Dendrobiums

Dendrobiums are great orchids! It’s one of the largest genus’ with more than 1,200 species in it. They come from the far corners of the world and have very diverse growth habitats, including India, the Far East (China, Japan, Vietnam) Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, New Guinea, and many islands in the Pacific. They grow everywhere from high in the Himalaya’s to lowland tropical rain forests to dry deserts of Australia.


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Dendrobium canes and new growth

They grow in stems that can vary tremendously in length from a few centimeters to a meter long, and the base of the leaves completely envelope this stem. New stems sprout from buds that appear at the base of existing stems. There are deciduous species which lose their leaves after a year or two and evergreen species that maintain their leaves. The canes you see in this picture are typical of Dendrobium growth. They frequently have a swollen area near the base which is considered a pseudobulb.  They frequently wind up being leafless at the base and depending on the plant, the leaves will be clustered more or less towards the tips of the canes.

Unless you delve deeply into some of these differences, you’ll likely take pot-luck when you buy a Dendrobium.  If you don’t know if it’s deciduous or evergreen, you won’t know if your plant’s losing its leaves is because it doesn’t like your care or if it’s supposed to be growing that way! This can be traumatic, if you let it. Don’t let it. Care for it according to the “care” references below and let nature take it’s course, especially where it comes to the bare canes that have lost their leaves.

Do not cut them off! They will frequently surprise you! And those surprises will, more often than not, be positive! You see, those bare canes can do one of two things – or both. They can throw off flowers! I know – it sounds crazy. They look dead or dying and then suddenly they are budding out and finally covered with beautiful flowers! In fact, if you look closely at this particular photo, not only is there a current crop of flowers clustered on the tip of the cane, you can see paper-like sheaths at various points on the bare cane. if you look closely, you’ll see that each of these sheaths is associated exactly with a spot where a leaf used to join the stem. And these sheaths were from last years flowers which were spread out all alone the bare cane!

The second thing they can do it throw off miniature plants. They are called “keikis.” And they really are miniature versions of the parent orchid, roots and all!

Keiki on Dendrobium

Here is a picture of a keiki. It’s very new and not very developed.  There is one root on this one. Within a couple weeks there will be an entire root system hanging in mid-air from the stem. You should spritz it with water, but you should remove it and pot it up separately sooner rather than later. I’ve left them growing on the stem too long and they died.

Because of these two traits (keikis and flowers on otherwise dead-looking stems), I don’t cut off leafless stalks for several years. Even though they are leafless, the material still looks viable. The stems stay rigid and alive-looking. If I go through a growing season without flowers or keikis, the stems actually start looking like they are really dying. At that point I clip them off.

Dend. Judy Carmene ‘El Matador’ x Velvet Melody ‘Winter Wine’

The flower on the plant that throws these keikis off is no slouch either. It’s nickname for one of the parents is ‘Winter Wine” and I can’t think of a more appropriate name for this color. It throws off large sprays of, not surprisingly, wine-colored flowers.  This plant is about a 14 year old. I’ve divided it a number of times and given away starter plants.  It is healthy, vibrant, regularly puts up new shoots, and to my recollection, has never had a pest while in my care. It’s been one of the most trouble-free orchids I have ever owned. And the flowers are an absolute treat! As you can see in this picture, this is very typical Dendrobium growth.

As with all orchids, there are hybrids. Dendrobium hybrids can even be patented so that the plant material cannot be reproduced commercially. I have one such plant. And it is spectacular. I fell in love with

Dend. Spring Dream ‘Apollon’

this exact plant while on a tour of an orchid grower on the island of Hawaii. I legally brought it back to the states in 2005 and have kept it ever since. This is actually the plant that is pictured above with the leafless stem terminating with a cluster of flowers. It is typical Dendrobium. Stalks that emerge from the bark, grow full length, eventually lose their leaves (while still developing flowers) and eventually the stalks fail to thrive and are replaced with others. Because of this growth pattern, these plants are typically repotted solely for the purpose of refreshing the media. Unless growth is quite vigorous, a mature plant may produce as many stalks as it loses, and simply grow into a “steady state.” That’s apparently what is happening here. And that’s good. Because these flowers are so spectacular it would be tempting to give live pieces away and I don’t know what the consequences of that would be, given that the plant is patented and protected. The bottom line is, as you can see in this photo, when it blooms, it’s a mass of incredible white flowers.

