Cymbidium Suave

Cymbidium suave plant in situ
Cymbidium suave flower

I DISCOVERED the world of native orchids in 1975, courtesy of the local Municipal Library where I’d gone to positively identify those lilies growing atop the big rock near the old farm house . . . the same rock my father used to hide 1080 rabbit poison and other farm chemicals on. Apparently I was fond of sampling anything in a bottle, including some diesel fuel that looked for all the world like Coca Cola to my circa 1955 eyes.

It was certainly a safe haven for storing such nasty things and it wasn’t until 20 years later that I found my way on to the top of that rock. There appeared to be no harm done to the massive clump of Dendrobium speciosum that seemed to be devouring the collection of rusting drums and assorted iron relics from yesteryear that adorned this mesa of a rock.

In the Library I discovered that the lilies were in fact orchids. I spent hours fingering through the few books that dealt with Australian native orchids. After six months of wearing those pages thin during frequent visits to ‘The Book’ I had a pretty good idea about the various shapes that many of the local NSW species assumed. I certainly learned that Cymbidium suave was very different to the rest . . . it had long grassy leaves and striking, colourful blooms. I had a feeling that I’d seen plants very similar in several spots about my old bush haunts.

So it was high on my list of desirable plants and one to pursue in order to claim a specimen for proud display in my infant, but burgeoning bush house. Over the next year and a half I dragged home an assortment of botanical odds and sods having green, strap-like foliage including clumps of native Iris and even old tussocks of several denominations – but C. suave managed to avoid my searches utterly.

Then a mate of mine was transferred to Bega in southern NSW. On most visits to his place I managed to sneak in a few jaunts into the local bush, most of which was ear-marked for the Japanese wood-chip mills down at Eden. Many dirt tracks had been built through this vast area of Spotted Gum dominated hardwood forest and we had great fun exploring them although at the time we wondered why so many miles of well formed roads were built for seemingly little reason. December 1976 saw us out searching for the hollow logs I needed in order to induce my parrots to nest. It was there in a big old stump left from previous logging operations that I made my first sighting of C. suave.

And what a grand initiation it was to this too often ignored native wonder! The stump was about three metres high and about 1.5 metres through. The deep spring-board slots were still visible on the trunk where the old timber-getters had perched precariously with axe and cross-cut saw. That clump of Cymbidium was around 50 cms across and as high – a real old-man clump. Best of all, it wore a skirt of olive-brown flowers that cascaded right around the base of the green leaves.

Using the old spring-board chops as steps, I climbed up onto the top of the stump and squatted beside that incredible floral display. My mate thought I was mad . . . he’s the sort of bloke that would concrete his front yard and paint it green if his wife would let him. Neither of us carried a camera that day, unfortunately. How often have I been caught without my camera! These days I rarely leave it at home. I’ve learnt the lesson.

That day I saw dozens of clumps of C. suave mostly growing in similar old stumps, but I quickly discovered them up in the forks and rotten limbs of the various Eucalypts in that region. None were as impressive or as large as that first clump however. At what is the southern limit of their range in Australia, these Bega plants were still flowering just before Christmas. Up around Sydney they tend to flower in November to early December. In the bush house situation they will generally be opening by mid to late October. Altitude has a lot to do with C. suave’s flowering season of course and even up around the higher regions of southern Queensland it may not bloom until December.

Suave extends from the Bega River up as far as the Cooktown region, a not inconsiderable distribution of 3000 kms. I’ve never seen it any further north than the Calliope Range, 100 kms short of the Tropic of Capricorn. Even there it is not very common. C. suave ranges from absolute sea level all the way up to at least 1,100 metres altitude. Across the 2000 km range that I’ve seen C. suave, from Bega to Calliope, there are no vegetative differences to distinguish them. I’ve not seen flowering plants from further north than the Border Ranges. Over the whole of the NSW range, no differences beyond the normal colour variations that C. suave exhibits has been noticed. It appears that this is a genetically stable species. C. suave is an abundant species in the southern half of its range.

The C. suave has found its niche mainly in the hardwood forests, both wet and dry types. The giant stumps left when the loggers leave these forests are certainly rewarding cubbyholes in which to locate C. suave.

Occasional specimens of C. suave can be seen in strange places. In some paperbark swamps it can be reasonably abundant with its roots finding a happy environment in the loose, spongy layers of that bark. Some specimens are occasionally seen on the trunks of Mountain or Bull Oaks (Alocasuarina torulosa). in examples such as these, C suave is definitely growing in a truly epiphytic manner and not just as a stump dweller.

On two occasions I’ve seen plants growing as true lithophytes on rock with no evidence of an arboreal connection to be seen. The roots were clinging well to the rock surface and appeared to be doing OK with a diet of leaf litter that had accumulated behind them . . . typical of any lithophytic orchid. Germination may not have occurred on the rock of course. Perhaps these C. suaves outlived their ancient, fallen tree limbs long since rotted away. I suspect this would be the case.

