This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V24", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Before taking up the very numerous family of Oncidiums I would like to speak briefly in hearty commendation of this beautiful genus, remarkable both for the loveliness of its flowers, and for the ease with which they may be successfully produced.
As far as I am aware, there has not been discovered a single variety unworthy of cultivation, and it was fitting that the founders of this queenly genus should have connected its lovely qualities with those of that charming Roman maiden, distinguished alike for the purity with which she spoke her native tongue, and the sincerity and earnestness of her conversation.
The number of species comprising this genus is not large, about thirty only being enumerated by the several authors, and a few of these are, without doubt, varieties only, or natural hybrids, not to mention several that have been obtained by cross-fertilization with the neighboring genus, Cattleya, with which they are very nearly allied, the only botanical difference being the presence of eight pollen masses instead of four. Some of the species even are indiscriminately known as Cattleyas or Lselias. The difference that presents itself at once to the amateur is in the style of inflorescence. The flower scape of the Laelias, with rare exceptions (as for instance in the lovely L. Jongheana), develops directly from the summit of the pseudo-bulb in the axil of the leaf, and in many varieties is long and slender, not displaying its flower buds until well advanced, reaching the length, in the case of L. anceps, of three and four feet. The inflorescence of the genus Cattleya, though starting from the same point, makes itself seen through a sheath two or three inches in length, and when the short scapes appear the buds are already developed and increase in size very rapidly, expanding in a few weeks, the stem rarely, if ever, exceeding one foot in height.
In size of flower, and breadth of sepals and petals, the latter generally surpass the Laelias, though by no means in the beauty and richness of their coloring or in the substance of the flowers, which embrace all the shades of purple, crimson, rose and lilac, and also in rare instances amethyst, red, orange, scarlet and yellow.
Laelias are exclusively American, and are found in Mexico, Guatemala, and various parts of South America; many from different portions of Brazil. They were first introduced into England in 1830 to 1885, L. anceps having been first flowered there in 1834; other species followed at intervals until 1840. The only varieties of recent date are Daycana and harpophylla, respectively purple, lilac and white and orange-scarlet, both from Brazil, which appear in the "addenda" to "Williams'Manual," 1877, fifth edition.
The Mexican varieties are all best grown on blocks, - directions say, with a little sphagnum moss ; practical experience, as stated very generally by a contributor to the London Garden (page 562 of 1881), which is borne out by the observations of others, says without any moss, the roots clinging firmly to the blocks and fastening the plants there, and when too long hanging for two feet or more in mid-air. The same writer very truthfully remarks: "One thing in orchid growing seems now fairly settled, and that is heat, air and moisture being duly proportioned, it matters but little in what compost the plants are anchored," and in this article he alludes to such orchids as Trichopilias, Cattleyas, Laelias, Mormodes, Cateseturus, Brassa-volas, and others from Mexico. Many amateurs are fast becoming convinced of this fact. In the houses to which I have access equally good plants of Laelias are seen grown with or without sphagnum. With proper attention to their wants in these respects an ordinary greenhouse is the best in which to grow them, and the increased size of psuedo-bulb spikes and flowers, from year to year, attest its success. The care of a few plants will soon afford to an observing person an insight into their requirements.
It is no secret, for even when neglected they will bear more abuse than any plants, possibly Cacti excepted.
This article, already too long, should not be brought to a close without enumerating a few of the best species for the amateur.
First and easiest of culture are the lovely Mexican specimens, Albida and Anceps. The former with waxy blossoms in clusters of three to six, often pearly white, and as often tinged and tipped both in lip and petals with pale pink or light rose; occasionally individual flowers are three inches across. They will last in the drawing-room four weeks or more, and as cut flowers will remain fresh a very long time. The latter, with clusters of from two to five, rosy or pale lilac flowers, with deep purple or crimson lip, individual flowers three to four inches across, lasting three to five weeks in beauty. There are several rare and costly varieties of this species among them that are nearly white, called Daw-sonii, the value of which collectors write " every Indian in the country knows, and they bleach out the flowers of the ordinary variety with sulphur in order to deceive in disposing of them." Block culture suits them best, as it does the three following.
Next in value comes L. autumnalis, with its beautiful purple and white flowers, often six on a scape. One variety, very dark, has been called Atroroubens. None of the wretched wood-cuts I have seen give any idea of the exquisite beauty of these Mowers. These three varieties bloom in December and January, occasionally in November, and no collection of orchids is complete without them. Laelia peduncularis (very similar to L. acuminata, white, called by the Guatema-lese, on account of its beauty, the "Flor de Jesu") is a dwarf, and very lovely free-flowering species, but does not expand its delicately tinted and shaded rose petals as fully after the morning sunlight has past as the preceding, but, notwithstanding, is none the less beautiful, with a rich deep purple blotch in the centre of the lip.
The fifth species, called by the Mexican Spaniards "Flor de Majo," or May-flower, from its season of flowering, is Laelia Majalis. This was figured by Hernandez as Flos pulcherrimus, a rude wood cut merely in 1615, and he gives its native name as "Chichilitic Tepetlavhxochitl!" It was introduced from Mexico in 1838. It is a very beautiful species, the prevailing color soft rose or silvery lilac, with white, lilac and purple lip. Its scape bears but a solitary flower. Though easy to grow it is rather difficult to flower well, probably owing to an error amateurs make in keeping in too much heat during winter. Coming from the highest orchid limit in Mexico, where collectors tell us snow and ice are often found upon its leaves, it is too much to expect it to thrive in the roasting heat of 80° during the winter season. The foolish blundering that has subjected these plants to such extremes seems now to be receiving its merited condemnation at the hands of the advanced ideas of modern gardeners and amateurs.
There are other species that might be named, but these will suffice, only mentioning a few from Brazil, the largest of which do best in pot-culture. Laelia perspurata, and its varieties, with large, pure white and purple flowers; L. elegans, from white to crimson and carmine; L. Cinna-barina, reddish orange; L. Perrini, purple and crimsun, and many others, besides the two alluded to at the beginning of this article. All will do well in pot-culture, but from my experience do not grow as freely as the Mexican varieties under greenhouse treatment. They bloom at different times of the year, and all are very beautiful. Is it any wonder that with such a list as this the lover of orchids includes the Laelias among his richest treasures?