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Cymbidiums are breaking the color and size barriers.

Now is the time when cymbidiums display their greatest diversity. From January into mid-March, the bloom season of the earliest foot-tall miniatures overlaps with that of the midseason 4-foot standards, with both presenting their full range of colors.

No longer do soft pastels dominate the market. Today's cymbidium flowers also come in bright, clear colors--deep yellows, greens, and plum, rust, or burgundy.

Twenty years ago, plants with the quality of color and form shown here were likely to cost several hundred dollars. But modern test-tube cloning techniques have brought prices down. You can now buy a hybridizer's triumph, in bloom, for $16 for a miniature in a 4-inch pot, or $25 to $50 for a standard in an 8-inch to 3-gallon pot.

Hybridizers are also breaking size barriers and expanding the bloom season. Standard varieties rarely bloom until they're 4 feet tall, and soon spread 4 feet across. In contrast, some miniatures bloom in 4-inch pots when they're a foot tall, producing two to four spikes with 12 to 24 flowers each.

But the battle for compact sizes is still in progress--and the results can be confusing. Officially, any cymbidium with flowers less than 3 inches across is a miniature. Some have leaves as big as a standard's; others have narrower, shorter leaves, but at 2 to 3 feet tall are still not compact plants. Some growers call these in-between sizes novelties. The tiniest foot-tall bloomers tend to stay less than 2 feet tall even when mature. They are also less common: look for first-generation hybrids such as Alice Williams, Evening Star, Olyminum, or Peter Pan hybrids--most varieties of these, but not all, are quite small.

True miniatures and novelties tolerate hot weather better than standards and are more likely to bloom where night temperatures are higher than cymbidiums usually require. Some bear flowers that are richly perfumed.

Both in nurseries and in home gardens, the cymbidium bloom season peaks in spring. But at orchid specialists and some nurseries, you'll find the earliest miniature hybrids coming into bloom around November and continuing into March, while most standards bloom from January to mid-May. A few late-season varieties in all sizes but in a limited color range conclude the season from May into summer.

Professional growers often manipulate temperatures and light to make adaptable varieties bloom extra-early or extra-late. In subsequent years, your plant may bloom closer to spring (that is, earlier or later) than it did the year you bought it, but early, midseason, and late varieties will still tend to bloom in the same sequence. Should you try a cymbidium orchid?

If you live in the mid-winter coastal belt fromthe greater San Francisco Bay area south to Mexico, these orchids are easy. You can grow them outdoors all year. All you need to do is provide a protected site in bright, filtered light and water and feed them regularly.

In hotter or colder climates, it's more of a challenge; you will need a cool greenhouse or equivalent conditions in an enclosed entry or atrium to provide the bright light and temperature variations they need, as outlined below. Check the yellow pages for orchid specialists; they can tell you what it would take to make your environment hospitable for cymbidiums.

In climates not suited for cymbidiums year-round, you may want to buy a plant for the bloom season only. For longest duration, choose plants with thick, waxy petals and some tight buds. Watch for flowers blushed darker in the center (the throat and lip) than other flowers on the same spike or plant. These flowers are older or have been pollinated, and will not last long. How the plant works

Cymbidiums are cast-iron plants. You can let them dry out and neglect to feed them, and they'll probably survive and might even surprise you with a bloom spike or two. But to get lots of flowers, you may need to fuss over them a bit.

On page 99, you see the parts of a cymbidium plant. Pseudobulbs usually bloom only once. To get more flowers, you have to feed, water, and provide the right environment to produce new growth. And that new growth has to be mature enough to spike when temperatures are right--in most varieties, by fall. Mild summers and humidity help growth; cool nights bring bloom

Cymbidiums grow best in cool temperatures--60 [deg.] to 85 [deg.] during the day, 40 [deg.] to 55 [deg.] at night. But they can take temperatures down to 28 [deg.] for a short time and up to 100 [deg.] (or even 115 [deg.] for miniatures), especially if you mist foliage each day to cool them down. Buds and flowers are more sensitive--lows of 35 [deg.] or highs over 85 [deg.] by day or 60 [deg.] at night can cause them to fall off.

