Cymbidium (Boat) Orchids: Types, How to Grow and Plant Care

While phalaenopsis orchids are probably the most widely-grown orchid, there are others that you should try growing at least once. One particular type that should always be on your list is the Cymbidium orchid, or the boat orchid.

While they are quite difficult to care for if you’ve never grown an orchid before, they produce a plethora of flower spikes, and huge, long-lasting blooms which provide any room with a wealth of color and optimism. 

They are also one of the least picky orchids when it comes to growing conditions indoors.

Interested? Here’s everything you should know about Cymbidium orchids.

At a Glance: What You Should Know About Cymbidium Orchids

Cymbidium orchids come from Southeast Asia and Australia, and while quite a few are sold commercially as houseplants, there is also a great market for them in terms of cut flowers, too.

As part of the orchid plant family, the Cymbidium genus is true to form, and doesn’t disappoint with its sheer variety of cultivars. 

They flower from the middle of fall well into the first few weeks of spring, providing a long-lasting period of color in the dreary months.

The flowers themselves come in two different sizes, in a miniature form from 5cm across, and 10cm across. 

The colors depend on the cultivar selected, and include yellow, white, green, pink, and red. Most are bicolored, the lip of the flower streaked with a different color from the rest.

How to Recognize a Cymbidium Orchid

Most Cymbidium orchids are terrestrial, which means they live in the ground, rather than a lot of orchids which are epiphytes, grown on the surface of other plants.

Cymbidium orchids can be divided into two types: miniature cymbidium orchids, which are hybrids, and standard cymbidium orchids, which grow much bigger, and have strap-like foliage, unlike the more typical oval-shaped leaves we’ve come to associate orchids with.

Most feature pseudobulbs, and the growth is sympodial, which means it has a branching pattern, and doesn’t emerge from a single point like monopodial orchids.

The flowers are the real stars of these orchids. The name boat orchid refers to the labellum of the flower, which is shaped a little like a boat. The petals are waxy, and most blooms are bicolored.

Each flower is capable of lasting up to 10 weeks if you give the plant the right growing conditions, making them a very attractive option for indoor blooms. 

How to Grow Cymbidium Orchids

Sunlight and Position

Like most orchids, cymbidium orchids love bright, indirect light. They won’t tolerate direct sunlight, so keep them somewhere the sun can’t directly reach them.

You don’t want to reduce the light levels in winter, either. These gorgeous orchids require bright light all year round.

Keep cymbidium orchids away from sources of heat and drafts, as they won’t tolerate either for long. 

Temperature and Humidity

While most orchids like a lot of temperatures similar to us, cymbidium orchids need cooler temperatures at night, which is the main reason why they have a reputation for being difficult to care for.

During the day during summer and autumn, the temperature needs to be at maximum of 75°F (or 24°C). 

They require significantly lower temperatures than other orchids at night, especially in winter, between 50°F and 57°F (or 10°C and 14°C) in order to thrive. This temperature difference is what signals the plant to produce flower spikes. Without it, your cymbidium orchids won’t flower at all.

The humidity needs are also lower than some orchids, the ideal conditions being at around 50%. 

When to Water a Cymbidium Orchid

Cymbidium orchids require a lot of moisture during spring and summer, but you have to be careful not to completely saturate the soil, and let it dry out in part between watering.

These orchids are happiest with constantly damp potting media, and you should reduce watering in the last few weeks of summer through winter to give the plant a rest.

Should You Feed a Cymbidium Orchid?

Cymbidium orchids need regular fertilizer in order to grow happily. In spring, use an all-purpose, balanced fertilizer at half its strength every third watering during spring.

When it gets to summer, use a specially formulated orchid fertilizer which has a high potassium content. Don’t feed your cymbidium orchid in winter.

How to Repot a Cymbidium Orchid

While many orchids require clear pots in order to photosynthesize through their roots and thrive, a cymbidium orchid is not one of them. They are still useful in showing you how wet the potting media is, though, so don’t discount them.

As a general rule, repot your cymbidium orchid when it has either outgrown its current pot, or it has been sitting for two years in the same compost, whichever comes first.

Only repot your cymbidium orchid in the spring, once it has finished flowering, but before the new growth has a chance to fill out.

Take your cymbidium orchid out of the pot, squeezing the sides if it’s in plastic to help release the plant. If there are too many pseudobulbs crowded together, you can use an old serrated knife to saw through them and pot them up separately. 

Just make sure you leave at least 5 pseudobulbs per clump, otherwise the cymbidium orchids may not flower.

Take a look at the root ball, and use your fingers to remove all of the old compost, and to untangle the roots. As you go, use sharp, clean scissors to cut away any mushy, hollow or born roots.

Healthy roots are white, and don’t give a lot if you gently pinch them. Cut these back to about 15cm long.

