The Mysteries of Maxillarias

The Mysteries of Maxillarias

Further, many of the commercially-available plants are either wrongly labelled or of unidentified species. Therefore, as well as collecting as many species as possible, trying to grow them well and trying to identify them properly, I maintain detailed written and photographic records, I am building an herbarium collection and I research published literature on the species and their history. This is not without its difficulties. Many of the species descriptions are very basic and written in Latin or other foreign languages.

Orchid Maxillaria
Orchid Maxillaria

The name Maxillaria was derived from maxilla, the Latin word for ‘jaw’, based on the superficial resemblance to the jaw of an insect, of the lip joined to the column in the flower when the sepals and petals have been removed. By coincidence, the genus Maxillaria was first described over 200 years ago by Hipolito Ruiz and Jose Pavón, the same explorers who described Anguloa and Masdevallia. Following their pioneering expedition to Peru and Chile (with Joseph Dombey, who is often forgotten), they published a brief description of the genus and of 16 orchid species which they placed in the genus. Only four of these remain classified as Maxillaria today, M. longipetala, M. platypetala, M. ramosa and M. prolifera; the others have since been transferred to different genera. Ruiz and/or Pavón had prepared hand-written manuscripts intended for a later publication giving more detailed information about the species, but the money which had been raised to pay for this was used instead to pay the army, and it never appeared. It has been a fascinating experience and a privilege to read these manuscripts and compare them with pictures of the few remnants of the original herbarium specimens which remain in the archives of the Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, and with the paintings of the plants which were done by the artists who accompanied Ruiz and Pavón on their expedition. This type of research and other reading about the genus and its species is not generally attempted by amateur growers but it adds an extra dimension of interest and can be most rewarding.

The territorial range of the genus covers most of South and Central America, Florida and the West Indies. Approximately 800 species are listed in the Index Kewensis. Some of these have been reclassified into other genera and others represent synonyms, different names for the same species; new species continue to emerge, so it is impossible to know at present how many exist. Currently I have in excess of a hundred species. Although plants come from a wide range of environments in nature, from coastal forests to mountain tops, fortunately they seem forgiving in cultivation. Most grow well in an intermediate greenhouse, either in a rockwool/Greenmix/Perlite mixture or in sphagnum moss/Perlite, fairly well shaded and with humidity around 70% or above. They are fed and watered year-round. Good air circulation is important. I try to find a micro-environment within the greenhouse in which each plant seems happy although in a growing area only 2.5m x 4.3m (8′ by 14′), some plants are happier than others. Plants do take a little while to recover from shipment from the southern hemisphere and some species do not take kindly to repotting, particularly if divided.

Maxillaria Tenuifolia
Maxillaria Tenuifolia

Vegetatively there is an amazing variety of growth forms, from tiny pincushion plants to large clusters of pseudobulbs with long petiolate leaves, from fans of leaves and foliaceous bracts without obvious pseudobulbs to long, wandering rhizomes which head in all directions. Flowers vary from a few millimetres across to ten centimetres or more and come in pure white, through yellows, reds, purples, to almost pure black, probably the nearest to black of any flower which exists. Not all are scented, but some fill the entire greenhouse with perfume, from lily-of-the-valley, rose, melon, honey, menthol, cloves and coconut through to a delicate faecal odour. Such variety is tantamount to growing a mixed collection within the genus!

Well, I’m hooked. Conservation of this large genus is becoming more and more important and I will do my best to make sure that this diversity survives.

Caron Sabine

The gardening society for orchids and other garden plants


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