In fall or early winter, cymbidiums need night temperatures that are at least 20 [deg.] cooler than daytime temperatures and that stay below 60 [deg.] in order to set flower spikes, though miniatures may spike with night temperatures up to 65 [deg.].

In winter, even in virtually frost-free climates, protect plants from cold and excess rain by placing them under a wide overhang or by covering your patio roof, lath, or shadecloth with plastic. In colder climates, move plants into a cool, bright, enclosed area such as a greenhouse or porch. Most houses are too warm, dry, and dark for cymbidiums except during bloom. Bright light is essential for flowering

Give plants morning or afternoon sun but provide some protection from midday rays. Inland, provide more shade; in the coastal fog belt, full sun is often best. Foliage should be golden green but not sunburned. Dark green or limp foliage usually means that plants are not getting enough light for flowering, although a few varieties always have dark leaves. To let in maximum light and develop more flower spikes, keep plants for enough apart so that "leaves just kiss."

When flower buds emerge from their sheats, reduce light for brighter colors on green, yellow, white, and pastel flowers. To develop their full intensity, reds, purples, browns, and dark golds need brighter light until open; then move them to a shadier site to prevent fading and to prolong bloom.

Avoid changing the direction of light from the time the first flowers emerge until all are open. Buds follow the light; if you change its direction, flowers tend to twist. Keep the potting mix damp

Especially during the period of active growth (about March through October), water often enough to keep the potting mix moist but never soggy. Let the top third of the mix dry out, then water two or three times from the top until water runs out the bottom. Don't leave containers standing in water.

During hot weather, mist foliage or wet the area around the plants daily to keep them cool and humid. To avoid diseases, mist early enough so plants are dry by dark.

During winter or cool weather, water less frequently--just enough to keep the mix damp and prevent bulbs from shriveling. Feed regularly

Nearly every grower, professional or amateur, has a different favorite fertilizer formula and feeding schedule. What's most important is to follow a schedule that works for you. Some gardeners use the same high-nitrogen fertilizer all year. Some feed every other week with a dilute solution; others apply slow-release pellets two or three times a year. Most follow some variation of the pros' schedule: feed with high-nitrogen fertilizer (30-10-10 or similar formula) from spring (or after flowers finish) until growth slows in fall. Then, generally in August or September, switch to a lower-nitrogen, higher-phosphorus and potash fertilizer until flower spikes open. When flower spikes appear

New shoots are brittle and often stick out from the pot at an angle. Some gardeners insert thin, inconspicuous stake near each emergent spike to remind themselves to be careful, and later to train spikes upright. Let spikes get tall and firm before tying them. Avoid wetting the flowers; moisture can spot them. Snails and slugs consider those tender new shoots a delicacy; bait regularly. Before buds emerge, control aphids, scale, or spider mites as needed with a systemic insecticide or malathion.

After most buds open, you can move plants indoors while they bloom, but keep them cool at night or flowers may wither.

for cut flowers, wait until all or most flowers on the spike have opened and lost their greenish tinge. A single cut flower can last a week or more and a spike a month or more if you recut stems and change the water once or twice a week. To avoid spreading virus, snap stems by hand, or sterilize tools before cutting a different plant by heating the blade until it sizzles when moist. When the plant outgrows its pot

Unless you buy a plant that's overflowing its pot, you probably won't ned to repot for two or three years. When pseudobulbs bulge over the rim, or when the potting mix feels punky and compacted instead of firm and porous, it's time to repot. Make the move as soon as possible after flowering, or you risk breaking off the brittle new shoots that soon begin to grow.

Until your plant gets so large you can't handle it or has so many leafless pseudobulbs it looks scruffy, you can simply move it to the next-larger pot. Hose off as much old potting mix as you can, cutt off any brown or broken roots, and repot in a fast-draining mixture as suggested at right.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1984
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