Selected Species - by Peter Taylor

Coelogyne pandurata Lindl.

Hugh Low was one of he most enterprising and energetic orchid collectors during a period of time when "orchid mania" gripped England and Europe.  From Sarawak especially he introduced many distinctive orchids to the great nurseries of the time and he is generally recognised as a pioneer of orchidology in the Malay states.

Low had a fascinating life.  Born in 1824 to a father in the nursery business (Hugh Low and Co.), he quickly developed both a love of plants and a keen eye of observation. He first travelled to Sarawak in 1845 and in his notes he states that "my object (the collection of plants and seeds) led me more into the country.... than any other Englishman who has yet visited the shores of this island (Borneo)".  He was the first European to ascend Mt. Kinabalu where he collected extensively.

He mixed enthusiastically with the native peoples and became so well known as a plant collector hat the beautiful "jewel" orchids (Haemaria and Anoectochilus) were called by the natives, "Daun Lo" (Low's leaf). His knowledge of the empathy towards the people of Borneo results in his appointment in 1876 as Chief Resident of Perak. He reformed the previously tough administration, improved the agricultural economy of this British colony and introduced high class cattle to the area. In 1889, he retired from colonial administration in the East Indies. He was, as Reinikka states in his A History of the Orchid (the source of my notes above) "a rare and valuable asset" to orchidology.  He died in Italy in 1905.

As mentioned, from Sarawak Low introduced some wonderful species, several new Nepanthes species, Coelogyne asperata, Dendrobium lowii, Paphiopedilum lowii etc. His name is also remembered in plants like Cymbidium lowianum.

Now to the matter of this month's Selected Species - Coelogyne pandurata.

This wonderful coelogyne was found in Sarawak by Low and sent to the great orchid firm of Loddiges who flowered it in 1853 and passed it on to John Lindley.  He named the species in the Gardeners' Chronicle of 1853.  Its specific epithet refers to its panduriform or fiddle-shaped lip.  It is also known as the "black orchid" (as are so many species) because of the "black" lip markings.  The contrast between the pale green sepals and petals and the striking lip is certainly arresting and a well-flowered plant is a joy to behold.

Coelogyne pandurata has a wide distribution - Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo and in the Philippines.  It is generally found in the damp lowland areas, often in swamps and on trees near rivers.  Usually an epiphyte, it can be semi-terrestrial in its native habitat.  Immediately, one cultural factor is seen - the need for warmth and high humidity.

A word of warning regarding the purchase of this species - I have bought plants labelled "Coel. pandurata" both from commercial nurseries and at auction which proved on flowering to be either Coelogyne mayeriana or the hybrid Coelogyne Burfordiensis (C. pandurata x C. asperata).  The lip must be "fiddle shaped" and have black-purple, not brown (C. Burfordiensis) markings.

Now to a few cultural notes.  Although a warm growing (some people grow the species very successfully with their phalaenopsis) I grow the species successfully with a winter minimum of 12oC.  Good winter light is essential: plants will be lush in shady conditions but they are reluctant to flower.  Good air movement, especially in bright light.  High humidity is required. Be careful to keep up the humidity in winter.

The trickiest factor is the watering of the species.  In their habitat, the species experiences heavy year-round rain with the heaviest falls in winter.  In my glasshouse, if I watered heavily in winter, my plants would soon die - so I believe watering should be decreased to a "plant medium just damp" situation with brisk air movement and bright winter light.

Coelogyne pandurata flowers in the summer (new growth can easily rot if too wet) with an inflorescence of about 24-35cm and from five to 15 flowers on well-grown plants.  The flowers not only have an unusual colour combination but also a lovely fragrance.  The species is among the larger plants in the genus Coelogyne and the rhizome between the 10 - 15cm pseudobulbs can be 10-12cm.

So, how to pot or mount such a species (especially as C. pandurata really resents repotting and can sulk for some months after being disturbed)?  My best efforts have been to mount plants on large horizontal pieces of soft treefern so that plants can ramble away to their heart's content.  I have had no success in deep pots, either clay or plastic, but one plant grew well in a large shallow drip tray in which I had made many drainage holes.  One friend grows a wonderful plant in one of the red carry baskets supplied by supermarkets (don't ask how it appeared in his backyard!).  In any case, repotting should only be done when new roots grow on the most mature pseudobulbs; the last flowering pseudobulb.

There are some wonderful Coelogyne species you should consider adding to your collection - Coelogyne mooreana from the mountains of Thailand and Vietnam; Coelogyne nitidia from India with its lovely white flowers with distinctive yellow eyes on the lip; and perhaps my favourite, the elegant Coelogyne dayana from North Borneo.  However, if you enjoy a challenge, the beauty of Coelogyne pandurata with its unusual colour combination of green and black is well worth the extra little effort of cultivation. A species that deserves to be selected for your collection.


Peter Taylor

© Peter Taylor and Australian Orchid Council Inc. 2003

Originally published in "Orchids Australia" August 2003.