How to Grow and Care for Brassavola Orchids
The Brassavola orchid is a wonderful, fragrant orchid that makes a great beginner orchid. In this article, orchid enthusiast Melissa Strauss will tell you all you need to know to get started with your Brassavola orchid.
Orchids have long been some of my favorite plants to care for. While they can be a bit picky about their care, the reward when they bloom is worth the trouble. Brassavola orchids are a wonderful group of fragrant orchids known for their ease of care and adaptability to different conditions.
If you are thinking of adding one of these stunning plants to your orchid collection or want to start your orchid journey with one of these plants, there are a few care tips that will go a long way in understanding how to grow and care for your Brassavola orchid. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating genus of orchids.
Brassavola Orchid Overview
Plant Type Sympodial Epiphyte, lithophyte
Native Area Tropical Central and South America
Exposure Bright indirect light or partial shade
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Root rot, fusarium wilt, rust, leaf spot, spider mites, scale, mealybugs, aphids, thrips
Soil Type Orchid bark, sphagnum moss, charcoal, pumice
Soil pH Neutral to acidic
What are Brassavola Orchids?
Known commonly as Lady of the Night orchids, Brassavola orchids are a stunning genus of orchids that are very popular among hybridizers and collectors alike. In the past, these were specialty orchids that could be very difficult to find, but recently, rising interest in keeping houseplants has made it much easier to find these plants.
Closely related to Cattleya orchids, Brassavolas have showy, usually fragrant flowers. Like their relatives, these orchids are not particularly difficult to care for. If you’re not concerned about expense, a Brassavola orchid is not a bad plant for a beginner. They grow fast and can tolerate a wider range of care and environment than most orchids.
Scottish botanist Robert Brown first named Brassavola orchids in the early 1800’s. Its name, Brassavola, is a nod to the Italian physician and nobleman Antonia Musa Brassavola.
Although they were not named until much later, they were the first tropical orchids brought to Holland from the Caribbean. This initiated a long history of selective breeding and hybridization of these fascinating plants and other orchid relatives.
Brassavola orchids are native to tropical regions of the Americas, including Mexico and other parts of Central America, the West Indies, and South America, down to Brazil. They are widespread in these areas and are a hardy genus. There is no threat to Brassavola orchids.
While their flowers are smaller and less colorful than those of their Cattleya relatives, Brassavola orchids make up for their lack of color by producing abundant fragrant flowers. Most flowers are white, but some varieties come in shades of pink or green, and others have pale yellow petals.
The labellum of the Brassavola orchid is easily recognizable because it is heart-shaped. The labellum is much larger than the petals or sepals. Flowers consist of a single labellum or lip, three sepals, and two petals. The labellum is actually a long, nectar-filled tube that flares open at the end, creating this heart shape.
Brassavola orchids are predominantly epiphytic, meaning that they grow on trees, or lithophytic, meaning that they grow from rocks. This characteristic tends to earn orchids their reputation as being difficult to care for. However, if you understand these habits, you will have a much easier time caring for your orchid.
Plants that are epiphytic or lithophytic do not grow from soil. Rather, the greater part of their root systems are usually exposed. In a sense, they are air plants, acquiring the moisture they need from falling rain and the humidity in the air around them.
Orchid roots are delicate and rhizomatic. They are susceptible to root fungal infections, so care must be taken to provide your orchid with good air circulation. Brassavola roots are made up of terete pseudobulbs. Each pseudobulb produces a single, straplike leaf and one inflorescence. Each inflorescence carries from one to six flowers.
Brassavola orchids are sympodial, meaning they produce new pseudobulbs, and each one only blooms once. These pseudobulbs grow horizontally along a central rhizome. Sympodial orchids are typically much easier to propagate than monopodial orchids, which grow continuously upward on a vertical rhizome.
Brassavola orchids have few practical uses but are highly sought after for their ornamental value. Orchid breeders and hybridizers love this plant for its ease of care and hybridization.
Where to Buy Brassavola Orchids
Until recently, I saw these orchids only rarely for sale and typically at orchid shows. Recently, these orchids have become more popular and can be found at many nurseries and other orchid retailers. They are also readily available from online retailers.
Unless you live in a tropical climate, your Brassavola orchid must be kept in a container and brought indoors for the winter. The type of container needed to keep a healthy orchid is one with very good drainage and air circulation.
Most orchids will bloom in plastic nursery pots filled with moist sphagnum moss. This is fine for a short period while the orchid is in bloom and needs a bit of extra moisture, but it can ultimately lead to root rot. It is best to repot your orchid when it finishes blooming.
Three different orchid pots are specifically designed to support an orchid’s unique needs.
Wooden Orchid Baskets
These are typically hanging baskets made from wood with wide slats between the pieces of wood. They allow for maximum drainage and air circulation. This is my favorite as it best mimics the plant’s natural environment. You will need to water more frequently using these containers.
