Encyclia Orchids (Butterfly Orchids): How to Grow and Plant Care

Encyclia orchids, also known as cockleshell or butterfly orchids, produce some of the most striking flowers.

The unusual name of the orchid genus, Encyclia, comes from the Greek word enkykleomai, which means ‘to encircle’, referring to the shape of the orchid flower’s lip, which encircles the column of the plant.

Interested in growing your own? Here’s everything you need to know about growing encyclia orchids.

At a Glance: What You Should Know About Encyclia Orchids

Encyclia orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants. They are found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida, and tropical Americas. 

You’ll often find them growing wild in dry forests where there’s still a lot of humidity, but not a lot of rainfall, where they rely on the humid air for their watering needs. 

This does mean that they are susceptible to overwatering, so they are an orchid species which is better off growing on something you can mount it to, where there’s no risk of the plant sitting in water.

How to Recognize an Encyclia Orchid

Most encyclia orchids feature circular pseudobulbs, and terminal leaves. 

Like many other orchid groups, encyclia orchids range in size, anywhere from 5cm to 2 feet tall, depending on the species you go for. 

The flowers can bloom for months at a time, making it a very attractive plant which produces beautiful color nearly all year round.

The flowers themselves are a point of argument for some horticulturalists. Some believe that they are shaped like clams, while others think the flowers look like an octopus. 

This is because your eye is immediately drawn to the clam-like shape of the center of the flower, but you soon notice the long petals that drape past it, which looks like an octopus’s tentacles.

Flowers can be green, pink, yellow, maroon, or purple, or a mixture of these. The size of the flowers varies depending on the species, some being very petite, others producing huge, showy displays.

How many flowers the orchid produces depends on the species, and the conditions the plant is given. Some only produce a few flowers, while others produce dramatic displays.

What’s the Difference Between an Epidendrum Orchid and an Encyclia Orchid?

Orchids that fall under the encyclia genus were originally classified under the epidendrum orchid genus (see also Epidendrum Orchid Types And Care Guide), so what’s the difference?

The biggest difference you’ll be able to see is in the flowers. The characteristic lip which makes up the orchid flower is different in both. 

In the encyclia orchid, the lip fuses near the column’s base, but in the epidendrum, the lip and column are nearly completely joined.

You can also recognize the difference in the pseudobulbs. Encyclia orchids have onion-shaped or ovoid pseudobulbs, while epidendrum orchids feature slim stems, and not all have pseudobulbs to begin with.

How to Make an Encyclia Orchid Thrive

The conditions an encyclia orchid needs to thrive is largely dependent on the species you go for, but there are some general guidelines if you cannot work out the individual species. 

They’re not the perfect orchid for beginners, as they do need some extra attention, but it’s worth it for their extended blooming period, and their fantastic flowers.

Sunlight and Position

These orchids require the brightest light possible, but without being in direct sunlight. This is achievable in several ways, even if all you have is a sunny windowsill.

To protect your orchid from strong light, you can grow it behind a sheer curtain, or a window which has a privacy screen, which will help filter out some of the strongest sunlight.

If you cannot avoid placing your orchid in direct sunlight, make sure it’s morning light, preferably east-facing. This will help protect your encyclia orchid from wilting in too strong sunlight.

Humidity and Temperature

In terms of temperature, you need to keep the surrounding atmosphere at a stable temperature of around 85°F (or 29°C). 

Expose it to cooler temperatures at night, at around 70°F (21°C), which will encourage it to bloom. 

Encyclia orchids like high levels of humidity, as a general rule. This can vary from species to species, depending on the plant’s native environment. Between 50 and 80% humidity is the ideal range.

Place the orchid on a tray of pebbles, filled with water, making sure that the plant’s roots can’t touch the water, or they will rot. This will help increase the humidity around the plant as the water evaporates. 

You can also mist the orchid, but be careful of over-misting it, as encyclia orchids are sensitive to too much moisture.

When to Water an Encyclia Orchid

Most encyclia orchids prefer less water, as they extract it from a humid environment instead of it pooling around the roots. 

It’s best to keep an eye on the pseudobulbs, as when they shrivel, the plant wants more water.

How much water they need also depends on the season. Some only require an occasional misting during the winter instead of watering, while others still need a drink, but considerably less than in the summer months. 

