Monday, March 7, 2011
THE UGLIEST ORCHID PLANT
When it comes to orchid plants, Chysis bractescens has to be one of the ugliest ones around. It has long, thick pseudobulbs about the length and diameter of a grocery store cucumber, but pointed at both ends and segmented where the leaves are or were, mostly were. Each new growth comes up from the side of the previous one so that the plant keeps growing vertically instead of horizontally, stacking one pseudobulb on top of another until it becomes an unwieldy, out-of-control mess. Generally, the pseudobulbs lose their leaves after a year or two, so that only one or two growths actually have leaves. But when it flowers, in early spring, the display is gorgeous, both visually and fragrance-wise, turning the ugly duckling into a swan. This year’s flowers just started to open this weekend.
The flowers grow from the base of the new growth, starting at the same time and developing in parallel with the new pseudobulb. The stubby flower spike bears a half-dozen or so big, waxy, ivory-white flowers that are typical orchid shape and wonderfully fragrant. The thing blooms like clockwork every year. The fragrance is smooth and creamy, almost gourmand, with lots of vanilla, a little caramel, and slight notes of lilac and jasmine. Unlike many other orchids, there’s nothing indolic about it, it’s just sweet and clean, like a creamy, vanilla-flavored dessert. It’s a wonderful scent, but too similar to a lot of gourmand fragrances to warrant a perfume of its own.
Chysis bractescens is one of those orchids that looks like it ought to be hard to grow, but isn’t. It can take all sorts of abuse and still thrive. One of these days I ought to give it a stick or tree fern pole to climb up, but until then it can stay crammed into its tiny plastic pot that sits at a 45 degree angle in a big, heavy, ceramic pot to keep it from tipping over.