Terracotta Orchid Pots
These look like your standard, run-of-the-mill terracotta pot, but they have additional drainage holes in the bottom and sides. This increases airflow and drainage. Terracotta is also good at wicking moisture away from the roots without dehydrating the plant.
Ceramic Orchid Pots
By far the most decorative, these are similar to other ceramic pots, but they usually have patterns cut into them, creating extra drainage and circulation. They work fine and are attractive, but it is easy to overwater using these containers.
How to Grow
Brassavola orchids are considered easy to grow by orchid standards. They are not as sensitive to moisture and environmental shifts as some of their relatives. While Phalaenopsis orchids are usually considered the easiest to care for, I find that Brassavolas and Cattleyas are far more forgiving and tolerant.
Orchids grow under tree canopies, typically receiving only filtered or indirect sunlight. Their leaves’ sensitivity to sunburn leads many gardeners to believe that these are shade plants when they actually like quite a bit of sunlight. The caveat is that they need that light to be indirect or filtered through another plant, a sheer curtain, or privacy glass.
Brassavola orchids fall on the sunnier side of the orchid spectrum and can tolerate some direct sun. In fact, a bit of direct sun in the morning will keep this plant blooming at its best.
If you are familiar with Cattleya orchids and their sun needs, Brassavolas won’t be difficult in this respect. Plenty of bright, indirect sunlight and a small amount of direct sun are best for this plant.
Brassavola is more drought-tolerant than most orchids because its tubular leaves have evolved to hold water. The watering frequency will be largely determined by the type of container used, the season, and whether your plant is kept indoors or out.
Brassavola orchids can be mounted on wood to avoid using potting media and for aesthetic purposes. For these orchids, you can expect to water about every other day. For outdoor orchids, you will need to water every three to four days during the summer months. Indoor orchids will be fine with watering once every week or two.
Ultimately, you will know when to water your Brassavola according to the moisture in your potting mix. These orchids like to dry out between waterings, so if the potting media is damp, even after a week, skip watering until it is dry to the touch.
Epiphytic orchids do not fair well in standard potting soil. Potting soil is designed to hold moisture for the plant’s use, and orchids in standard potting soil will most definitely end up with a case of root rot. Brassavola orchids do best when planted in specialty orchid potting bark.
While we discussed mounting your orchid to wood, if this is your first experience with an orchid, I would advise against this, as it is very easy to dehydrate an orchid this way unless you keep it in a very humid location, which isn’t always best in terms of fungal diseases.
When potting your Brassavola, use a commercially sold orchid bark mix or make your own orchid bark. To make your own orchid potting mix, combine two parts pine or other bark with one part charcoal or one part sphagnum moss. It’s best to keep your potting medium draining freely for Brassavola orchids.
Temperature and Humidity
If you want your Brassavola orchid to bloom, it must be kept fairly warm. If the temperature dips below 55°F, the orchid is unlikely to produce flowers. A temperature between 65°-80° is ideal for this plant, meaning it will do quite well as a houseplant.
Orchids like a lot of humidity, some more than others, but Brassavola falls in the middle where humidity is concerned. These orchids will be happy with a humidity level between 40-70%, but you should err on the higher end to be cautious. Just make sure that there is adequate airflow around your plant.
Orchids love to be fertilized. During its growth and flowering season, fertilize your orchid every two weeks. Decrease this once monthly after the plant blooms and enters a dormant period. When new growth appears, bump your fertilizing schedule back to once every two weeks.
Plenty of specialty orchid fertilizers are available at retailers, and these work great for meeting the specific needs of your orchid. If you prefer an all-purpose fertilizer, go with a balanced formula of 20-20-20 at ¼ strength or 10-10-10 at ½ strength.
I like to water and fertilize my orchids from the bottom to avoid crown and leaf rot. You can mix a solution of fertilizer and water and then set your orchid in the water for five minutes. When you remove your orchid from the water and fertilizer, allow it to drain thoroughly.
Because Brassavola orchids are sympodial, they need to be repotted more often than monopodial orchids. Sympodial orchids move horizontally, so they need a pot that is wider than the plant. When potting, set your orchid with the oldest pseudobulb against the side of the container. This will allow the orchid plenty of space to grow.
Orchids do not need much pruning. Removing dead or damaged leaves will improve your plant’s overall look and health, but orchids do not require pruning otherwise. The exception to this is trimming off the spent flower spikes.
After a spike finishes flowering and begins to turn brown, you can trim off the stem for aesthetic purposes and to help the plant redirect nutrients away from that part of the plant and toward new growth. Trim the stem off just above the first node on the stem. This will look like a small lump or raised area around the stem, just above the place where it connects to the plant.
