Phragmipediums are other types of slipper orchids, but these hail from Central and South America. These relatives of the Asian slipper orchids are indigenous to the mountainous areas in Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Brazil, and as far north as southern Mexico. This genus was founded in 1896 when botanist Robert Rolfe separated these orchids from Cypripediums, another slipper orchid genus. The name of the genus is derived from the Greek phragma, which means “division”, and pedium, which means “slipper” (referring to the pouch). It is abbreviated Phrag in trade journals.
Phragmipediums are rapidly growing orchids that produce complex but uniquely amazing blooms. Many flowers are long and hanging, and in some cases, may measure up to 30 inches (76 cm.) from the tip of the dorsal sepal to the tip of lateral petal. Phragmipediums are terrestrial (grow in the ground) or lithophytic (grow on rocks), but a few species can sometimes be epiphytic (grow on trees). The tree dwellers are primarily the long-petaled caudatum types. Some species prefer to grow in the splash zone of waterfalls and on streambanks and can often be submerged during periods of heavy rain. These streams and waterfall dwellers include the species caricinum, kaieteurum, klotzschianum, lindleyanum, longifolium, pearcei, and sargentianum.
Phragmipedium caudatum (this is the largest orchid that exist) is considered a complex, i.e. it could contain several species or subspecies, based on differences in flower size and color. The cream-colored flowers are laced with greenish stripes. The lateral spiraling, drooping petals are red-tinted and very long, even reaching the soil. They grow on wet, moss-covered hillsides.This plant typically flowers in the spring months in the northern hemisphere from March through June. The green sheath appears from the middle of the growth, and the spike can grow at a very rapid pace, usually providing 2-5 flowers per spray. The sprays are held away from the foliage with 20-24” long stems. Many of the members of the genus have moss-green flowers, and these seem to be the “easy” ones, from lower altitudes.
Phragmipediums used to be expensive plants. Fortunately, Hawaiian growers have perfected the culture of these orchids and have made them commercially available as blooming size plants. Now the cost of Phragmipediums is very reasonable so that more people are able to enjoy and grow these orchids in their homes. Phragmipedium genus is a small group of orchids, comprised of only about 30 species, a few varietal forms and one natural hybrid. The popular species include P. boissierianum, P. caudatum, P. longifolium, P. sargentianum, and the recently discovered P. kovachii. These species have also contributed to a number of excellent hybrids that are increasingly becoming popular. These newer hybrids tend to be more vigorous and easy growing, plus they are available in a broader range of colors compared to most of the species.
Over the last century, orchid prices have gone down dramatically. This is not because demand has gone down; it’s because supply has gone up. Once a rich man’s hobby, orchids are now within reach of anyone, regardless of income. Scientific advancements and economic progress in recent years gave rise to modern growing techniques, faster transportation, and efficient distribution of orchids. Furthermore, state of the art breeding techniques and advanced reproduction methods have made it possible to have vigorous varieties and clones that are easy to grow and flower. All these developments combined have resulted in wholesale prices of orchids that are a mere fraction of their prices in the past. Today’s modern orchids have indeed gone mainstream. Troop down to your florist, your neighborhood nursery, your home improvement store, or even the local grocer and you can find inexpensive orchid alternatives to suit your fancy.