This genus of South American orchids is known for its truly beautiful and idiosyncratic foliage, which comes in a variety of colors and shapes; its most spectacular specimens seem to twist upon themselves in midair. There are sixty-five species of Gongoras, mostly found in Colombia – though a few are distributed across South America and even as far north as Central America.
They have a peculiar structure, in which their flowers seem to branch off from one another. Gongora plants are epiphytes, which means they grow in mid-air, and their roots are thin and form a ball that can even point upright. They also have pseudobulbs from which inflorescences grow, and are tough enough to grow across a wide geographical range in many different altitudes. This genus has a somewhat interesting botanical history. Named after the governor of Peru during their discovery, they were one of the first tropical orchids ever discovered by someone of European descent, and new species of Gongora are still being found all the time, deep in the jungle.
Despite these orchids’ beauty, you’re unlikely ever to find them grown in domestic cultivation; these plants require a very specific climate to thrive and are almost never found outside specialty botanists or sources. Nonetheless, if you get the opportunity to grow one, Gongora plants will reward experienced tropical orchid gardeners with showy and lovely blooms. Take note that there is some taxonomic confusion around this genus. However – it’s closely related to several other genera of tropical orchids, like Cirrhaea, Coeliopsidinae, and Stanhopeinae.
- Light: These tropical orchids will do best in partial shade or dappled sunlight, like that from beneath the forest canopy. Watch out for common signs like discolored or pale leaves that can signify that the plant isn’t getting enough light.
- Water: Lots and lots of humidity; they should be misted every day. These plants naturally grow in some of the most humid areas of the world.
- Temperature: Warm tropical temperatures above fifty degrees. Gongoras are not even close to frost tolerant.
- Soil: As epiphytes, these plants will grow perfectly will hanging in mid-air and soil won’t be necessary; however, they can also be grown in hanging baskets, in which case a well-draining orchid mix like chopped sphagnum will do nicely.
- Fertilizer: Feed regularly with a balanced fertilizer like a 20-20-20 for best results and feel free to up their feeding if their blooms are insufficient.
Like most orchids, Gongoras can be propagated by severing their pseudobulbs. Though successful division of these plants certainly isn’t easy, it can be done, so long as you use sterilized tools and take special care not to damage their fragile root systems. Don’t be discouraged if your newly divided offshoots fail to sprout easily; orchid propagation is an inexact science that requires some real experience.
If grown suspended in air, repotting Gongoras won’t be necessary, but when grown in hanging baskets they may benefit from a change of scenery every once in a while to make sure their soil is fresh. Lift the root ball as a whole and place it a new container, then backfill with potting soil. This is especially useful to ensure that their drainage remains good, since leaving their roots sitting in standing water is a surefire way to damage them.
One lovely variety of Gongora is G. maculata, which has spidery yellow flowers that branch off in three directions. Another, with a truly bizarre appearance, is G. quinquenervis, which has black and red colors. Of the sixty-odd species in the genus, most are found only in very select areas of the South American jungle and are extraordinarily rare.
Growing orchids well is a matter of balance. All the factors that go into their cultivation must be kept in moderation with each other, and excess of any one factor – too much direct sunlight, not enough water, burning temperatures, etc. – will damage the plant. Apart from that typical balance, make sure and keep the plant in a well-aerated area with a nice breeze and watch out for typical orchid pests, like spider mites and scale. You can deal with them using a good pesticide if so (an eco-friendly one, of course!).