How to Plant, Grow and Care for Dracula Orchids
Looking for a unique orchid to add to your plant collection? The dracula orchid is a unique orchid variety that will brighten up your plant collection. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares all you need to know about Dracula Orcids, including their maintenance and care needs!
The Dracula orchid grows predominantly in mountainous regions in Colombia and Ecuador. They are epiphytic plants that grow mainly in the lower part of trees and sometimes near the ground. They typically bloom in winter, but with proper care, they can bloom indoors at any time of year.
This unusual genus of orchids was first discovered in 1870 by an amateur orchid collector and then established in 1978 by Carlyle Luer. The name he chose, Dracula, is the Latin word for dragon, although it calls to mind an infamous literary character of the same name.
The appearance of this orchid has also earned it the nickname “Monkey Orchid” due to the appearance of a furry little face in many species. Before 1978, they were included in the Masdevallia genus.
There are about 120 species of Dracula orchid, with at least 2 known natural hybrids. They are shade-loving orchids and do not tolerate the sun as some orchids can. In fact, they need to be grown in at least part shade. They come in various colors and color combinations and have unique growth habits that set them apart from many types of orchids.
While they are not typically found at the local nursery, they are not obsolete as houseplants, and they require a similar care regimen to Phalaenopsis orchids, with a few minor distinctions. Here is everything you need to know about these rare orchids.
Dracula Orchid Overview
Plant Type Sympodial, Epiphyte, Terrestrial
Pests Thrips, Whiteflies, Aphids
Exposure Part to Full Shade
Diseases Fungus and Mold
Plant Spacing Separate Containers
Species 124 plus 2 natural hybrids
Planting Depth Shallow
Soil Type Bark Mix
Native Area Colombia and Ecuador
Height 7”-14” tall
Plant with Palms, Succulents
Hardiness Zone 10-11
Watering Needs Should be Kept Moist
Attracts Drosophilid Flies
Dracula orchids are classified as sympodial, perennial, and evergreen epiphytes. These distinctions are explained below.
They have some unusual growth habits that can be a bit tricky to work with if you’re not sure how those differences affect their care. We will attempt to demystify this fun genus of orchids and give some tips on cultivating a Dracula orchid of your own.
Dracula orchids are sympodial, meaning they grow horizontally along a central rhizome. Unlike other sympodial orchids, Dracula orchids do not produce pseudobulbs. The pseudobulb of a sympodial orchid acts as water and nutrient storage for the plant.
Without pseudobulbs, Dracula orchids rely far more upon their environment for water and nutrients, which they have very little ability to store.
The rhizome of a Dracula orchid is typically short, with a creeping habit, and sends up shoots with a single leaf from which inflorescences are borne.
Like all orchids, the Dracula orchid is a perennial plant. It blooms year after year for an undetermined amount of time. All orchids are perennial and take quite a long time to mature. When grown from seed, an orchid can take from 5 to 7 years before it is mature enough to produce flowers.
With a few exceptions in the Dendrobium genera, all orchids are also evergreen. While an orchid will tend to lose its oldest leaves annually, this is typically an effort to redirect nutrients to a forming flower spike.
Dracula orchids are not an exception. As long as they are happy in their environment, Dracula orchids should not go through a dormancy that involves leaf loss on a yearly basis. Instead, they’ll retain their leaves until they have run their course.
Most Dracula orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow without soil, often in trees, attaching their fully exposed roots to tree bark. This characteristic makes orchids somewhat tricky to cultivate, as they have specific needs related to their growth habits.
Some species are lithophytes, meaning that they grow on rocks. Others are terrestrial, so they grow in the ground. However, most terrestrial orchids have shallow root systems and need very good drainage, so they should be treated as epiphytes even though they are technically ground dwellers.
The flowers of the Dracula orchid are strange and animalistic in appearance. They are typically pendulous, although there are some species with erect flowers, and all are usually single-flower bloomers. Like the Masdevallia orchid, the form of the flower comes from its 3 sepals which form a trichome cup.
Their sepals tend to be rounded triangular shapes, and most have long, thin, pointed ends. The petals and labellum are small and central and make up the part of the flower that is said to resemble either the face of a monkey or a dragon, depending on the species and whom you ask. Several species have fine hairlike structures on the sepals, contributing to the flower’s animalistic likeness.
The labellum often resembles an open or smiling mouth. The flowers mimic mushrooms in appearance and scent, so they can attract drosophilid flies, their primary pollinators. Some species of Dracula orchid bear such a strong resemblance to a primate face; it is quite shocking!