In summer, those encyclia orchids which come from the Caribbean or Florida need watering once a week, allowing the roots to dry out in between. 

South American varieties require very little water, and Central American species require a little more.

It can be difficult to tell which is which, even within the specific species, as they can be found in different parts of the world. 

Pay attention to your specific orchid, keeping the watering light, the position bright, and your orchid should do just fine.

Should You Feed an Encyclia Orchid?

During the growing season from spring into early autumn, an encyclia orchid will benefit from regular feeds with a balanced orchid fertilizer. 

You can do this every week or so, making sure that you water it before you feed it. This will prevent root burn.

Repotting an Encyclia Orchid

The potting media that an encyclia orchid requires depends on the species. Most prefer cork, but encyclia orchids with smaller roots require small pieces of bark. 

Larger roots require bigger pieces of potting media, such as bigger bark. Make sure that the plant cannot sit in water, whatever you decide to use.

To make it easier, use a commercially available orchid potting mix which is well aerated. Be very gentle when removing the orchid from its original pot, as it’s easy to damage the roots.

How to Propagate an Encyclia Orchid

You can readily propagate encyclia orchids through division. Divide a large encyclia orchid into at least four pseudobulbs per clump.

Repot the new orchids and put them in indirect light, making sure that the light levels are slightly lower for at least several weeks to give the plants a rest. You should see new roots within a week or so. 

Encyclia Orchid Types You Should Grow Yourself

Encyclia alata

Also known as the winged encyclia orchid, this particular species is native to parts of Costa Rica and Mexico. It is a protected species under the CITES II Act, so if you want one, make sure you get it from a reputable source.

It produces flower spikes of 2 to 3 feet tall, where it produces a fabulous display of flowers in 5 or 7cm in diameter. 

The flowers come in yellow, with chocolate speckles and a yellow lip, and they are usually perfumed.

Encyclia bractescens

Also known as the Bractescent encyclia orchid, this is a lovely species which grows in parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and others in forests with high humidity. 

This is a much smaller species, the flower spikes reaching just under 40cm, and the flowers can be anywhere as few as 2 or as many as 12 per spike. Each one is fragrant, and they will reach about 2.5cm wide.

This type prefers drying out quickly after each watering, so make sure the potting medium is freely draining, or mount it on cork and do away with the pot entirely.

Encyclia cochleata

Encyclia cochleata produces some of the most striking flowers, which are clam-shaped, accented by green petals which drape past the heart of the flowers. 

These gorgeous flowers can last for months at a time, which is a good thing as they only usually open once a year. 

Because of this orchid’s unusual appearance, they are threatened in the wild in Florida, so make sure you only get one from a reputable source. 

You can also find wild examples growing in Mexico, parts of Central America, and South America. 

Encyclia cordigera

Another orchid that can be found in different parts of the world, the encyclia cordigera is a beautiful species that blooms at its best near Mother’s Day in America, making for a perfect gift. 

The striking flowers in this species feature extremely large, skirt-shaped lips, often in white with a purple splotch in the center. Some are completely pink or purple. 

It’s a species that’s fairly easy to grow, and while it can grow in very low light, it prefers bright and indirect light to thrive. 

With encyclia cordigera, it doesn’t tolerate any form of overwatering, so if that could be a problem, you’re better off growing this lovely orchid on driftwood or something else you can mount it on, so any excess water will run off.

Encyclia radiata

Encyclia radiata is typically confused with Encyclia fragrans, mislabeled and sold under the wrong name. Luckily, you regularly

Encyclia fragrans only grows a single leaf per pseudobulb, while Encyclia radiata produces several.

This particular species comes from Mexico, and you’ll also see it labeled as the lined petal orchid. The flower stems can reach 15cm tall, each one capable of carrying up to 15 flowers.

The flowers themselves are cream, featuring a white lip and purple stripes, which are highly perfumed. Each one can last up to 3 months at a time, and the plant itself flowers twice a year at most. 

Encyclia tampensis

Known as the Tampa butterfly orchid, the upside-down orchid, or the Florida butterfly orchid, this orchid is capable of producing up to 45 flowers at once, on a single stem during spring and summer.

The flowers come in shades of yellow, green, copper, and maroon, the lip of the flower streaked with purple. In the wild, it grows on a range of live trees.

Each flower is perfumed, and can reach 4cm in diameter. 

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