to acclimatize them to sunnier conditions.

A Cattleya bowingiana seemed to be in a fairly good shape but the fact that whoever had potted many of the orchids had a thing for burying the bases of the pseudobulbs made it difficult to ascertain the condition of the vegetative buds at the base of the pseudobulbs.    Since digging in the material might have damaged the roots of a weakened plant it was decided to wait and see if new growth would pop up from the media.

Two large bifoliate Cattleya hybrids were in very good shape, but had not bloomed recently.  Both had escaped the confines of the baskets and were growing on the sides with stems outside the baskets but their roots in the media.  All these plants needed to bloom was good light and a single growing season with the right amount of fertilizer and water.

A very small Phalaenopsis was found hanging in the air by two long roots from a piece of tree fern that was on top of one of the hybrid bifoliate Cattleyas.  Intriguingly, even though this plant only had two leaves, the largest of which is all of three inches long, it has an inflorescence developing.  The Phalaenopsis was removed from the tree fern piece to be planted in pot.

A Prosthechea cochleata was in perfect condition and would surely bloom if given more sun.  A Dendrobium anosmum, dwarfed and in poor condition was obviously on its last legs.    There was a number of small unifoliate Cattleyas with no id which had seen better times.    There were also some Oncidium plants that were likely Onc. Sphacelatum.  A few plants that were obviously derived from Brazilian Miltonias were found, but since none had flowers, it was impossible to have an idea of what exactly they were. 

We decided to work first with those who were in the poorer conditions and those that were in such good shape that they would have been blooming but for want of adequate light.  The ones in bad shape were repotted and moved to a shade house.  The ones that were in the best condition were started in the slow process of acclimating them to their optimal level of light exposure.

In this particular case neglect was not the main cause of death of the orchids since the climate in the area where they are located, the mountainous interior of the island of Puerto Rico, is favorable to their survival.  The main threat to the plants were the competition from ferns that invaded their pots and vines that would shade them to such an extent as to cause their deaths from lack of light.  Rooting media on the pots didn’t appear to have caused any deaths.  Insect pests were not found to be a significant problem as only two plants were infested with brown scale and only one large plant of a Cattleya hybrid had a single colony of whitefly.  Although small amounts of damage could be found in almost all plant stems and their leaves, the plant collection as had endured neglect remarkably well.  

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