Dracula orchids are somewhat difficult to propagate, although not impossible for the determined gardener. Growing from seed is never the fastest way to propagate orchids, but for Dracula orchids in particular, it may be the best way to produce more than one plant.
Because they do not have pseudobulbs that store nutrients that support the plant, division works differently for Dracula orchids than other sympodial orchids. Typically, dividing a sympodial orchid consists of separating off several spent pseudobulbs, which then form new growth and roots independently of the parent plant.
Without those pseudobulbs, the Dracula orchid is not left with much after the flowers from a single shoot have bloomed and fallen.
So rather than using pseudobulbs, the Dracula orchid can be divided by removing the individual flower spike from the rhizome and allowing it to dry and then planting, then the spike should form a new spike and roots and will continue to grow as an exact duplicate of the parent plant.
Growing orchids from seed is a much more complicated and time-consuming process. Orchid seeds are incredibly tiny. As such, they contain no endosperm and do not have the energy stored to germinate independently.
In nature, orchid seeds attach themselves to mycorrhizal fungi, which break down the nutrients they need to germinate. Without this special relationship, germinating orchid seeds becomes much more complex. There are two ways to carry out the germination process in captivity: symbiotic and asymbiotic.
Symbiotic germination best replicates the natural process of germination. Because orchid seeds are very susceptible to fungus and bacteria, this method requires a sterile laboratory, which most home gardeners do not have.
So, we will skip going into detail on symbiotic germination and discuss the method that can be carried out by those with little more than a seed pod and some time on our hands.
Asymbiotic germination is typically carried out through a method known as flasking. This involves placing the seeds, a potting media, and a nutrient-rich substance into a glass bottle or flask.
The seeds take quite a long time to germinate and may need to be left in the flask for as long as two years before they are large and strong enough to transplant. Orchid plants grown from seed are not reliable in terms of genetics; they do not always breed true. They also take 5-7 years to reach maturity and produce flowers.
How to Grow
Dracula orchids have specific needs that make them more difficult to care for as houseplants, but they have become quite popular among collectors. For the determined gardener, they can be successfully cultivated in captivity.
These species have unique watering needs that differ slightly from other orchids. As such, they have different potting needs. Dracula orchids do well in a potting media that retains a bit more moisture than standard orchid bark. I am typically not a fan of sphagnum moss as a potting medium for orchids, but I make an exception in this case.
It is important to determine when the plants are almost, but not completely, dry. Sphagnum moss tends to make that easier as it is more fluffy and easier to manipulate.
There are three types of commercially available orchid pots made for epiphytic orchids. Any of these will work for your Dracula orchid. They should be repotted every two years to prevent root rot caused by decaying potting mix.
Terracotta Orchid Pots
These clay pots look just like a standard flowerpot, except that they have more drainage holes on the sides and on the bottom. Terracotta is great for wicking water away from the roots and preventing root rot.
Wooden Orchid Baskets
These are ideal for orchids kept outdoors or in a greenhouse, as they allow for maximum airflow, and do the best job of mimicking the natural environment, but they can be very messy at watering time. The wide openings in these baskets let a lot of potting media fall through, so they are best used, or at least watered, outdoors.
Ceramic Orchid Pots
These are similar to terracotta but without the wicking advantage. However, they do provide the largest variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. They typically have pretty designs on the sides made up of drainage holes in different patterns.
When planting an orchid, there is no specific depth to speak of because they are planted in relatively shallow containers. They only need their roots to be lightly covered in potting media. Dracula orchids can also be mounted onto a piece of wood, as this mimics the plant’s natural habitat.
Dracula orchids are a little like that literary character we all know and love… or perhaps fear? These plants don’t like a lot of light. In fact, direct sunlight will kill these orchids quickly.
Dracula orchids are similar to Phalaenopsis orchids in terms of light needs. They actually like slightly less light than Phals, even. These orchids grow lower to the ground than many epiphytes, and as such, they get very little light, and what they do get is filtered through the limbs of the trees overhead. Dracula orchids like to be given some indirect light but no direct sun exposure at all.
If an orchid gets too much sun, its leaves will let you know by burning or becoming bleached. If the leaves are getting scorch marks or fading in color, the plant is probably getting too much sun.
