Cymbidium orchids have been popular here for as long as I can remember. Back when horticultural commodities were still more commonly grown around the San Francisco Bay area, many genera of orchids, particularly Cymbidium, were grown in acres of greenhouses in the hills of South San Francisco. They are still grown near the coast of San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties.
In home gardens, they are often pampered under the shelter of lath, where they are protected from frost and direct exposure to sunlight. Some Cymbidium orchids live and bloom for many years or decades, and sometimes get divided into more as they get overgrown, just like lily-of-the-Nile. Some live longer than those who originally grew them, and go live with someone else.
I never pampered my Cymbidium orchids. I grew all of them out in the garden, with only a bit of partial shade from larger trees. I never once potted any of them into the coarse fir bark that Cymbidium orchids supposedly need. I grew most in dirty and uncomposted oak leaves. I put some in rotting stumps to accelerate the rot. They were happy, and bloomed remarkably well.
None of mine were purchased. They were all acquired from neighbors, clients or colleagues. Of the many Cymbidium orchids that I have grown, none were white! Yes, I wanted a white one. I just do not admit to it.
After maintaining it for more than a decade, and bringing it from a former home hundreds of miles away, a colleague brought me this Cymbidium orchid. Although I did not want him to pass it along after so many years, I was pleased to take it, particularly since it blooms white. Then, it started to bloom, immediately after arrival! Ah, if only there were more people here to see it!
Of all the many and varied orchids, cymbidium orchids are the most popular because they are the easiest to grow. They are naturally terrestrial, so can be grown in the ground if the media (soil) is coarse and rich enough. (epiphytic orchids that naturally grow in crotches of trees want coarse bark in well drained pots.) They are also more tolerant of cool weather than tropical orchids are.
Plants with slightly yellowish leaves tend to bloom better. If the foliage is too dark green, it may not be getting enough sunlight. Regular application of fertilizer may promote bloom, although some plants do not seem to be too demanding. Watering may need to be as frequent as every three days through summer.
The arching flower stalks that begin to appear over winter may bloom for two months. They can be three feet tall, so stand well above the strap shaped leaves that get about two feet tall. Each stalk has many waxy flowers that can be two or three inches wide, in almost any color but blue. Most flowers are pastel hues of pink, lavender, yellow, orange, chartreuse, tan or white, and are intricately spotted and blotched.
It is funny how so many different plants get here from all over the world, and then become so popular so far from their natural homes that they seem to have always been here. It is now hard to imagine that some of the more popular cymbidium orchids actually came from tropical and subtropical Asia and northern Australia. Other orchids are from tropical Africa or South America.
As the Nineteenth Century turned to the Twentieth, orchids were popularized by those who profited from industry in the east, and then moved west to escape harsh winters. They arrived in the Mediterranean climate of the Santa Barbara region with resources to spend on outfitting luxury homes with comparably luxurious gardens and exotic plants. Orchids were a natural choice.
At homes in Montecito and Hope Ranch, cymbidium orchids were grown is mass plantings, and maintained by professional horticulturists. The popularity of orchids continued for decades. As the extensive orchid collections of England were threatened by the bombing and fuel shortages of World War II, collectors and horticulturists in California brought them here to be safe and warm.
Many of these refugee orchids were bred extensively by Californian horticulturists to produce many of the countless varieties that are now available. Production of blooming potted orchid plants and cut orchid flowers have become major horticultural industries in California. To this day, the Santa Barbara region produces more orchids than any other region in America. Modern tissue culture cloning technology has made it possible to propagate and grow more orchid plants at a faster rate than ever before. This makes them more affordable.
Even though mass plantings of cymbidium orchids are now rare, orchids are probably as popular as they ever have been, simply because they are so available to more people who can enjoy them. They are not limited to fancy gardens of luxury homes. Cymbidiums are still popular potted plants for sheltered porches. Small but flashy moth orchids are among the most popular of blooming potted plants for homes and offices.