The cattleya orchid is known for being a bit of a show-off. If your interior design scheme is sleek, spare, and modern, these might not be your cup of tea.
But if you can imagine yourself spinning down the mirrored hallways of Versailles under those ornate crystal chandeliers, corsage orchids – as they’re also known – will definitely seem to be calling your name.
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There’s nothing restrained about cattleyas.
They celebrate life exuberantly with ruffled petals, bright colors, and a riot of splotches, spots, and stripes. The flower veins often contrast with the rest, in darker shades.
These are not shy, retiring flowers. They want to be seen.
It’s not for nothing that these ostentatious plants are often referred to as the “Queen of the Orchids.” It’s easy to picture them adorning the interior of a royal palace just as they adorned the wrists and shoulders of the most fashionable women in the 1950s.
We’d obviously never play favorites with our plants, but I wouldn’t judge you one bit if you whispered extra words of love and encouragement to yours each time you walked by.
We’ll help you make your royal visitor feel welcome in your own palace. Here’s a quick preview of everything we’ll discuss to make that happen:
What You’ll Learn
Through the brief span of a few decades in the 1940s and ‘50s, if you were going to buy an orchid in the US, it was probably a cattleya.
By the 1960s, cymbidiums took over. These days, their phalaenopsis cousins are all the rage, but cattleyas are still every bit as fabulous as they ever were.
Cultivation and History
Cattleya species grow wild across Costa Rica and South America at high altitudes where the air is moist and cool.
Most of them are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants, usually trees. But they aren’t parasites, and they just use the host plant as a means of support.
The name “cattleya” comes from British horticulturist William Cattley, who received a shipment of plants from Brazil in 1818.
In the shipment was an orchid, previously identified by William John Swainson, that was looking pretty grim, but he nurtured it back to health. Known for his passion for orchids, the genus was eventually named in his honor.
Within the genus, there are four subgenera – Cattleya, Cattleyella, Intermediae, and Maximae.
There are three sections within the Cattleya subgenus – Cattleya, Crispae, and Lawrenceanae – with five series grouped under the Crispae section. These are Cattleyodes, Hadrolaelia, Microlaelia, Parviflorae, and Sophronitis.
There are about 45 known species in the genus, only a few of which are terrestrial rather than epiphytic. They earned the name “corsage orchids” due to their popularity among florists for this purpose in the mid-20th century.
The most commonly cultivated species is C. labiata, which is the species that Swainson, a polymath from London who made study of the natural world his life’s work, found in Brazil.
Cattleyas differ from other orchids in that they usually have larger flowers with an intense fragrance, but these blossoms also last for a shorter period of time.
The flowers come in a massive range of colors, including white, cream, yellow, orange, green, pink, red, magenta, lavender, violet, and nearly blue, but not true blue.
Typically, the lowermost petal (i.e. the labellum or lip) is a different color from the rest. The lips are usually ruffled and funnel-shaped.
These plants have thick, oblong, yellow-green leaves. And there are two types of cattleyas, where foliage is concerned: unifoliates and bifoliates. Unifoliate types have a single leaf on each pseudobulb, and bifoliate types have two or three leaves each.
In case you aren’t already an expert on orchid biology, a pseudobulb is a little bulb-like storage structure that grows below the leaves and above the roots.
True bulbs grow underground, whereas pseudobulbs grow above the soil.
A single plant can have multiple pseudobulbs emerging from the roots. Orchids with pseudobulbs are described as sympodial, which means the pseudobulbs emerge horizontally along the rhizome.
Compare that to Phalaenopsis species, for example, which grow upwards rather than out, with leaves stacking on top of each other and flower spikes that emerge from between the leaves. This is known as monopodial growth.
Bifoliate types typically produce lots of small, waxy flowers. Unifoliate types have larger flowers, and these are the ones that were so wildly popular for use in corsages.
Bifoliates include C. bicolor, C. elongata, C. granulosa, C. intermedia, C. schilleriana, C. tigrina, C. velutina, and C. violacea. Unifoliates include C. dowiana, C. gaskelliana, C. labiata, C. mendelii, C. percivaliana, C. quadricolor, C. rex, and C. warneri.
Most of us buy our orchids as potted specimens. It’s just easier that way. But it’s possible to grow them from seed as well, and this is how hobbyists hybridize them to create new varieties.
We won’t dive into the complexities of propagating orchids from seed here. It’s doable, but it’s time-consuming and requires special equipment.
If you’d like to give it a go, we have a comprehensive guide to the process that you might find useful.
For now, let’s just chat about what to do when you buy a corsage orchid in a container.
