The genus Lycaste has been revised many times over the past 150 years since Lindley separated it from Maxillara in 1843. Most recently, Fowlie's 1970 monograph The Genus Lycaste, Its Speciation, Distribution, Literature and Cultivation - A Monographic Revision identified the many difficulties with classification of this genus, and it appears that the debate still continues. Almost more interesting is that Lindley did not say why he chose the name Lycaste (other than his note "A fanciful name. Lycaste was a beautiful woman"). Despite many reviews since, no-one has been able to more accurately clarify his reasoning for naming the genus thus.
Henry Oakeley who holds the UK National Scientific collection of Lycaste, Ida and Anguloa recently published his seminal work Lycaste, Ida and Anguloa - The Essential Guide in 2008 (it is in our library).
There continues to be debate about the type species - variously reported as L macrophylla or L plana. Oakeley clarifies this confusion when reduces L plana to a colour form of L macrophylla. He notes that Dr Fowlie's work contains many incorrectly named plants in the three genera Lycaste, Ida and Anguloa. However, this problem is not just Dr Fowlie's.
The genus Lycaste is endemic to the Central Americas, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, West Indies, Jamaica and Cuba. Most commonly found in forest regions between sea level and 3000m, growing either epiphytically, lithophytically or terrestrially, they inhabit a wide variety of climates ranging from cloud forests to regions with pronounced wet and dry seasons. Some species such as L macrophylla can be found from 700-2800m elevation. Therefore, the deciduous Lycastes can very successfully be grown in a shadehouse in WA.
Several Lycaste species including L aromatica, L cruenta, L deppei, L lassioglossa, L locusta, L macrophylla and L tricolor are relatively common in mixed collections in Australia. Lycaste hybrids are widely grown and much of the early hybridising in Australia was carried out by Fred Alcorn who did much to reintroduce this genus to Australian orchidists.
This genus has large plicate leaves, clustered ovoid pseudobulbs and multiple lateral inflorescences. Accordingly, mature plants of the larger members of the genus require substantial space due to leaf width and span. Flowering takes place when the new growth is half grown. A feature of most Lycaste species is the spines at the leaf abscission point. These spines are said to offer some protection to the plant against foraging herbivores - they certainly can surprise the unwary grower! Oakeley identifies 4 sections; aromaticae, intermediae, skinneri and lycaste. Fowlie also identified 4 sections; Deciduosae, Macrophyllae, Fimbriatae and Longisepalae based upon floral and other vegetative characteristics, although Oakeley asserts, this treatment was not validly published. You may wonder, how is this relevant? In my view, it helps explain some of the never-ending, frustrating (to anyone but a taxonomist) taxonomic revision of orchid nomenclature.
However, to focus on what seems more useful to us as enthusiasts, both Alcorn and the San Francisco Orchid Society have some thoughts about Lycaste culture. Alcorn says that it is important to remember that Lycaste is a cool-growing species, and does not need the heating that Phalaenopsis or Vanda generally require during our winter months, unless your area is susceptible to frosts. (minimum 4-5§C). However, during our extremely hot summer months, they will need some cooling at least in the evenings, and additional protection from the sun if you wish to avoid leaf damage. Similarly, Lycaste orchids appreciate higher humidity - if you are growing in a shadehouse in summer, you will need to make some arrangement to maintain humidity during the day. With the exception of summer months, in suburbia 50% shadecloth should be OK, although in summer a second layer may be required. An alternative (that we employ) is to place them among other taller plants such as Cymbidiums that provide some shade, or under orchids or other plants in hanging baskets (although this can be a problem in winter if the baskets drip onto your Lycaste plants. In the Swan Valley, we use 70% shadecloth all year round as we have quite bright light. Leaf colour should be light to yellowish green. Air circulation is also critical (as it is with almost all orchid species). As Lycastes are principally epiphytes, they need good air movement throughout the year (another reason to grow them in a shadehouse with a plastic cover during winter). Shelter also needs to be provided when they are coming into flower to avoid flower damage. Various mediums are proposed including sphagnum moss, pine bark, tree fern fibre, coconut chips coarse river sand, charcoal, perlite and so the list goes on. As a general rule, they will grow well in a similar mix to your Cymbidium orchids, and if you are growing these plants well, you have your cultural conditions well under control. The one major difference of which I am aware is the use of lumps of Styrofoam or Styrofoam peanuts as crocking on the bottom of the pots to aid drainage. This is beneficial as mature plants need to be somewhat drier after flowering before new growth commences, otherwise the new growth may rot. Squat pots seem to be most suitable for Lycaste as they are not deep rooted species and do not grow very tall, so don't require the additional weight to keep them from falling over, however be careful not to overpot. When repotting Lycaste, it is important to avoid damage to the root system while moving any old dead roots. Therefore, the best time to repot is when the new growth has started (6-12 cm tall) and new roots appear. This will avoid shrivelling and compromised flowering.
Lycaste appreciates regular fertilising with a balanced regime that includes both organic and inorganic products. The most successful growers of this genus fertilise regularly (weakly weekly) with higher nitrogen from midwinter to mid summer, and high potash from midsummer to mid winter. Alcorn also recommends Epsom Salts and Chelate of Iron. Naturally, Lycaste orchids appreciate rainwater given the increasing amount of dissolved salts in our scheme water. If rainwater isn't an option, ensure that once a fortnight, you water very heavily (perhaps by hand) to flush out any salt build up in your pots. Evidence of salt build up can be seem by a white crust on top of the media, or around the rim of the pot, although this can also be calcium from hard water. Most often, the pest and diseases are sap-sucking insects such as scale, mealy bug, two-spotted mite, aphids, and molluscs such as slugs and snails. For the sap-sucking insects, good culture will generally eliminate the problem, although there are a range of organic products available now that do far less damage to both the grower and the environment - the downside is that you will need to use them more often. The seaweed tonics now widely available can assist by helping build stronger, disease and pest resistant plants.
