Orchid of the Month for April, 2014

Stelis sp.


Figure 1: Stelis species

You may wonder what happened to the orchid of the month for March.  Well, I have been getting them out so late, and with building the garden for the SOS orchid show (thanks for your help everyone!) I just couldn’t get to it in time.  But this gave me an opportunity to get some cool things into bloom that might serve as candidates for the feature. 

There are many ways to grow orchids: in a greenhouse, outdoors, on a windowsill, and in a terrarium, or “Orchidarium ™”.  There are plusses and minuses to each.  Greenhouses are great because you can achieve good lighting, excellent humidity, and can water easily, but you will have to pay for heating and/or cooling.  Outdoors is nice because there is no cost to operate and plenty of space: you have the “great outdoors!”  But you are limited to orchids that can tolerate your range of temperature and fluctuations in humidity.  Many growers practice windowsill growing.  Costs are cheap, but you do have limited space, and it can make a big mess on your carpet, if you spill water or drop a plant, and believe me, I have done both.  But surprise, surprise, in this article we shall discuss a plant that can be easily grown in a terrarium: Stelis.

When I was a young man of seventeen, so many years ago, I worked at Sea Breeze Orchids of Bayville, Long Island, NY.  We grew mostly miniatures in a very small greenhouse.  I was introduced to the wonderful world of pleurothallids: Pleurothallus, Masdevallia, Restrepia, and so many others.  This was before the days when Masdevallia was separated into Masdevallia and Dracula!  And Pleurothallis was pleurothallis.  No Acianthera, Ancipitia, Antilla, Apoda-prorepentia, Areldia, Atopoglossum, Brenesia, Colombiana, Crocodeilanthe, Cucumeria, (BREATHE)  Didactylus, Dracontia, Elongatia, Empusella, Kraenzlinella, Lindleyalis, Madisonia, Proctoria, Rubellia, Specklinia, Talpinaria, Unciferia, or Xenosia,  Things were simpler then. 

One of my least favorite pleurothallid genera was Stelis.  Its flowers looked like little gnats on spindly little spikes.  You needed a magnifying glass to see them clearly, and even then they still looked like little gnats! But one day, the owner of the nursery gave to all his employees (both of us) a copy of Rebecca Northen’s new book, Miniature Orchids.  It opened up a whole new world of orchids with small, but colorful, intricately shaped flowers.  And you could keep twenty plants in the same space as one standard Cattleya. 

Northen described a species of Stelis called S. argentata which has a flower about one centimeter in size.  Not a giant Cattleya, but still big enough to see without a magnifier.  What’s more, the spike holds about thirty flowers, so that those little flowers give a nice show.  Another Stelis, S. nexipous has little bell shaped flowers.  So these flowers were “gnat” so boring after all.

At the Pacific Orchid Exposition, in 2013, I saw an unidentified Stelis plant for sale for the outrageous sum of five dollars.  I find that there are always great bargains to be had at the members’ sale area, and this was no exception.  I purchased the plant, repotted it into my preferred mix (top quality New Zealand sphagnum for my pleurothallids) and divided it into two plants, one larger, one smaller.  This spring, the larger division bloomed.  It has a second spike coming into flower today.  Each spike lasts several weeks, so you get a nice, long period of blooming.

Figure 2: Close up with flash.  Notice how
the flash brings out the fuzzy, pebbly
nature of the front surface of the sepals.

I grow my Stelis in an old 1970’s globe terrarium, which I place at a south window from late September to early April, then move it to an east window for the rest of the year.  At the south window it gets a sheer curtain to filter out the strong, direct winter sun, but at the east window, it gets direct morning sun only.  The temperatures range from about 60° at night to 75° by day.  Humidity is kept very high; no less than 70% and up to 85 or 90% depending on time of day, and when I water.  Because of such high humidity I rarely have to water more than once per week.  In such a closed environment, air circulation is a must.  I have two little 24 cubic feet per minute (CFM) computer fans running constantly. I went the extra bucks (literally two or three dollars) for the quieter fans, since these run all the time.  They are barely audible.  The mini-fans are wired to adapters (not seen in photo) that convert the low voltage fans to a standard plug. Although it looks very Rube Goldberg or MacGyver’esque, I can assure you that it is very safe, because of the converter. Anyone can wire this, and it requires no knowledge of electricity.  If you can load a flashlight, you can probably do this.  If you can’t load a flashlight, then you probably have bigger problems than growing miniature orchids.

Figure 3: That seventies terrarium

The terrarium is about twenty inches wide.  I have installed a large plastic saucer on the bottom.  This raises the level of the base, enabling me to maximize the floor space inside. It does reduce the height somewhat, but for the most part this is not an issue with miniatures.  As a result, I have twenty-five plants growing in an area of three hundred square inches, about two square feet.  Try that with your standard Cattleya or Phalaenopsis.

When I water, I use water from my reverse osmosis/ de-ionized system, set up for my marine aquarium.  My understanding is that most pleurothallids are very sensitive to dissolved salts in their mix, so, since I have the option, I feel it is best to use the highest quality water that I can.  Frankly, these plants use so little water that even if you have to purchase RODI water at the grocer, it will last a long time.  I feed with the Michigan State University fertilizer that is formulated for distilled water.  I use a very dilute proportion, as these are not heavy feeders.  Every so often I will water with regular tap water to be sure that I add any minerals that the plants may otherwise lack.

Honestly, I don’t think anything could be much easier than the growing situation I have set up for these plants.  I’ve had no trouble establishing plants, even those imported bare root, which normally have a high fatality rate.  I love to look at each plant whenever I water, to check for new growth, little roots starting, and of course, any flower spikes initiating. 

I’ve been thinking that it may also be time to convert my mini greenhouse into a mini-mini greenhouse.  Imagine how many orchids could fit into a four by six foot space.  Dozens? Hundreds? The mind boggles!  But don’t worry.  When I bring in my minis for show and tell, I’ll be sure to bring a pair of magnifying glasses.



1)      J and L Orchids: http://www.jlorchids.com/

2)      Andy’s Orchids: http://www.andysorchids.com/

3)      Ecuagenera (Ecuador): Plants can be brought into USA during any show in which Ecuagenera participates.  Be prepared to acclimate in high humidity or lose lots of plants. http://www.ecuagenera.com/epages/whitelabel4.sf/?ObjectPath=/Shops/ecuagenera


Abut the author: Bruce Adams has been growing orchids for 38 years, since he got his first Orchid, Oncidium retermeyerianum (now Lophiaris lindenii!) from Orchids by Hauserman.  After ten years, he killed that plant and has been looking for another one ever since.  His plants split their time between the great outdoors, and a cool greenhouse in the winter, as well as on the windowsill.  He is also the author of the novel, The Palace of Dreams.  His ideal life would consist of writing and growing orchids, while living in Hawaii with his lovely wife, Linda.

Note:  All photographs are always of Bruce Adams’ own plants, and remain his personal property.  Photographs and text may not be copied, posted on any website, nor otherwise used in any way without his express permission.