Brassavola possesses an incredible fragrance. Perhaps, even more bewitching, these pure white, ghostly flowers only give up their scent at night, as if it was a secret pleasure they are afraid to flaunt during the day. And that, of course, is not where their virtues end. The Brassavola orchids are frequent bloomers, with multiple flushes of flowers every year. In some cases, they seem to bloom year-round, and what their flowers give away in size (they're relatively small compared to the more showy Cattleya and Phalaenopsis), they make up for in sheer quantity. Finally, these are not especially challenging orchids to grow—if you can grow any of the epiphytic orchids with success, you can grow these.
Taxonomy and Structure
Brassavola orchids belong to the Laeliinae subtribe. There are about 17 species of Brassavola; they are native to the American tropics. The standard and most common Brassavola is the Brassavola nodosa, which grows readily in baskets, mounted, or in containers with an orchid mix.
Brassavola orchids have long, thin tubular leaves that can reach up to a foot in length and sometimes appear unrolled or flattened. Brassavola orchids and their hybrids have much smaller pseudobulbs than other epiphytic orchids, so the leaves often appear to arise directly from the rhizome without a thick pseudobulb. The typical Brassavola flower features an enlarged, scoop-like lip with petals and sepals that have narrowed into spear-like petals. Brassavola nodosa flowers are white to attract moth pollinators, but the plant has been extensively hybridized to create flowers in a multitude of colors.
Brassavola orchids typically light fairly strong, bright light, even with some direct sunlight. A healthy Brassavola has mottled leaves, with slight reddish marks on the leaves. Leaves that are deep green typically signify a plant that isn't getting enough light, so the plant should be moved to a brighter location. Brassavola prefer 2,500 to 4,000 fc light intensity. A south-facing window is frequently a perfect home.
The tubular leaves on Brassavola are designed to reduce water transpiration, making them more drought tolerant than many other orchids. As a result, the plants need less humidity and less frequent water than many other epiphytic orchids. As with all orchids, the frequency of watering depends on your growing culture. Mounted Brassavola orchids can be watered several times a week during the growing cycle, while potted Brassavola orchids should be watered thoroughly weekly. Drooping or wrinkled leaves signal water stress and you should water the plant as soon as possible.
Brassavola orchids send out several flushes of leaves throughout the year and healthy plants are year-round bloomers. As a result, the plant should be fed throughout the year with a weak fertilizer solution (1/4 strength weekly). Many growers fashion "fertilizer balls" from nylon hose and controlled-release pellets, then tie the ball of pellets over the plant, thus providing a small dose of fertilizer every time the plant is watered. Nylon fertilizer balls will last a few months.
Brassavola prefer intermediate to warm temperatures and will bloom better on the warmer end of the scale. Nothing smells as wonderful as a blooming Brassavola on a summer's night.
Brassavola orchids are moth-pollinated, so the flowers on the Brassavola nodosa are a pale white to attract pollinators. Brassavola orchids are year-round bloomers with multiple flowers and flower spikes per flush. It's not uncommon to see a Brassavola so covered with flowers it looks like a flower ball. Provide adequate light and warmth and you will be rewarded with several full blooms throughout the year.
Brassavola are related to Cattleya and Rhyncholaelia, so they have been extensively hybridized to create many new species, including the lovely and common Brassolaeliocattleya orchids or BLC.
Potting and Media
Brassavola adapt well to mounted culture and will thrive mounted on fern plaques or in mounted baskets. Basket-grown Brassavola can quickly outgrow their original basket and form a specimen plant that completely covers the original container. Don't bother repotting or remounting larger Brassavola, but feel free to take divisions and rapidly multiply your plant stock. If you're potting them in containers, use a standard fast-draining orchid mix, such as those composed of expanded clay pellets, charcoal, and pine bark chips.
Brassavola are generally a beginner's level orchid in terms of their difficulty to grow. This is mainly because they are more drought tolerant than many species and can handle more neglect than fussier species. Unfortunately, for such an easy orchid with so many great attributes, they are woefully under-represented in the mainstream orchid trade.
Look for Brassavola orchids at specialty greenhouses, orchid shows or considers purchasing them online. Brassavola are fast-growing orchids and will quickly begin to yield divisions to increase your collection or make your orchid-loving friends very happy.