The typical recommendation for indoor orchids is to water once weekly, allowing the roots to dry in between but not stay dry for very long. Dracula orchids need a bit more water than this. We discussed the benefit of using moss in your potting mix because these orchids prefer to stay slightly moist.
While watering once per week might still do the trick, it is important to monitor these orchids manually so that they don’t actually dry out entirely. The idea is to water the orchid the day before it dries completely. The moss is springier and softer, which allows you to feel the space around the roots more easily.
As long as you have proper drainage and good air circulation, you should not have issues with root rot. It is better to wait an extra day than water a day early when in doubt. This rule applies to all orchids.
Climate and Temperature
The climate in which these orchids thrive is tricky, as they like the temperature to be cooler, but they need a lot of ambient humidity.
Dracula orchids do not thrive in hot weather. Anything above 85°F will cause these plants to suffer from heat stress. They are fine with temperatures as low as 50°F, with the ideal temperature being between 60°F and 80°F. This is perfect for indoor cultivation.
Here is where things get complicated. Dracula orchids like their humidity to be on the high side compared to other members of the orchid family.
An ambient humidity level of 70-80% is what they prefer. When cool temperatures overlap with lots of humidity, it can cause problems with fungus and mold growth. For this reason, proper air circulation is absolutely imperative.
Creating this environment inside the home can be challenging. The bathroom and kitchen are best equipped to handle this amount of humidity. An exhaust or overhead fan is a great way to maintain proper air circulation. Just keep your orchids away from drafts, as this can also cause undue stress to the plant.
If you don’t have a good space for an orchid in a naturally humid room, a humidifier is a good way to raise the humidity around your plants. Keep that air moving, or you may have more issues than root rot. Another option is to grow these orchids hydroponically. This makes water and humidity control much simpler, as well as leaving the roots exposed to monitor for issues.
Orchids need a lot of fertilizer because their potting medium generally doesn’t hold very many nutrients. Your orchid should be fertilized once every 1-2 weeks during its blooming and growing season. Off-season, this can be reduced to once every 3-4 weeks.
Specialty orchid fertilizers can be purchased in most places where orchids or fertilizers are sold. These fertilizers are formulated specifically to meet the needs of orchids, and they work quite well.
However, some gardeners prefer to use one fertilizer for all plants, which is perfectly fine. If you prefer to use an all-purpose fertilizer, dilute it for your orchids. You can use a 10-10-10 fertilizer diluted to ½ strength or a 20-20-20 diluted to ¼ strength.
Maintenance & Pruning
Orchid potting media breaks down and compacts over time, making it necessary to repot your orchids regularly. That said, orchids don’t like being handled, so repotting too often can cause stress, inhibiting growth and blooming.
Dracula orchids should be repotted every 2 years to avoid compacting potting mix from breaking down and decaying, which can inhibit air circulation around the roots. They do not need to be pruned with any regularity.
Trimming off the spent flower spikes is the only pruning needed. This helps the plant redirect energy and nutrients to new growth. Otherwise, trimming off damaged or diseased foliage is the only pruning your orchid will need.
There are a number of different varieties within this species to consider adding to your garden. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the most popular varieties.
|botanical name D. chimaera
|sun requirements Low
|hardiness zones 10-11
The ‘Chimaera’ Dracula orchid is also known as ‘Mythical Monster.’ As its name implies, it is an unconventional plant, to say the least. The sepals are triangular and pointed with long tapering ends. The color of these sepals is cream or yellow with heavy purple mottling.
They are also covered with tiny hairlike structures, which add to their animalistic appearance. The tiny petals and pouch-like labellum form what appears to be a tiny face in the center.
|botanical name D. bella
|sun requirements Low
|hardiness zones 10-11
This variety has yellow sepals with deep red speckling that is more concentrated toward the top of the upper sepal. The sepals have long, thin, deep red points.
The signature face of Dracula orchids is less noticeable in this bloom. Instead, the labellum is pure white and double-lobed, and the petals are nearly invisible.
|botanical name D. gorgona
|sun requirements Low
|hardiness zones 10-11
Named for another mythical monster, the ‘Gorgona’ Dracula has one of the prettier blooms of the genus. The petals are nicely balanced and pale yellow with bright red markings.
They are also coated with a sprinkling of delicate hairlike structures. The labellum is small, scooped, and the same pale yellow as the sepals.
|botanical name D. vampira
|sun requirements Low
|hardiness zones 10-11
This Dracula orchid truly lives up to its name. The large plant has a strange, dark beauty that I’ve seldom seen elsewhere. A small number of flowers are actually black, and this is one of them.
