Selected Species - by Peter Taylor
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
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
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
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
Peter Taylor and Australian Orchid Council Inc 2003
published in "Orchids Australia" December 2003.