Growing Orchids: Cattleya
The showstopping blooms of a Cattleya will tempt almost any gardener to try growing orchids. Learn what you need to be successful.
Cattleyas are classic orchids, recognizable instantly from their decades of use in prom and wedding corsages. In fact, Cattleya orchids are sometimes called “corsage orchids”. Their large flowers are long-lasting even when cut, and many have a lovely fragrance to boot. If you’ve been thinking you’d like to give growing orchids a try, Cattleyas are an excellent choice to start. Here’s what you need to know.
Cattleya (say “cat-LEE-yuh”) is a genus of orchids native to Central and South America. The genus is named for William Cattley, who imported the species to England from Brazil in the early 19th century. Cattleya is a terrestrial orchid, which means it grows on the ground (rather than in trees or rocks). Though Cattleyas may send roots into the soil to hold themselves in place, their leaves and flowers grow from a pseudobulb. These swollen organs at the base of the plant store water and food (just like traditional flower bulbs, such as tulips). They spread by creating more pseudobulbs along a rhizome, either beneath the soil or climbing above.
Cattleya orchids may come from the tropics, but they grow in high elevations where temperatures are cool and moist. They can tolerate summer temperatures in the 80s, but prefer daytime temperatures in the 70s and nights in the 60s. They cannot tolerate freezing – keep their minimum temperature above 55 degrees F.
Give Cattleya orchids lots of bright light. They can take some direct sun, but will probably do best with filtered light. Leaves are a good indicator of health when growing orchids: if your Cattleya’s leaves are bright green, the light levels are good. Dark green leaves means your orchid needs more light.
In general, a Cattleya needs to be watered about once a week. A good rule of thumb is to water when the potting medium feels dry to the touch. Never let the plant sit in water – flush water through the pot each time and allow it to drain. You can provide extra humidity by filling a shallow dish with pebbles and water and setting the plant pot on top. A well-watered Cattleya has fat pseudobulbs.
Potting and Fertilizing
Orchids need quick-draining potting material. Specially-designed orchid mixes made of bark, sphagnum moss, and other loose fillers are ideal. Do not use traditional potting soil or soil from your garden. Ensure the pot has holes for good drainage. Feed with a weak fertilizer once or twice a month. It’s better to underfeed than overfeed.
Cattleya orchids generally bloom once a year, though some hybrids may have a second flush. Flower buds will form where the leaves meet the pseudobulb, with the bud protected by a thin sheath. Blooms may last for weeks, and can be removed when they finally wither. No other general maintenance is really needed, unless your plant has outgrown its pot. Re-potting can be one of the pitfalls of growing orchids, so do your research first. The American Orchid Society is an excellent resource.
Looking for more on orchids? Click here for our Orchids 101: Guide to Orchid Care.