This group of plants is so named because they are much beloved and collected by the Japanese. Not all of them are native to Japan, even. Sophronitis (Cattleya) coccinea, which I actually won’t talk about here, is native to Brazil but the top growers and breeders in the world are Japanese. The following four groups have several characteristics in common though they are from different genera. All are miniatures, or in the case of the cymbidiums very small for their genus. All are collected as much for their beautiful foliage as for their flowers. Finally, all have fragrant flowers—some would say they are the best smelling flowers in orchid world (I would be one of those people). Below are some details on each of these highly desirable Japanese collectibles.
Neofinetia (Vanda) falcata: The Rich and Noble Orchids
I have written and talked about these guys at length, so I will direct you to a couple of other posts I have written about them here and here. I will add that there is a mystique to these little beauties that captures the heart, or perhaps the eye, in a way that few other orchids do. Collectors who are drawn more to form than flower are particularly susceptible to their charms. It helps that they are among the easiest of all orchids to grow and are quite forgiving of abuse which makes them great for beginners or for gifts. With over 2200 varieties of this species available, there is something that will fit your aesthetic tastes as well as your budget. And if you want something a little bigger or a little brighter in color, you can check out their many hybrid offspring among the vandaceous collection.
Dendrobium is the second largest genus in the orchid family, and Dendrobium moniliforme is the type species meaning it was the first Dendrobium to be described. I think that’s a cool distinction. More importantly, this guy, like Neofinetia falcata, has over 100 forms that vary in size, color, pattern, and flower. They make lovely clumps of canes that are yellow, green, or mahogany that range in height from less than an inch (2.5 cm) to nearly 12” (30 cm) which pushes the envelope of “miniature-ness.” The leaves come in various sizes, shapes, colors, textures, and patterns. You can’t say that about a lot of plants.
In Japan, the varieties with particularly lovely foliage are often grown warm year round to trick the plant into keeping its leaves through the winter. D. moniliforme is a deciduous species and requires a temperature drop and a subsequent leaf drop to get the best flower production. In Japan, I have seen them grown in full sun outside during the winter when there are no leaves on the plants. They looked like a field of miniature bamboo canes! Mind you, they won’t tolerate Michigan winters, but this species can take temperatures down below freezing IF (big IF) it is a species. Be warned that these guys are often sold as species but may have some other parentage in their background. That’s not meant to trick or mislead anyone, it’s just a difference in how some of the hybridizers look at their plants in Japan and other parts of Asia. To be safe, take your plants in when the low temperature is going to dip into the 30’s.
D. moniliforme often exhibits its best floral display in late winter, but flowers often reappear during the summer. To promote good blooming, make sure the plants dry out thoroughly between waterings after the leaves have dropped. Some people leave their plants dry for weeks in winter, but I prefer a kinder winter rest. Also, your plants probably will not be in the cold all winter, so they will dry out faster than if they were in 40 degree weather. I don’t get ridiculous numbers of flowers, but neither do my plants die. I like that tradeoff. Flowers are typically white but are sometimes pink or yellow. They smell like lily of the valley which I think of as the smell of fancy soap—wonderfully floral and clean.
I do a whole talk on this species which includes how to grow it and all the misinformation on it out there. For information that I can vouch for, you can look here. While the Japanese typically grow this plant in a pot, it is a lithophyte which means it enjoys drying out quickly. I have found it does great mounted, and one of the prettiest specimens I ever saw was growing on a big slab of rock with the roots growing all across the surface. Don’t be afraid to grow it mounted on cork or go for the natural look and find a nice rock!
This poor plant has gone through two name changes now to make it, currently, Phalaenopsis japonica. Don’t worry, I’m not changing it. Like the other members of the Japanese collection, this species has several forms: standard, shima, minmaru, minmaru shima, and seigyokumaru just to name the ones I often have. The “standard” size varies depending on its country of origin. Those from Japan are usually 4-6” across while those from Taiwan are often 7-9” across which I suspect is the result of tetraploidy (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Minmaru has small, round leaves that are typically about the size of a quarter, and Seigyokumaru is even smaller than that. “Shima” refers to the striping on the leaf, i.e, the variegated form. There are few plants more beautiful than a variegated Sedirea. Each one is a unique work of art that requires no further adornment.
Sedirea blooms in late winter/early spring. The plants produce one or two spikes of white flowers with purple barring and a frilly lip that is similarly colored. If you look at a bunch of them, you will see that the flowers do vary quite a bit in terms of the amount of color and the size/coloration/frilliness of the lip. That’s why it’s best if I sell them when they are not in bloom, or I don’t want to let any of them go.
Sedirea can be rather picky regarding its care. This is not a forgiving plant, sadly. If kept too wet, it will begin to drop leaves, and it’s pretty much done for. It doesn’t seem to mind being too dry for a while, though, and easily recovers from a little benign neglect. I have had good luck growing it in net pots with a foam peanut in the middle of the root ball and a light wrapping of moss. I have also had good luck growing it mounted. Sedirea will take temps from the 40’s to over 100 although I shoot for 55-90 degrees. Light can be low to moderate, but note that it will probably need less water in lower light.
Asian (Chinese) Cymbidiums
There are three species that come to mind here: Cymbidium ensifolium, C. goeringii, and C. sinense. All three are small as cymbidiums go, and all three can take major cold—well below freezing—if they are, in fact, species (see above regarding hybridization in D. moniliforme). They all take the heat, too, though C. goeringii may prefer not to be super hot. I’ve heard some people say they will take full sun, but keep them in the shade. Other cymbidiums can take a lot of light, but these guys prefer lower light, especially if they have variegation. In my experience, they tend to lose their good color in high light, and they look generally unhappy.
Perhaps the hardest part of growing these guys is knowing how to pot and water them. In their natural environment, they are often among the rocks but close to water. Getting that just right mix of moist but not wet is the trick. The Japanese often pot them in pebbles that are graded in size from bigger at the bottom to smaller at the top. Keeping that in mind, I suggest using a tall narrow pot and a mix of medium size bark with something inert (stone, sponge rock) mixed in. Top with a collar of sphagnum moss to keep the humidity up in the mix. People have reported great success with this method. The Japanese suggest fertilizing in the height of growing season only to promote growth but also to make sure the plant blooms well. You don’t want to miss out on the flowers because they smell so great. I once found my plant was in bloom just from the smell!
If you want to try one of these guys (and you should), start with C. ensifolium or C. sinense as I have found them to be easier than C. goeringii for whatever reason.
The Japanese are known for their exquisite taste in all things, and orchids are no exception. This collection of orchids adds year round beauty to your growing area with out taking up a lot of space. In addition, you will appreciate the heavenly scent of each of these orchids when they bloom. Most are not hard to care for and there is something for every taste. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.