DIMINUTIVE BUT DELIGHTFUL by Rex Johnson
In this article I describe four orchid species that produce numerous small but pretty flowers. Although they all require some winter warmth in my native Tasmania, most should be suitable for shade-house conditions in frost-free locations in Victoria.
Stenoglottis longifolia is one of the first orchids that I acquired after construction of my 'intermediate' house, which I maintain at a minimum temperature of 8°C. Stenoglottis longifolia is one of only three or four species in the genus Stenoglottis. This terrestrial South African species is native to the province of Kwa Zulu, where it grows at altitudes between 300 and 700 m. Don't worry when its leaves begin to turn yellow and die after flowering, as the plant is simply entering its winter dormancy. I re-pot my plants when they are dormant (during winter), using a well drained potting mix of small pine bark, loam and leaf mould. New growth begins in spring, producing a vertical rosette of leaves from which the upright inflorescences emerge in summer. By autumn each inflorescence will have reached up to 600 mm, and carry 50 or more flower buds. The buds open sequentially from the bottom, 20-30 flowers being fully open at any one time. By the time the buds at the tip of the inflorescence open, the plant will have been in flower for 3-4 weeks or even longer. The small flowers (15 mm across) have pale pink segments marked with darker pink spots. Stenoglottis longifolia is easy to grow and produces its pretty flowers in late summer or early autumn each year.
Polystachya pubescens is another South African species suitable for the intermediate house. My plant is mounted on a natural cork slab, and consequently dries out rapidly after watering. It therefore requires a humid environment, which I provide by growing it among other plants and by watering it every day. Its small pseudo-bulbs and their 75 mm long leaves grow closely together as a tuft. The flower spikes emerge between the leaves, rising to 150 mm and carrying up to 8 small flowers. Each flower, only about 19 mm across, is deep yellow in colour and bears longitudinal red stripes on its sepals and labellum. Using a magnifying glass, one can see that the inner surfaces of the side-lobes of the labellum are covered with fine hairs - hence the species epithet pubescens, meaning hairy. Unlike those of cymbidiums and other commonly grown orchid genera, the flowers are non-resupinate, with the labellum uppermost. Polystachya pubescens is a small plant that doesn't take up much space but it reliably rewards one with charming little flowers in late spring each year.
My plant of Stelis porschiana, imported from Brazil by my local nursery, is probably misnamed. Armed with a description of flowers I have searched the local library for its true identity and have arrived at Stelis ciliaris as the true name, although it's difficult to be certain in a genus containing several hundred different species. The clustered leaves of this species, including their stalks, reach a height of 120 mm. The inflorescences that emerge from the junction of the leaf and its stalk in spring are 70-130 mm long, and carry 16-20 evenly spaced flowers arranged in two rows. Each flower measures 6 mm across and consists basically of three pinkish brown sepals fringed with minute hairs. The petals, labellum and column are so small that they can be seen clearly only with the aid of a magnifying glass. I find that this species grows well either potted in sphagnum moss or mounted on a piece of carpet underfelt. It should be kept cool and moist throughout the year.
Sarcochilus ceciliae (common name Fairy Bells) is native to northern New South Wales and Queensland but grows happily in cultivation in Tasmania if a minimum temperature of 5°C can be maintained. Its leaves are finer and more tufted than those of other sarcochilus species. Growing as a lithophyte in nature, it prefers to grow with its roots on the surface of the potting mix, rather than buried in it. It enjoys bright light, warmth, a humid atmosphere and good air movement. Its flower spikes are about 20 mm tall, and bear up to 15 pretty pink flowers that open sequentially, only 6-8 usually being open together. Even when fully open the flowers face upwards and are rather cupped. A magnifying glass shows that the side-lobes of the labellum are upright, while the mid-lobe is covered with short fine white hairs. My plants grow happily on a mix of stone (60%) and fine bark (40%) containing a little leaf litter.