The base color of the sepals is green, but they are heavily striped with black veining, and the long tails of the sepals, which can reach up to 11cm in length, are entirely black. A small green starburst in the center sets off the cream-colored labellum.
Pests and Diseases
Some several pests and diseases find hosts in orchid plants. The best prevention of all of these is to inspect all new plants introduced into the environment. If you see a plant damaged by insects, isolate it as soon as possible to prevent spreading the problem to other plants.
Thrips are an issue for indoor orchids, more so for vandaceous types, but they will suck the sap out of whatever is available if they have an opportunity.
These tiny, winged insects pierce the tender new foliage, particularly the buds of plants, with their mouthparts. Like other insects, they are attracted to the most tender parts of the plant, where they can easily drain the sweet sap.
Thrips are very small and difficult to detect unless you have a flower on the plant. If a flower is present, you can bet on the thrips in this part of the plant. If you lightly tap the flower’s side and investigate the bloom’s center, you will see the thrips run around a bit from the disturbance.
Thrips are difficult to eliminate because their eggs are impervious to most insecticides. Treating them once per week for several weeks is important to fully eradicate them. Insecticidal soaps work well and are safer than other pesticides for use indoors.
Whiteflies are very detrimental to the health of an orchid. Their larvae feed on the sap, causing a general deterioration of health as the plant is deprived of nutrients. Some signs of an infestation include stunted growth, yellowing of leaves, and weakening of foliage.
If the plant is disturbed, you may observe a cloud of tiny white insects flying around. These adult whiteflies are here to lay eggs on your precious plants. The larvae leave behind a sticky, sweet secretion that attracts ants and causes sooty mold. This mold inhibits chlorophyll production and exacerbates the poor health of the plant.
If your orchids are kept in a greenhouse, many natural predators of whiteflies can be purchased and released into the environment. However, most gardeners don’t want to bring additional insects into the house, so systemic insecticides are generally necessary to eradicate whiteflies.
Aphids are another type of sap-sucking insect that, once they show up in the home, they reproduce rapidly. A handful of female aphids can create an army of thousands in weeks.
Signs of these insects are shriveling and curling of leaves, stunted growth, and distorted blooms (if any at all). Aphids produce a lot of honeydew, that sweet, sticky excrement that ants are attracted to. Ants will even help spread the aphids to different plants to keep that honeydew plentiful.
To eradicate aphids, repeated treatments with horticultural or insecticidal soaps are recommended. You can also wipe the underside of the leaves with alcohol to kill aphids and stop their spread.
It’s a good idea to get rid of the ants while you’re treating for aphids, or they will do their best to make sure the population gets to a safe place where they can multiply again.
Root rot is the biggest killer of indoor orchids. The main culprit is overwatering and letting potting media break down and decay. Once the fungus sets in on the potting media, it is a matter of time before it attacks the roots. It is difficult to detect this issue until it reaches the leaves, but it is difficult to bring the orchid back to health.
Prevention of root rot is a must. Changing out the potting mix before it breaks down, watering on a not more than once weekly basis, and maintaining proper air circulation are the keys to preventing this killer. If you discover a root rot case, the best solution is to repot the orchid.
Soak the pot and then gently loosen the orchid. Very gently remove all potting media from the root system and inspect the plant for rot. Rotten roots will be dark brown and mushy, in contrast to healthy roots, which are white or green and firm. With a clean, sharp tool, remove all damaged tissue. Contrary to popular belief, hydrogen peroxide is not a good treatment.
The roots need to dry completely before repotting, so allow the plant to sit in the open air until the roots are dry. Then re-pot with new, clean potting mix and adjust your watering and environment accordingly. This is the best hope for recovering an orchid with root rot.
Similar to root rot, mold is a fungal issue that tends to affect Dracula orchids disproportionately because of the cool, moist environment they prefer. Moldy roots lead quickly to rotten roots, so the treatment for mold is the same as root rot. The best defense against mold is air circulation.
Dracula orchids are not great beginner orchids as they are somewhat difficult to cultivate. However, they do make a great conversation piece, and for the orchid collector, they are quite a fun specimen to raise.
Their low light needs make them an ideal plant for growing in a bathroom with sub-optimal light. When they bloom, they are both spooky and mythical specimens. But don’t let these funny-faced orchids scare you. They may be challenging, but it will pay off if you coax this orchid into bloom.