From Potted Nursery Plants/Transplanting
Most of the time, when you buy an orchid, it comes in a soilless medium in a pot with multiple drainage holes.
If that’s the case, you don’t need to do anything. Just keep caring for your plant until it’s time to size up the container, which we’ll talk about in a bit.
But if you buy plugs or an orchid that’s growing in soil, you’ll need to repot it when you bring it home.
You must be very careful not to “over-pot” cattleyas – this is a shortcut that will lead only to root rot. Choose a pot that is about the same size or just slightly larger than the root ball.
Also be sure to select a container with lots of drainage holes. Pots designed specifically for growing orchids are available, and you can put these inside a decorative cachepot without drainage holes if you like. Just be sure to remove the cachepot when you water.
You might want to keep orchid pots in several different sizes on hand because you’ll need to repot every few years.
You can grab a multipack of eight pots with two each in three-, four-, five-, and six-inch sizes from rePotme at Amazon.
Remove the plant from the container you purchased it in and remove all of the potting media from around the roots. Cut away any rotten, mushy, or broken roots.
Repot in orchid bark in a pot of the same size or just one size up from the one it was already growing in.
How to Grow
Cattleyas don’t like being hot, and their temperature determines how much light they can handle.
Touch your plant’s leaf. Does it feel warm? The plant is too hot.
If the plant is kept humid with plenty of air circulation to reduce the temperature, it can tolerate partial sun. But in the average home, you’ll want something closer to partial shade.
Or course, both of these light conditions are more typical of outdoor gardening recommendations. So what does that translate to inside your house? And what does “average” really mean anyway?
Bright, indirect light is going to be perfect. For many gardeners, this may mean placing the orchid in an east-facing window covered with a sheer curtain.
If you have access to a light meter, about 2,000 to 3,000 foot-candles is ideal – unless you have good humidity (which we’ll discuss shortly) and air circulation.
If you have both of these elements available you can provide a bit more light, which will translate to more blossoms that are larger as well.
Also, if you live in a northern region, which typically corresponds with reduced sunlight for a significant part of the year, you can provide more light, while those in more southern latitudes should provide less.
These orchids can also tolerate more light exposure in the fall and winter than they can in the spring and summer when the light is more intense and direct.
Gardeners in places like Hawaii and Florida where the weather is hot and humid and the light is more intense should provide dimmer light, whether that’s indoors or out.
Never allow these plants to be exposed to full sun in the heat of the afternoon. Some direct morning sun in northern latitudes is fine.
Now that we’ve gotten all those recommendations out of the way… About clear as mud, right??
Try to use the items noted above as a guideline and start in a slightly darker area than you think your plant will need. Then gradually move the orchid into brighter sun.
If the plant is moved into a location with too much sun, the first sign will be reddish-purple splotches or spots on the foliage. Then, the leaf tips will turn dry and brown. Next, if overexposure continues, the leaves will start to turn yellow as the chlorophyll degenerates.
If it receives the right amount of the light, your plant will have yellowish-green leaves. Too little light turns the leaves dark green, which might sound pretty, but it also prevents the plant from flowering. If you see dark green leaves and your plant isn’t blooming, it’s in a spot that’s too dark.
Temperatures should range from 55°F at night to 75°F in the heat of the day. These orchids can easily tolerate temperatures up to 85°F if they’re protected from direct sun, but they’ll die if temps climb above 100°F, no matter how protected they are.
Humidity should be between 40 and 70 percent. If the relative humidity is lower than this in your home, pebble trays filled with water, cool mist humidifiers, and grouping plants together can help to increase humidity.
Now that we’ve gotten the “easy” stuff out of the way, let’s talk about irrigation. Over- or underwatering orchids is their number one killer. It’s essentially the heart disease of orchids.
Lucky for orchids, it’s a lot easier to prevent this problem than it is to prevent heart disease in humans.
First, know that the conditions in the surrounding environment will make a big difference in how much water the plant needs.
A cattleya with bright sun exposure, good air circulation, a small pot, and low ambient humidity during the active growing season will need a lot more water than a dormant plant in a dark area with poor air circulation and high humidity.
The easiest way to figure things out is to touch the growing medium. The surface should feel dry and the medium should be almost completely dry throughout.
It’s usually going to be impossible to stick your finger too deep into the medium since it will typically be composed of chunks of bark and filled with a ton of roots, so learn to tell by gauging the weight of the pot instead.
Lift the pot to get an idea of its weight right after you water. Then, wait a few days until the medium has dried out. Lift the pot again and feel the difference.
