Selected Species - by Peter Taylor
Trichopilia suavis (Lindl & Paxt)
The intrepid Lithuanian collector Josef Warszewicz has many wonderful species named after him including Cattleya warscewiczii (see footnote) and Stanhopea warscewiczii.
His bravery as a collector was undoubted and one of his greatest expeditions occurred in Costa Rica in 1848. Underfunded and accompanied only by a single Indian companion he made a great journey through Central America living on meagre rations of maize and forest fruits.
He found many new species but even if he had found only two, the spectacular Cattleya dowiana and Trichopilia suavis, both in Costa Rica, his reputation would have been assured.
Most orchid texts give only basic information as to the habitat of Trichopilia suavis. For example "mossy woods between 1100 and 1700m in altitude" (Bechtel, Cribb, Launert). So back to my old "Bible", Veitch's Manual of Orchidaceous Plants (1894). There, we find this description of the habitat published in the Belgique Horticole of 1874...
"It was discovered in 1848 by Warscewicz in Costa Rica, on the Cordillera, at an altitude of 5000-8000 feet in a region where the thermometer ranged from 10OC-15OC. Warscewicz found the plants frowing in oaks ... from 20 to 40 feet above the ground, never lower down. If the trees to which they affix themselves are thrown down by an accident or fall from old age, the Trichopilias upon them languish and die. On Chiriqui at this altitude there is a dry season lasting from November to April when there is neither rain nor dew and the wind is very violent; but throughout the remainder of the year both rains and dews are copious and frequent."
The information is invaluable in determining cultural requirements - but first a little about the genus. Trichopilia is one of many genera in the Oncidieae tribe characterised by a fusion between the lip and the column. The name is derived from the Greek "tricho" (hair) and "pilos" (felt) which alludes to the fine hairs on top of the column. There are about 30 species in the genus distributed in Central and South America. The type species is Trichopilia tortilis from Central America.
Alex Hawkes (1965) described the genus ".... they are, without exception, handsome and free-flowering orchids with attractive, neat, pseudobulbs habit and basal, few-flowered racemes of mostly large and spectacular blossoms".
I grow a number of Trichopilia species including Trichopilia fragrans which has lovely greenish-white flowers and a white lip and Trichopilia marginata with fragrant flowers of red sepals and petals and a white lip with pretty rose inner markings. Sadly, few seedlings of these orchids are currently seen in commercial catalogues. However, my favourite Trichopilia is the selected species for this month - Trichopilia suavis.
As mentioned, the species was initially discovered in Costa Rica although it is distributed through Panama to Colombia. Although of relatively wide distribution it is restricted to particular habitats as mentioned in the extract from Belgique Horticole (1874). It prefers to live in mossy woods at an elevation of 100-1700m with relatively high humidity and medium light. Good air circulation is essential.
Very careful watering is required as the mature bulbs need a cool and dry (but not without occasional watering and misting, otherwise the bulbs can dessicate - I guess the trick is to have a cool yet humid environment) rest before flowering. Plants are intolerant of high to bright light and require moderate shade.
I recently selfed a particularly good clone and I was interested to read that the maturation of the seed capsule for Trichopilia suavis can take up to one year. Plants of this species should be more available for the avid species collector - it is a relatively easy grower and blooms on small plants.
The flowers have an interesting, delicate fragrant beauty. The semi-pendant basal inflorescence holds between two and five large flowers, the largest of the genus. Flowers are creamy-white spotted with rose-red than the pictured clone and the colour is pronounced in the sepals and petals.
I find that my Trichopilia species grow well in wooden baskets filled with a mix of polystyrene chunks and sphagnum moss - this allows for free and rapid draining yet a constantly moist "mixture".
Following the advice given by Alex Hawkes in Encyclopaedia of Cultivated Orchids, I divide my plants with small clumps of five to six bulbs. This, rather than allowing very large plants to develop, seems to result in better flowering.
As with all plants grown in sphagnum moss one must be very careful with fertilizer - weak inorganic rather than organic seems to prevent the annoying dark green 'sludge' on top of the pot and a rapid souring of the moss.
Trichopilia suavis was first flowered in 1851 in the nursery of Messrs. Loddiges at Hackney in England. Its delicate beauty has graced our glasshouses for about 150 years and, in the years before the Great War of 1941, it was on the 'must have' list of orchid enthusiasts.
Sadly, it is rarely offered in Australian catalgoues today and seedlings are as rare as hen's teeth. Perhaps this can be remedied over the next few years.
Note: "Warszewicz" is the correct spelling but mistaken specific spellings must remain because of nomenclature and publication.
© Peter Taylor and Australian Orchid Council Inc 2003
Originally published in "Orchids Australia" December 2003.