Dracula Lotax: A Case Study in Blooming a Difficult Orchid
Members of the orchid subtribe of Pleurothallidinae, the pleurothallids, are some of the most unique, otherworldly, and interesting members of the orchid family. Genera included among the pleurothallids are Dracula, Lepanthes, Masdevallia, Platystele, Pleurothallis, Restrepia, and others. Dracula is particularly of interest for its often deceptively large, starkly-colored flowers, which range from the nearly-black Dracula ubangina and Dracula vampira, to the nearly-pure white Dracula deltoidea. Many are mottled or striped with red or brown shades, or covered in fine hairs; some can even be a lovely shade of pink, like Dracula incognita or Dracula iricolor. However, most can be recognized by their triangular shape, their long, spiny tips on their "petals," and their exaggerated, cup-shaped, labellum (the lip-shaped petal in the middle of the flower).
Why Is This Orchid Named Dracula?
Contrary to what you might think, Dracula is not named, despite the many whimsical species names, after the famous vampire, but is literally from what the flowers resembled to the namers: "little dragon." Dracula flowers nearly always have, given the shape of the labellum and two very small, spotted petals, the appearance of a face. This is most clear, perhaps, in the aptly-named Dracula simia, which indisputably resembles a little monkey face. This also brings up one of the most peculiar aspects of Dracula flowers generally: its three actual petals are often nearly insignificant; one becoming specialized into the cup-shaped labellum, and the other two hardly even showing at all, becoming nearly imperceptible little protuberances on either side of the anther cap (the "eyes" of the face). The very large, showy "petals" that makes the species so beautiful are actually the sepals that surround the petals, which have become more specialized into much more attractive, petal-resembling tepals. If you count, you will always find five "petals" on any orchid flower, from any genus--two petals, three tepals-- and then the labellum as the specialized sixth petal in the middle of the flower.
What Conditions Do They Prefer?
Unfortunately, Draculas can be very difficult to find, and even more difficult to raise. Many of them are native to areas that have extremely high humidity, paired with strange temperature requirements, with many preferring temperatures that never vary too much from the high 40s to low 60s. In my experience, the most forgiving (and most readily available) species of Dracula is Dracula lotax, the "clown dracula." It is characterized by a red center surrounded by hairy, white tepals, which are tipped with long, purplish-red spines. The leaves of the plant are nearly indistinguishable from ordinary turf grass, so successful cultivation might make it a unique conversation starter: a unique, peculiar looking flower emerging from what appears to be a pot of something much more mundane. For this reason also, if you have cats, beware: they can't tell the difference, either.
Dracula lotax prefers temperatures, year-round, to remain in the 50s to low 60s. If you live in a naturally cool climate, this is no problem. However, in the balmy south, you may have to give it some special care. Unlike many other of the more "picky" Draculas, I have had my lotax put up with temperatures even up to 100 degrees; however, it seemed to be unhappy with the conditions and did not grow nearly as quickly. It always seemed to grow better in the winter, when the temperature never got about 65. I tried it in fine fir bark, as well as in a mixture of vermiculite and charcoal bits, but it always seemed to be just "hanging on." It wasn't until I potted it in a reasonably large pot with loosely packed white sphagnum moss that it really started to thrive. The pot is only about half-filled with the moss, leaving the leaves to be partially obscured by the pot's edge. This, combined with keeping the moss uniformly moistened, creates a perfect environment for the water to evaporate, keeping the plant humid and the air cooler around it. Like all Draculas, it prefers less light than other orchids such as the Cattleyas and their kin, and for a while when I had to have it in a bright window, I placed a piece of paper behind it to filter the light.
The plant did nothing at all but grow for the first two years I had it. I never had "unlocked the secret" to getting it to flower. It would frequently, all throughout the winter, start sending out little flower spikes, testing the air as it were to see if conditions were ripe for flowering, but they would always wither and die before too long. Of course, through this time it was experiencing major temperature fluctuations as I moved it around and tried to give it a good environment, it also had to re-accommodate itself to new potting media as I experimented with what it would prefer the best, and frequently had to deal with wet or dry spells, as it was very difficult to maintain a perfectly uniform environment, which is what it prefers.
How Did I Get Dracula to Bloom?
Finally, I got frustrated. I stuck it down in the basement, next to a cracked and drafty eastward facing window, where it only gets direct light for a couple hours in the early morning, and otherwise just gets a dull glow. Once winter hit, it would frequently get down to near 45 as the cool air seeped through, and never gets above 55 except in the summer, when it might raise to 60. The air is stale and unmoving, and the humidity is very high around the plant. I have never seen it thrive so well. Around the end of September, when it started getting very cool at night, I noticed it was once again making its yearly attempt at blooming.
However, unlike previous years, the spike kept getting longer, and longer. By the middle of December, a green bulb formed on the end, which began swelling and elongating. Finally, around Christmas, it changed from green to white, and the tips began to turn pink. After Christmas, it slowly began opening, finally becoming fully open about a week and a half into January. After such an excruciatingly slow maturation process, where I was constantly terrified that it would randomly blast the bud and go back to growing more leaves, I was very pleased and relieved to finally getting it to bloom for the first time.
This is what I have learned from my experiences which led to my final success:
- A lightly packed, airy white sphagnum moss medium promotes the best and healthiest root growth.
- Maintaining the temperature, as much as possible, at a constant 55-65 degrees encourages the most growth and health.
- Having soft, filtered light throughout the day, with a small amount of brighter light in the earliest morning stimulated the fastest growth.
- Using distilled water, free of all dissolved solids or other contaminants was far superior to any other water source I tried.
- Keeping the moss moist, but not damp or wet encouraged the best growth.
- Avoiding disturbing the plant in orientation, temperature, light, or watering conditions kept it happiest.
- Not allowing blowing air, which may be drying, near the plant, is ideal.
- Keeping the humidity around 80% around the plant seemed to be ideal.
While this may sound daunting at first, what this realistically translated to was sticking it in an eastward facing window in the basement, splashing a little bit of distilled water into the pot a couple times a week, and otherwise not thinking about it or touching it at all. It seems that with a "picky plant" like Dracula lotax, less is more. I haven't even given it any fertilizer in nearly 5 months and when I do after the flower drops, it will be very dilute.
I can only assume that cultivating other pleurothallids according to these specifications will render similar results, and I wish you luck in your own attempts to grow Draculas. I would love to see any pictures of your successes!