Make sure to use a bigger pot, that’s about 10cm wider than the previous one. This will accommodate two more years of growth. Use a specialist orchid compost to fill in the gaps around the roots, pushing it down with your fingers to give the roots some stability.

If you’ve filled it in correctly, you’ll be able to lift the plant by its stem or stake without the compost loosening, and the whole pot will come with it.

Give your cymbidium orchid a good drink, making sure the root ball is now damp. Ensure that you let it drain completely before putting it back into its normal position.

Types of Cymbidium Orchids

It’s worth knowing that most cymbidium orchids are sold just under ‘cymbidium orchid’, rather than the specific cultivar. This is a shame, as new hybrids are being created all the time, and it’s worth looking into the new ones.

If you want to know exactly what cultivar you’re buying, buy from a specialist orchid nursery. This will also ensure that your cymbidium orchid is in the best condition possible, and the right potting mixture to begin with. 

Cymbidium aloifolium ‘Aloe-Leaf Cymbidium Orchid’

One of the most striking types – which is saying a lot – is the Aloe-leaf orchid, or Cymbidium aloifolium. It can be either an epiphyte or a lithophyte, failing from Southeast Asia and China.

It’s especially popular for its unusual blooms, which grow on a trailing inflorescence which can get as long as 75cm, sure to make a statement in any part of your home.

Each inflorescence is capable of producing up to 75 flowers each, which are deep red, maroon, and white, or yellow and green, depending on the cultivar. These gorgeous flowers appear in winter, all the way through until the first few weeks of spring.

Cymbidium ensifolium ‘Four Season Orchid’

Also known as the sword-leaf orchid, or the burned-apex orchid, this is an incredible type which can bloom at least twice a year if you give it the right conditions.

While this is a miniature orchid, it produces a plethora of colors in summer and autumn, on an upright flower spike which can produce up to 13 flowers per spike. 

The colors available vary from cultivar to cultivar, but can include pale yellow and pale green, streaked with burgundy or red.

They have long, narrow leaves which look like they’re more of a relation to a spider plant than a typical orchid.

Cymbidium floribundum ‘Golden Margin Orchid’

Another smaller type of cymbidium orchid, this particular type produces anywhere from 10 to 40 flowers per upright flower stem in spring.

Each flower can reach a maximum of 4cm in diameter, usually in a deep maroon, purple, or green, with purple and yellow lips. 

The leaves are leathery, and the whole plant can reach up to 25cm tall, making them perfect for a dramatic display in a small, indoor space.

Cymbidium goeringii ‘Noble Orchid’

Hailing from parts of East Asia including China, Japan, and Korea, the noble orchid is grown not only for its captivating blooms, but also for its abundance of perfume.

The noble orchid will reach a maximum height of 30cm, though it may be as small as 10cm, depending on the conditions. The foliage is a deep green with long leaves and serrated edges. 

The flowers themselves are long-lived, appearing in winter and spring, on very short flower spikes, at about 5cm above the soil level. The scent that the flowers contain are similar to jasmine, or notes of citrus, depending on the cultivar you go for.

How to Propagate Cymbidium Orchids

The best time to propagate cymbidium orchids is at the same time you’re repotting them. Repot them if there are too many pseudobulbs crowded together, or some of them have died and gone brown.

Make sure to keep at least 3 pseudobulbs per orchid clump, removing any old or dead plant tissue. Pot them up separately in specialist orchid compost. 

It’s worth noting that you will have to be patient when you’re dividing cymbidium orchids, as newly-divided ones will not flower for about two or three years.

Cymbidium Orchids: Problems to Watch Out For

Root Rot

Root rot is the biggest killer of cymbidium orchids, as they are fussy about when and how much water you give them. Let the compost dry out a little in between watering, but not completely. 

This should allow your orchid roots to get enough air and moisture without drowning. 

If you suspect your cymbidium orchid has been overwatered, a last-ditch attempt at saving it is to remove ALL of the soil gently from the roots with a fine toothbrush and water. 

Remove any brown or mushy roots, and transfer it into a clear glass container with about a third of the roots in clean water.

This is a good way of keeping orchids in general, as they get enough humidity and water, but there isn’t anything to decompose to cause root rot. 

This doesn’t always work if the root rot has gotten too far, but it’s worth a go. One thing to mention, with this growing method, your orchids need to be epiphytes

Trying to grow terrestrial orchids in water will end in disaster, as these types of orchid (unlike epiphyte orchids, such as Vanda Orchids) need soil to live.

Final Thoughts

While cymbidium orchids are not as widely grown as phalaenopsis orchids (see also Phalaenopsis Orchid Types And Care), they still deserve their turn in the spotlight for their fantastic blooms and unusual appearance. 

Both the long leaves and trailing flowers of some of these cymbidium orchids can elevate any indoor garden into something truly special.

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