It takes time to recognize readily, but eventually you’ll be able to tell when it’s time to water just by feeling the weight of the container. A moisture meter makes it easy to determine when it’s time to water too.
Underwatering is less damaging to most orchids than overwatering, so if you aren’t sure, water less often than you think you need to.
Don’t use the old once-a-week ice cube trick. For one thing, placing ice in the pot can damage any exposed roots. And for another, that method doesn’t take into account different environmental conditions.
An orchid growing in bright morning sun with low humidity is going to need water more often than one placed in a dark corner in a room with high humidity.
Either use the bottom-watering technique or be sure to only apply water to the medium without sprinkling it on the leaves. A watering can intended for use on houseplants with a narrow nozzle can help.
If you really want to play it safe against root rot, which is common in orchids potted in soil (and which is why it’s always recommended that you repot them in bark!), try mounting your orchid in moss on a piece of wood. It’s almost impossible to overwater a mounted orchid.
While orchids aren’t heavy feeders, they do need regular fertilizing. They’ll need more food during the phases when they’re developing flowers and when they’re flowering.
Don’t fertilize for at least the first month or two after you bring your orchid home. Chances are good that your orchid was already blooming when you bought it.
This typically happens because growers give the plant hormones to force them to flower even if they typically wouldn’t at that time of year.
Overfeeding can cause problems, but a little underfeeding won’t hurt anything.
Once it’s time to start feeding, choose a mild, balanced fertilizer and feed your plant once every two weeks or so.
I swear by Dr. Earth’s Pump & Grow fertilizer. It’s well-balanced and mild enough for regular use.
Snag a 16-ounce bottle from Arbico Organics.
- Provide bright, indirect light, varying the intensity depending on other environmental conditions.
- Water only when the majority of the medium has dried out.
- Feed twice a week during the flowering period with a mild, balanced fertilizer.
Pruning and Maintenance
Repotting is a necessary part of regular maintenance and needing to do it is a sign that you’re doing a great job raising your orchid.
It’s growing and expanding because it’s happy! You’ll know it’s time for an upgrade when you start to see roots coming out of the holes in the pot.
When I say “start,” I mean it. You have just a few weeks from the time when root tips first emerge from the holes to repot. After that, repotting will generally cause more harm than good.
That means you need to check your orchids regularly for new root growth.
It typically happens in the spring and summer, but that doesn’t mean you can just go ahead and slack off in fall and winter. Keep an eye on your plants and check in regularly at all times of year!
Species that are commonly available for sale typically root right before they bloom.
Most Cattleya species bloom either in December and January or March through May, though some species may bloom at other times throughout the year.
But some root right after blooming, and a rare few may root at any old time, including C. nobilior, C. aclandiae, C. violacea, and C. walkeriana. However, all varieties put on new root growth for just a brief period rather than doing so continuously throughout the year.
If you miss the period when the roots are growing, wait until the next year to repot, and keep a close eye on things. A year of being a bit rootbound is fine.
Once those roots start growing again, whether they’re already sticking out of the holes or just starting to poke out, it’s time to get going.
Don’t worry about any roots growing above the soil. These aerial roots are different from the ones in the medium and they’re not a sign that you need to change the container.
To repot, pull the plant out of its existing container and brush away all of the medium. Then, cut off any decayed, mushy, or broken roots.
Moisten the new potting medium and pack some around the roots. Place the plant in a new pot just one size up from the previous one and fill in with more potting medium.
If you’re growing a bifoliate plant, be aware that they don’t like to be repotted and you might notice stunted growth for a few months. You should wait a little longer in between repotting with these species.
While Phalaenopsis orchids need carefully-controlled temperatures to encourage reblooming, Cattleya species will rebloom once a year so long as they receive enough light, and vice-versa – if they don’t get enough light they won’t rebloom.
Once the flowers are spent, cut off the flower spike and its bud sheath with a clean knife or scissors. The bud sheath is a leaf-like structure that surrounds the growing flowers. It sits just below the flowers but above the pseudobulb.
After the flowers emerge, bloom, and fade, the bud sheath has done its job and it won’t produce more blossoms.
Species to Select
Unless you visit a serious hobbyist’s show or a store that specializes in unusual orchids, most cattleyas that you’ll find in stores are going to be easy to grow.
In general, hybrids tend to be easier to cultivate than straight species.
For instance, ‘Grand Catherine,’ (Orglade’s Grand x Hsinying Catherine) is a hybrid that has been bred from other hybrids to create an unfussy cattleya that just about anyone can grow.
And the white petals with ruffled, magenta lips are very striking.
