Monday, January 31, 2011

Myrmecophyla (Schomburgkia) humboldtii an ant orchid from Venezuela

A fully expanded mature flower

A paniculate inflorescence

Note that several of the flowers are partly closed, this is normal
A plant on a wire after one year of growth
The same plant as before but after three years of growing hanging from a wire

Roots are produced in a single massive burst
An ant patrolling the plant, the pseudobulbs are hollow and house ant colonies

When I was given this plant as a gift, many years ago, I had little information on its blooming habits, growth patterns and cultural needs.  In those ancient “pre-Internet” times finding information about an obscure species of orchid meant going to a university library and hoping they had a book about orchids that would give you some guidance.  Unfortunately even when you found some information about your plant often the information was in the form of a taxonomic description with no details of its cultural needs.
As a result of this lack of cultural information this orchid remained a mystery to me. The issue was that growing this plant proved easier than pie, however getting it to bloom seemed an impossible dream.  So year after year my plant would grow into an ever expanding gargantuan specimen plant with no blooming ever.  Eventually the Internet entered my life and through places like The Orchid Source forum I began to exchange information with people that actually grew this plant in its natural habitat in Aruba.  Myrmecophylla (Schomburgkia) humboltii is native of Venezuela and can also be found in the Netherland Antilles.  
Then I found that I had misunderstood what this plant needed to bloom and was growing it too shady.  It needs full sun to bloom but it also needs to produce large and strong pseudobulbs.  Also I found that the roots and the inflorescence are extremely vulnerable to insects and snails which will travel long distances to attack the tender parts of the orchid as they are growing.
To get the best out of this plant you need to give it particularly careful attention when it is in the growing part of its seasonal cycle and when it is producing roots.  Full sun has to be accompanied with frequent applications of fertilizer and abundant watering.  If these are neglected during this plant growing phase the pseudobulbs will be small and most probably will abort their inflorescences if they even try to produce them.  Medium sized pseudobulbs will produce racemose inflorescences that will have a few flowers open at the same time.  But if you manage to get this plant to produce the largest pseudobulbs possible the inflorescence will become paniculate with several flower bearing branches.
I have discovered that under my conditions potting this plant is not a good strategy.  It grows well and flowers acceptably when growing on a dead tree where it gets abundant sun.  But my best growing plants and the ones that bloom best are growing hanging from wires with no material or slab to grow on.  I have no idea why this is so, it seems counter intuitive but there is no denying that the ones growing completely in the air do better under my climatic conditions.
My plants bloom between winter and spring if the inflorescences manage to develop without being damaged.  It has been my sad experience that the inflorescences of this plant in particular seem to be an irresistible treat to insects, millipedes and snails.  Even hanging the plant high doesn’t deter the pests from attacking the tender inflorescences.  So when I see an inflorescence start to develop I give the plant a light dusting of an insecticidal dust.  It has been darkly satisfying to find the dead insects that strived to make a savory dish from the inflorescences.  Since there are many fish tanks around where I grow the orchids I use insecticides with extreme caution and precision and follow the label indications to the letter.
The flowers of this orchid are lovely and among the most full of the genus.  But someone visiting the garden around the hottest hours of the day could be excused if he/she found the flowers disappointing.  The reason is that the flowers are at their best in the early morning and when the day turns hot they turn floppy and partially collapse, only to perk up the next day.  Because the inflorescence produces just a few flowers at a time this plant can be blooming for a few weeks as the inflorescence elongates.  The flowers of this orchid continue expanding in size for the life of the bloom and achieve their largest size just before collapsing.
This plant is highly esteemed in horticulture and due to its ease of culture it is fairly common among local orchid collections.  A an often heard complaint is that it is shy blooming but this comes from growers that keep their plant under shadier conditions than those conductive to blooming or that have undersized plants due to lack of proper fertilization and watering during their growing season.  There is a rare white flowered variant of this species but I have yet to see a plant in bloom of this variety even though I know of people that have grown it successfully.
This orchid has hollow pseudobuls which are colonixed by ants. My plants host several species of ants but usually the one that is most conspicuous is a yellow one with a particularly nasty sting.  Unfortunately the presence of the ants doesn’t seem to deter the pests.    


Cindy said...

I want to thank you for the superb photos & explanation of this orchid! I have 2 that I've had for 2 years & compared to your pictures, mine have gown minimally. I Care for them like my other 200 orchids...under the Oak trees in pots. Well that is going to change today after I read your Growing tips. Again I thank you!

Unknown said...

Thank you for the information. I have 2 blooming now, but is good to know why they don't bloom even though in full sun.