Sympodial orchids are easy to propagate using the division method. When repotting your Brassavola, you can simply divide the plant into smaller parts. Leave at least four pseudobulbs on each division, as the spent bulbs store energy to help the plant produce new growth.
I don’t recommend trying to propagate orchids from seeds, as the process is difficult and very time-consuming, but you can also propagate from back bulbs and keikis when the plant produces these small offsets.
Lady of the Night
|botanical name Brassavola nodosa
|sun requirements Bright indirect light or partial sun
|hardiness zones 9-11
Brassavola nodosa is the most commonly cultivated species. It flowers prolifically and twice yearly under the right conditions. This plant produces many smaller, fragrant, white flowers that release their scent at night. This is a great beginner orchid that is quite forgiving.
|botanical name Brassavola cucullata
|sun requirements Bright indirect light
|hardiness zones 9-11
B. cucullata is one of the larger flowering species of Brassavola. The flowers are up to 5”, with long, delicate petals and sepals that are peach to pale orange, or sometimes yellow or green in color, and trail most of the length of the plant. The labellum on this variety is very decorative. It is the typical heart shape of other cultivars but has a fringed edge. The blooms are very fragrant, releasing their scent at night.
|botanical name Brassavola cebolleta
|sun requirements Bright indirect light
|hardiness zones 9-11
This high-altitude species is similar to B. cucullata but has smaller flowers and shorter sepals. The flowers appear singly on their stems, with each pseudobulb producing only one flower. The flowers are green with a white labellum that has a green center. These are also fragrant and great for mounting to wood if that is how you prefer to display your orchids.
|botanical name Brassavola acaulis
|sun requirements Bright indirect light
|hardiness zones 9-11
This species originates in Costa Rican foothills, where it grows on tree branches. This orchid has a unique growth habit. Rather than the flower stems forming from above the leaves, B. acaulis flower stems form directly from the rhizome and hang pendulous. The blooms are white with a large labellum and long, pointed sepals.
Orchids are very susceptible to root rot. In fact, it is the main killer of these wonderful plants. Root rot is the product of fungally-colonized, decaying potting media. Fungal development begins when the potting mix remains wet for extended periods. The organic material begins to decay, weakening the roots of the orchid and inviting in various types of fungus.
It is difficult to treat root rot once it becomes obvious above the roots. The best defense is to pay close attention to your watering routine and ensure the potting media dries out between waterings. If you still end up with root rot, repot your orchid in fresh potting mix, removing all dead and damaged root tissue.
Orchids tend to be attractive to insects. Pests like aphids, spider mites, scale, and mealybugs like to suck the sweet sap from the leaves and stems of the plant, leaving behind sticky excrement that can attract ants and makes a good environment for black sooty mold to grow, which interferes with photosynthesis.
Keep a close eye on your orchid, and check regularly for signs of infestation. If you see your plant being attacked by any of these insects, rinse off any visible culprits and treat your orchid with neem oil to eliminate the rest of the insects. Always isolate an infested or infected plant as soon as you discover the issue to prevent it from spreading.
Orchids take some trial and error when it comes to flowering. The most common culprits of a non-flowering orchid are lack of sunlight or nutrients. If you are already fertilizing your orchid regularly, the issue is more likely that it needs more light. Try moving your plant closer to a sunny window or even exposing it to direct sun for a few hours early in the day.
For an orchid that gets too much direct sun, particularly hot afternoon sun or midsummer heat, the leaves can burn. I’ve lost more than one Phalaenopsis orchid to sun damage, and it’s not fun.
Fortunately, brassavola orchids are more forgiving and tolerant of sun exposure. If you notice your leaves looking pale on top, move the plant out of the direct light, as this is the first sign of sunburn.
Orchids are not cold-tolerant. These tropical plants must be brought indoors in the fall as soon as the temperatures start dipping into the 50s. Dry, brown pseudobulbs and necrotic spots on foliage signal that your plant is suffering cold damage. Repot your plant, removing all damaged tissue to avoid rot.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I increase the humidity around my orchid?
A pebble tray or a humidifier are good ways to raise the humidity directly around your orchid. You can successfully grow orchids in a bathroom window as well, as this tends to be a more humid room.
Will my orchid rebloom?
Brassavola orchids bloom up to twice per year with proper care. They will not usually bloom back to back, and each pseudobulb only blooms one time.
Why are my orchid’s leaves turning yellow?
If the leaves are turning yellow from the bottom towards the crown of the plant, this can be a sign of root rot. Yellowing leaves can also be the result of stress or disease.
Brassavola orchids are a gorgeous group of fragrant orchids known for their ease of care and great adaptability. They make great beginner orchids and can tolerate more sun than many of their relatives. You won’t regret adding one of these beautiful plants to your collection.