If you’d like to start your cattleya journey with a near-sure thing, pick up this hybrid cultivar in a five-inch pot at Amazon.
Avoid C. dowiana, C. harrisoniana, and C. aclandiae if you’re a beginner. They’re more challenging, in terms of what they need to thrive.
The following species, on the other hand, are recommended for anyone who wants to give cattleyas a try.
I have a soft spot for the amethyst-lipped orchid. It was the first of the Cattleya genus that I ever owned and it was one of the easiest I’ve ever cared for. It bloomed regularly and prolifically.
This species is often confused with C. guttata, and they look super similar. They’re both bifoliates but C. guttata blooms in the summer and C. amethystoglossa blooms in winter.
The white, pink, and/or purple flowers are freckled except for the bottom petals, which are a single, solid color. ‘Crownfox’ is particularly pretty, with pink blossoms splotched in magenta.
This bifoliate species blooms in April and May with light purple blossoms. Most C. kerrii plants have a bright yellow splotch on the lowest petal.
The flowers tend to be smaller and more narrow than those of other species, and these plants can tolerate a bit more light.
The maxima species includes some gorgeous cultivars and hybrids.
Most feature some amount of purple or pink on large, narrow petals. The lower petal may be yellow, with splotches or veins in darker shades of pink or purple.
There is a white variety (alba), and the coerulea variety has striking purple flowers.
C. maxima plants are unifoliate and bloom sometime from late summer to winter. ‘Blue Sky’ is a particularly gorgeous cultivar, with pale bluish-purple blossoms.
As one of the species that was so popular in the ‘50s, along with C. labiata and C. mossiae, it could be found in homes and on wrists across the US at the time.
While they’re not as popular as they used to be, some incredible C. trianaei hybrids and cultivars were bred during their heyday that still appear in stores today.
This is a unifoliate species that blooms in winter, right around the holidays.
The top petals tend to be either paler than or the same color as the bottom petal, which usually has dark, contrasting veins and a yellow center.
A bifoliate, Walker’s orchid provides long-lasting blossoms from late winter through spring.
The petals are broad and large, and the available colors range from nearly blue to purple, bright pink, and even white.
Managing Pests and Disease
Cattleyas aren’t immune to any of the pests and diseases that may also impact other orchids.
Scale is the number one problem that you might face. If you aren’t familiar with these common pests, read our guide to learn all about identifying and eliminating them.
The top disease you may encounter is root rot, which is far more common in cattleyas growing in soil. Those cultivated in a medium consisting of orchid bark are less likely to suffer from root rot, which is caused by the oomycetes Pythium ultimum and Phytophthora cactorum.
It causes black spotting, and the roots turn black and mushy. Eventually the plant wastes away and dies.
Lately, I’ve been singing the praises of Mycostop. It has saved a seriously sick Monstera ‘Albo’ of mine and a very unhappy Philodendron gloriosum that a friend gave up on and sent my way.
It’s extremely effective against Pythium and Phytophthora pathogens.
Grab five or 25 grams of Mycostop at Arbico Organics and follow the directions for treating a potted plant.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Flowering epiphyte or lithophyte||Flower/Foliage Color:||White, cream, yellow, orange, green, pink, red, magenta, lavender, violet / green|
|Native to:||Costa Rica, South America||Maintenance:||Moderate|
|Hardiness (USDA Zones):||10-12||Water Needs:||Moderate|
|Bloom Time:||Varies, depending on species||Soil Type:||Soilless orchid bark or moss|
|Exposure:||Bright indirect light||Soil pH:||5.0-6.5|
|Time to Maturity:||Up to 7 years||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Planting Depth:||Same depth as previous container||Order:||Asparagales|
|Tolerance:||Low light, high humidity||Subgenus:||Cattleya, Cattleyella, Intermediae, Maximae|
|Common Pests and Diseases:||Mealybugs, scale, thrips; root rot||Species:||Amethystoglossa, bicolor, dowiana, elongata, gaskelliana, granulosa, intermedia, kerrii, labiata, maxima, mendelii, percivaliana, quadricolor, rex, schilleriana, tigrina, trianae, velutina, violacea, walkeriana, warneri|
All Hail the Queen of Orchids
If phalaenopsis are the ballerinas of the orchid world, cattleyas are the eye-catching flamenco dancers.
Sometimes we just want some joy and color in our lives, and these orchids deliver – without being extraordinarily challenging to grow.
I’m genuinely excited to hear which one you decide to grow. Are you going to mount it or keep it in a pretty pot? Give me all the good info in the comments section below!
And for more information about orchids and how to grow them, have a read of these guides next: