Known as the butterfly orchid, Psychopsis comprises five wonderfully idiosyncratic but rare plants. The common name for the genus derives from the shape of the flowers, which resemble butterflies and are mounted at the tops of long, wiry stems stretching upright. Butterfly orchids are epiphytes, and they have small pseudobulbs topped by a lone, leathery leaf. The flower of the orchid, however, is its most distinctive attribute; these flowers are mostly yellow, with purple or red markings, and they can be up to seven inches across.
The name Psychopsis comes from the Greek psyche and opsis, which mean “butterfly” and “like”, respectively. These orchids also have flat leaves, about twelve inches in diamater, with the same purple and red markings as the flowers. Interestingly, they produce flowers in succession for months at a time, producing one after the other from the tops of their erect inflorescences. Though beautiful, butterfly orchids are extraordinarily rare and found mostly in either the West Indies or parts of Peru and Costa Rica. They also have an interesting history—when first brought back to Europe in the nineteenth century, butterfly orchids were regarded as so odd and delightful that they helped kick off the European craze for orchids that largely led to the modern orchid trade.
- Light: Lots of bright sunlight every day. These are tropical orchids that are native to very sunny areas.
- Water: Their growing medium should never be allowed to dry out, but make sure not to waterlog them, which can damage their roots. Nonetheless, water every day.
- Temperature: Warm tropical temperatures around and above seventy degrees. Do not expose to frost or cold drafts.
- Soil: These epiphytes should be grown in a typical fast-draining epiphyte mix like Styrofoam, sphagnum moss, or pine bark.
- Fertilizer: Fertilize monthly with a diluted, balanced fertilizer like a 20-20-20 to facilitate growth, and increase its feeding if the plant is having trouble blooming.
They can propagate either by seed or division, but given the difficulty of growing orchids from seed stem division will probably be easier. To divide any orchid, sever away stems at the beginning of the growing season in spring using a sterilized tool and replant in a fresh medium; keep in mind also that propagating by division will sacrifice blooms in the short-term. The new offshoots could take a few months to root, so be patient.
Repot these plants when either their medium has begun to decompose or they have outgrown their container. Like most epiphytes, repotting is fairly easy; just replace in a larger container with fresh medium and be careful with the roots. If your butterfly orchids are growing well, repotting them roughly once a year should be sufficient. Try to avoid repotting when unnecessary, as these plants dislike disturbances.
Of the five species of Psychopsis—all of which are rare—the most common is probably P. papillo, with bright red flowers and extremely long-lasting blossoms. Less common are P. kramerianum and P. mariposa, both of which retain the butterfly orchid’s characteristic shape. These plants also hybridize easily with other tropical orchids, including Miltonias and Trichopilias.
Their drainage must be very good and their medium kept moist. These orchids have fragile root systems that are easily damaged, and they are also very susceptible to the fungal and bacterial infections that can result from sitting in water. Keep them well aerated, in a location with good air flow; a stale atmosphere can also lead to infection. Misting them regularly and keeping them in a bright, moist location is the best way to keep Psychopsis orchids healthy; like all orchids, it’s all about balancing airflow, humidity, and temperature. Remember, however, that the butterfly orchid is quite rare and difficult to obtain outside of specialized providers.