Dend. Spring Dream ‘Apollon’

The pictures can’t do them justice. If you look up close, the surface of the blooms literally sparkle. I’ve never seen that before in an orchid, but the surface actually looks like it is covered with crushed jewels! It’s difficult to see, even in this close up. But these flowers are so spectacular up close when they are in bloom I keep finding myself picking up the plant and taking it to a nearby light source to examine them closely. I may try again with a close-up lens. The surface is so unusual there ought to be a way of capturing it photographically and displaying it here.

Here is another pretty Dendrobium with blooms that are representative of the shapes and bright colors they are noted for. This plant is an “orphan.” I call it that simply because I can’t remember where I got it, I have no idea of its parentage, but it has Dendrobium characteristics (canes, flower shapes, etc.) and blooms regularly with large sprays of pretty flowers. So it stays in my collection! Like most Dendrobiums, at least those in my collection, they grow relatively slowly once they reach maturity. They sprout a few new canes each year, lose a few, and basically reach a homeostasis of sorts with the exception of needing to be repotted regularly to freshen up the bark.
Dend. Red Empress “Fly Hirundine”

Here is another named Dendrobium, Red Emress ‘Fly Hirundine’.  This is  “Nobile Dendrobium, which is a species within the Dendrobium genus. It’s been a relatively finicky plant for me. I don’t know why. At one point it was an absolute mass of canes and blooms. It put on one of the most spectacular displays of flowers I have ever had. There must have been 50 flowers on the plant at one time. The canes aren’t as rigid and as upright as most Dendrobiums I have experience with. They were/are evergreen, with the leaves staying on most of the stem indefinitely, and the stems seem to “sag” under their own weight. That’s the only way I could describe it. They stay more flexible than most Dendrobium canes I am familiar with and bend under their own weight, especially when in bloom because of the weight of the flowers. I struggled with the best way to grow and display it. I even gave thought to growing it in a hanging pot allowing the canes to droop out the sides and hang down. This explosion of blooms happened years ago, long before I even dreamed of putting together a website, and for whatever reason, I simply can’t find any photos of that incredible display. And equally unfathomable, the plant suddenly failed to thrive and I lost it! (This was also the period when I was traveling so extensively I wasn’t repotting as frequently as I should have – so the failure-to-thrive may have been my fault.) In any event, it was tragic because the blooms were truly unusual and spectacular, especially when there were a lot of them on the plant at one time. However, much to my good fortune, I had given a cutting to my older brother, an orchid-lover-in-kind, and he gave it back to me! So here I am, growing it out again, but this time being MUCH more careful with its care!

WATER: My twice-per-week watering schedule seems to work fine for my Dendrobiums. I take them to the sink, soak the bark, let them drain, and return to their correct display spot.

LIGHT: Requires high light, but not hot direct sun. I keep these orchids in my “orchid” room on lower shelves of my East facing window. They do receive direct sun in the morning, however it is morning sun only, and because I keep them on the lower shelves they are not only further from the window (further reducing the intensity of the sunlight) they are also filtered by all the plants on the higher shelves. The commercial “spec” sheets say no direct sun. But as is the case with most of my high light orchids, I have found that morning sunlight is great for them.

MEDIA: As with most of my orchids, coarse bark chips work fine.

TEMPERATURE RANGE: Normal household temperature ranges. I can’t speak to its ability to survive either extreme, but it does fine in our normal household range of low- to mid-60s as the winter lows and low- to mid-80s as the summer highs in the house. Technically, the highs in our house are higher than ideal for Dendrobiums, at least as specified in the commercial “spec” sheets. But they seem perfectly happy in this environment.

CARE: Easy to care for. You occasionally may find yourself providing support (stake with clip?) to taller canes, but for the most part they are self-supporting.  Because they tend to be top-heavy, a good orchid clip to secure the plant to the pot is generally necessary.

BLOOMING: Develops blooms along the canes, generally in late winter to early spring. If you keep Dendrobiums and Phalaenopsis orchids, you’ll tend to see your Dendrobiums in flower while your Phals are developing flower spikes.

REPOTTING: Once a year in coarse bark with a good orchid clip to secure the plant to the clay pot. Divisions are made by separating canes into separate groups with good roots.