The Cymbidium genus is a large one with a natural distribution from India to south-east Asia. Three species find their way onto the Australian continent. Besides C. suave, we have C. madidum and C. canaliculatum. As most readers would already know, Cymbidiums grow into great clumps of bulbs/pseudobulbs which have any number of flat and wide green leaves attached.

In contradiction to the normal habit, C. suave does not have a storage organ, or pseudobulb. Instead it has what the botanists refer to as “woody stems”. These stems have very little capacity for water or nutrient storage. The other Australian Cymbidiums do have true pseudobulbs. Because it has no storage capacity, C. suave bolsters its well-being by only colonising areas east of the Great Dividing Range having reliable rainfall. During droughts, C. suave can semi-defoliate and carry on with only the barest number of short green leaves.

In an effort to compensate for this seemingly ridiculous oversight, C. suave does grow very fat and very long roots. In hard times, these roots take over some of the functions of a storage organ. It wouldn’t be unusual for C. suave to grow roots approaching three metres long if the host tree is at the right stage of decomposition. Because of its love for rotting limbs and heartwood, you will often find C. suave laying on the ground. And if you are after a piece for your bush house this is the only smart way to obtain it.

If you try and remove a plant from a living tree you are almost bound to kill it stone dead. You will find it next to impossible to dislodge the roots. Usually the woody stems will snap away completely from the roots leaving the would-be collector feeling very sheepish. So save yourself and the orchid the trouble – only pick up plants from the ground . . . there’s always a few to be found down there.

If the host tree is big enough, there is not really any limit on how large a clump of C. suave can grow. The biggest I know of, down in the Illawarra, is a neat four feet across. It sits about ten metres above the ground in a big old white-trunked gum tree that is still growing along very nicely. That clump cannot get any larger – it already looks jammed solid in what appears to be an old fork in the trunk. There would have to be at least two hundred racemes on board in a good flowering season.

The racemes grow to about 30 cms long and can have up to 30 flowers. These are about 2 cms across and can range in colour from light green to olive green, through to mustardy yellows and on to various shades of woody brown. Some blooms can be a combination of these colours. The flower is rather well filled in and opens up fairly well, although never quite flat. The segments are quite stiff and thick and will snap if bent. The top of the column is a very dark brown colour.

There is a sweet perfume present but it only seems to be noticeable in the middle of fairly hot days. What ever the pollinator of C. suave is, it certainly does a real good job. After the flowering season is over you nearly always find seed capsules on the old racemes. I’ve seen up to a dozen on a single old spike. On a big clump there could be up to a kilogram of seed pods hanging off like giant green grapes. That’s mind-boggling, don’t you agree?

Old literature often states that C. suave is difficult to cultivate. I can’t go along with this. Perhaps they meant to say that it is slow to get growing after the initial potting. I used to go to all the trouble of getting rotten heartwood from stumps and I would not grow my plants in any container under 40 cms in depth. These days I grow it well enough in recycled Dendrobium potting mix. That is, the old pine bark that accumulates after I repot anything. It is just a bit far gone for future Dendrobiumgrowing but is nowhere near composted in to mud.

I throw this re-cycled bark mix in to an 8 to 10 inch conventional pot with the same old pebble aggregate in it from the repotting, shove the C. suave in with it, place the lot on a bench and forget about it. With a newly collected or repotted suave, don’t try and save all the old roots. Just cut them all off to about 10 cms long but try hard to keep any newly emerging roots intact. Potted this way, you can water it along with all your normal potted natives and it won’t stay too wet for too long.

Put your specimen in a big pot of rotten heartwood and you’ll be forever trying to keep it dry. What happens if it rains too much in the winter time? You stand a good chance of having your prized plant rot away on you, that’s what. Unless you have a fibreglass house, Murphy’s 48th Law says it WILL rain when you DON’T want it to.

As far as fertilising goes, C. suave is one species where you can throw a handful of Dynamic Lifter or blood and bone into the pot without having to worry about clogging up your usual impeccably open potting mix. The added body will actually give this orchid quite a kick along but without the danger of suffering from the perpetual dampness that a deep container full of rotten wood pulp will certainly guarantee.

For some strange reason I’ve never been able to fathom, C. suave – so it is written – has been afflicted with the baffling common name of Snake Orchid. Never have I heard a single native orchid grower refer to it as the Snake Orchid. I assume that some over-imaginative or intoxicated old bushman from last century suffered from a morbid fear of snakes and tried to stone a C. suave to death. Maybe an old wives’ tale insists that snakes have a habit of hanging out in clumps of C. suave. Never seen a snake in a clump myself. I believe I’ll carry on just calling it “Suave”.

Whatever you choose to call it, make sure you have a plant or two of C. suave in your collection and keep giving it lots of TLC. You won’t be disappointed, I promise you.

Learn more about growing Dendrobium Speciosum