Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Golden sunburst

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Newly repotted Orchids

Orchids are mysterious, at least mine seem to be. They are the most evolved plants in the plant kingdom and produce the smallest seeds. Epilaeliocattleya Golden Sunburst. The name on the plastic tag stuck deep in dry bark plainly not keeping alive the tangled mass of shriveled thick green leaves had the name: $5.00. Two lonely sick Cattleya orchids in tiny plastic pots on the sale table. These orchids were hybrids created by G. Takasaki in 2008 and are also called Enantheleya Golden Sunburst.

Can’t turn down cheap rescue plants. They needed orchid potting mix. Not as simple as it sounds. Orchid fanatics have particular soil for each special orchid. Pick your poison. Coarse, medium, or fine textured sphagnum moss, perlite, fir bark, stones, coconut fiber, rock wool, cork nuggets, lava rock or charcoal. Since many orchids tap into tree bark as a substrate, bark features prominently in all the mixes.

Orchids that grow upright are monopodial. Phalaenopsis (moth orchid strictly an air plant, easy to grow) and Vandas (finicky orchids not for beginners) are monopodial types. The growth habit of the Cattleya (the corsage orchid) is sympodial, with shoots that grow horizontally from the rhizome. They form pseudobulbs, enlarged shoots that store water and food for survival.

Orchids comprise the largest plant family in the world: over 30,000 species and well over 200,000 hybrids. Orchids are everywhere, from the humid tropics to the arctic tundra. The Vanilla planifolia orchid, source of vanilla, grows in Mexico, Central and the northern parts of South America. Every U.S. state and Canada have native orchids. Thirty-three species of wild orchids did grow in Oklahoma, but four to seven species may be extinct due to plowing and habitat loss. Others are threatened and quite rare. Largest concentration is in southeast Oklahoma.

Native orchids are easily overlooked in prairies and wooded areas. Often orchids bloom years apart or appear and disappear rapidly. They depend on very specialized pollinators and fungi only found in their native habitats which must also supply the right mixture of water, soil, sunlight, shade and nutrients.

Great Plains Ladies Tresses Orchid

Coral root orchids live in woods, have no leaves but do maintain a symbiotic relationship with specific soil fungi and trees that provide sustenance. The late summer blooming Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) is a vanilla scented orchid that grows in prairies. The rare mildly fragrant Oklahoma grass pink (Calopogon oklahomensis) hides in undisturbed prairies and woods in the south-central U.S. region north to Wisconsin. The orchid is considered locally extinct in most locations. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates about 80% of all orchid varieties are in danger of extinction. What a legacy we’re handing down.

Orchids can adapt to many situations. The thick greenish roots have a thin layer of white cells called velamen which readily absorbs water and nutrients while the orchid is either attached to bark or planted in bark. High intensity light, humidity and air circulation are environmental conditions many orchids prefer since they live high in the trees, not on the ground. Several species are picky, picky, picky, but others can do just fine in the kitchen window or under lights.

According to orchid lore, my rescue Cattleyas grow best where the days are dry and cool since they are native to Central and South America. My kitchen needed to have 40% to 80% humidity with a long, dry season (55 to 90 degrees F) followed by a rainy season. Oh yes, strong light, preferably a sunny south-facing window.

Cultivated orchids can stand a little drought much better than being overwatered. Do the finger test. Frequently mist with water. Add micronutrients by misting with fish emulsion or seaweed extract supplies or apply a liquid fertilizer. Some orchids need repotting every year, others don’t like to be repotted for several years. Only repot when necessary. Most orchids bloom at least once a year.

Cattleya Orchids in kitchen window

I had a lengthy consultation with my orchid growing English friend Ian, who lives in Wales and has the most magnificent blooming orchids. He recommended potting the orchids in clear plastic containers with holes in the bottom and one inch above and around the base. Gently layering the potting mix between the orchid roots, I gave each a good drink before they were placed on the window sill.

One orchid bloomed. Beautiful yellow. It never recovered and died. The second orchid has never bloomed, but did produce a little plantlet with roots I removed and potted in another plastic pot. Let’s just say I should have repotted both two years ago, but they struggled on until the younger orchid shed its leaves. The other orchid was four times as large and looked fine except a few leaves and stems were beginning to shrivel.

Last week the orchid plantation was hauled outside and emptied into an aluminum pan for inspection. The old potting soil was brushed off. All the roots on the big orchid were rotten and black. The baby orchid stem had amazingly plump greenish roots. Now what. With sharp scissors every last nasty root on the elder orchid was cut away, leaving actually nothing. I began to trim the stem of the little orchid and discovered the stem was green.

Using clean clear plastic pots and a new bag of coarse orchid potting soil, I carefully replanted each orchid. They were given a good drink, allowed to drain and back on the kitchen window sill they went. The baby in the pot was wrapped in a plastic bag slightly open at the top to simulate a humid, growth-encouraging atmosphere. I had no clear bag large enough to cover the other sprawling orchid. Unaware it had no roots, the epiphyte was allowed to cavort with the philodendron. This time I will be very careful about watering and fertilizing. Mist when the bark is dry and do not feed in winter or after re-potting. Maybe those green roots will make a living orchid. Maybe pseudobulbs will keep the larger orchid alive until it can grow a few roots. May the force be with y’all.

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.