For a little history, it was in 1827, that a gentleman from Brazil by the name of Mr. Mackay gave a newly discovered orchid to the world famous Orchidist Sir William Hooker. Sir Hooker placed the unique new orchid into a brand new genus which he called Zygopetalum and named the first species, Zygopetalum mackayi, in honor of Mr. Mackay.
In the name Zygopetalum, ZYGON in Greek is yoke, like the device used on the next of oxen to pull ploughs. PETALON is petal, and this describes the way the petals are connected with a yoke type of connection.
After over a 100 years, people are now starting to discover these beautiful orchids and Zygopetalums are becoming very popular. Many of the species are readily available to the general public such as the original Zygoptalum mackayi, Zygoptalum crinitum, Zygoptalum brachypetalum, Zygoptalum triste and Zygopetalum maxillare. There are also many new and interesting hybrids available. Some of the well known hybrids include Zygopetalum Arthur Elle 'Bright and Blue' and Zygopetalum Blue Eyes 'Ben Her' AM/AOS Louisendorf.
Zygopetalums are quite easy to grow. Are you ready to try to grow one of these beautiful orchids? This is the best way I have found to grow them:
I believe that light is the most important factor to produce flowering in these orchids. Although they want lots of light, they do not want to be exposed to direct sun. Light in the 3000 to 4000-foot candle range gives me excellent results.
Watch the leaves and they will tell you if you have the right amount of light. Be careful when adjusting your light exposure, because the leaves will burn very easily if over exposed. The leaves should be light green. Dark leaves are a sign of too little light, while yellowish green leaves are a sign too much light. They should do well in the home in a bright window but away from the direct sun. If you are growing Zygopetalums in a greenhouse, you will want to provide at least 55% shade coverings around the plants.
I have to comment on the differences on the light recommendations for Zygopetalums in various orchid books. I have found recommendations ranging from low diffused light to bright light. Although I personally have better success using high light conditions, you may have to experiment to find the right light levels for your particular orchid.
If you live in a mild climate such as Southern California, these plants can be grown outdoors with your Cymbidiums with shade from the hot afternoon sun. They can tolerate temperatures from the high 90's oF to lows in the 30's oF for short periods. Ideally, they prefer warm days in the 70-80 oF range and cool nights of 50-60F.
Zygopetalums love water when they are in active growth! Lots of water, but not wet feet (roots soaking in standing water). Water thoroughly at least once or even twice a week to keep them moist. The amount of water will depend on the temperature and media. If the leaf tips start to die back and turn black, this could be a sign of a heavy buildup of salts from the water and fertilizer.
Zygopetalum roots are very sensitive to excessive salt buildup which will kill your plant if not corrected in time. To avoid this problem, be sure use enough water during watering to ensure that the water flows freely out of the pot. Doing this will wash out the excess salts in the media and prevent buildup in the first place. Cut back on the water in the winter but never let your Zygopetalum to dry out. Your orchid will also enjoy overhead misting between watering as long as the leaves are dry by nightfall.
Zygopetalums are moderate feeders. During the growing season (February-August)I suggest using a higher nitrogen fertilizer. Switch to a "bloom booster" high phosphorus fertilizer from August to October and then use a more balanced fertilizer in the wintertime.
Some growers use slow release fertilizer such as Osmocote sprinkled on top of the potting mix. This is method is fine only if you are watering with a sprinkler system. If you properly hand water, however, you most likely will wash the small granules right out of the pot. I would also suggest cutting the recommended Osmocote amount used to 1/2 the dosage. I prefer (and so do my orchids) a water-soluble fertilizer like Dyna-Gro or similar.
A humidity level of at least 60% is needed for all soft-leaf orchids. To create the required humidity around your orchid, place it on a humidity tray or use a room humidifier. They benefit from daily misting like most orchids.
Like most other orchids, Zygopetalums require air movement which moves the humid air among their root systems. Stale or stagnant air is just a breeding ground for bacterial and fungal blights. Place a fan in the area to provide the necessary air circulation. The fan should provide a comfortable breeze, not a blowing wind. If you are uncomfortable standing in front of the fan, then the orchid will not like it either.
Never allow your plant to become pot bound. When your plant fills its pot it is time to give it a new home. This should happen every two or three years.
The best time to repot is right after it has finished blooming. When you repot, it is a good time to take divisions if you would like to increase the number of your plants (they make great gifts for your friends!). When dividing, always allow at least 2-3 pseudobulbs per division. You can just break apart the division then place the division in a pot big enough to allow 2 years growth. Trim off old growth and roots, spread the roots in the pot (never roll them in a ball).
Use a slightly acidic potting mix which also provides good drainage but will not dry out too quickly. Fine orchid bark with 20% lava rock or perlite, with a touch of sand, coarse peat and fine charcoal is a very good mix. The mix should be firm in the pot because loose mix will quickly break down and not support the roots.
After potting, place your orchid in a shady and cool area for a few weeks to allow it to adjust to its new home and to encourage new root growth. During this time, keep it on the slightly dry side when watering.
Zygopetalums will usually bloom when the light is suddenly reduced by the shorter days. You can try to trigger their blooming by shortening the day-length by 2 hours for 3 or 4 weeks. Some will bloom off the last matured pseudobulb, and some will only bloom from new growth.
Before you go out and purchase your first Zygopetalum you might wish to read more about them at my my Orchid Nights site