The most common Lycastes in collections in Perth are Lycaste cruenta, Lycaste lassioglossa, Lycaste tricolor and Lycaste aromatica. All three are easy to grow in a shadehouse, provided some protection from being constantly wet is provided during winter. All flower quite prolifically providing they receive a well-balanced fertiliser regime. The first of these Lycaste cruenta (Lindl) was discovered in Guatemala by George Ure Skinner in in 1842,and is often misidentified as Lycaste aromatica due to its coloration. In fact, Lindley in 1840 first described it as Maxillara skinneri. It occurs as a lithophyte, terrestrial or epiphyte in Southern Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador at 1000-1800m altitude in dry-humid forests. It is a variable species with several distinct varieties that vary in colour from yellow through yellow orange and occasional yellow green sepals. The species name cruenta is Latin for blood coloured referring to the red spotting at the base of the lip. This species has a strong cinnamon scent during bright daylight. The following image is from Wikimedia Commons and shows Lycaste cruenta at the Berlin Botanical Gardens - Orchid Exhibition.
The flowers of this species are strongly phototropic growing so that they face the sun, making them more visible to pollinators such as euglossine bees which are attracted by the cinnamon pheromones.
Like most members of this genus, it needs heavy watering and light shade (50% shadecloth) in summer, but protection from rain in winter when dormant to prevent bulb rot unless the pseudobulbs shrivel in which case light watering is indicated. Once the plant shows active growth of either flower buds or new leaves, water and fertilise more frequently.
Lycaste cruenta is generally resistant to many of the common insect pests, although the new, soft leaves are easily damaged by the sun. It is equally happy grown in either well-drained pot or slab culture (provided you can maintain humidity during summer) and being predominantly lithophytic, would probably be OK in a garden setting provided it can be given shelter in winter.
Lycaste lassioglossa is also quite common in local collections, and can often be obtained from sales tables or our silent auction. This species has a more spectacular flower with shiny brown sepals in contrast with yellow petals and a bearded labellum flushed red.
This robust species is found in Mexico, Honduras and Cost Rica, epiphytic or lithophytic at altitudes of 800-1600m in warm humid forests. Identified by Reichenbach in 1872, the name is derived from the Greek for ‘hairy tongue’. For those interested in breeding, the brown colour of the sepals is due to red pigment in the epidermis on the front side of the sepal overlying green pigment. As a result, this species has been widely used in breeding dark red show Lycastes with Lycaste skinneri (similar pigmentation occurs in Lycaste macrophylla). Lycaste lassioglossa is one of the simpler species to grow under similar conditions to those identified for Lycaste cruenta. The following image from Alan Black’s Orchid Photo pages demonstrates the shiny character of the sepals. Lycaste lassioglossa does not have the spines on the leafless pseudobulbs that Lycaste cruenta and some other species display. Lycaste tricolor is smaller-flowered species from Central America, growing as an epiphyte in rainforest at 700-1000m altitude. Identified by Reichenbach, it is named for the three colours present in the flower - beige, white and pink, although these colours are not distinct and often merge into a pale pink. This species needs more sun than the previous two species described, as its natural habitat is open tropical forest with high light. It is said to require some heat and needs to be kept drier in our cold, dark, wet winter months.
The plentiful, long-lasting flowers (up to 8 per pseudobulb) arise from the base of the mature pseudobulbs, so a mature plant can literally be ringed by flowers. As shown the following image from Jay Pfahl’s Orchid Species Website.
Like Lycaste lassioglossa, this species also does not have the spines on the leafless pseudobulbs that Lycaste cruenta and some other species display. The last species that I will cover in the section of the articles is Lycaste aromatica which is also reasonably common in local collections. It was the first Lycaste to be described and is one of the simplest to grow and flower. As noted earlier, this species is often confused with Lycaste cruenta. It occurs from Southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador (but not Costa Rica nor further south.
Lycaste aromatica is named for its profuse cinnamon/clove-scented flowers . The strong perfume is more pronounced when the plant is in sunshine. Up to 20 flowers appear from each mature pseudobulb, literally covering the plant in flowers. The misidentification occurs despite the distinctive slender flowers and large callus (even George Ure Skinner misidentified this species).
This species is primarily epiphytic, growing at altitudes of 700-2,000 m in damp, cool oak woodlands, or occasionally lithophytically in thick humus on limestone cliffs. Oakeley says that he has seen this species growing in light woodland along with Laelia spp, with the roots embedded in cracks in the bark, and often covered by mosses and lichens. He says that during the dry season, this species loses its leaves and the pseudobulbs, with their protective spines mimic xerophphytic cacti until the rains return. This species is also pollinated by euglossine bees. In his book, Oakeley provides a description of the complex pollination process.
Lycaste angelae (previously Lycaste brevispatha) is a compact deciduous epiphyte from Costa Rica with small green, pink and white flowers. This species ,that has been in cultivation for more than 100 years was generally misidentified as Lycaste candida, and has been named after Dr Angela Ryan, a UK fragrance chemist and research botanist whose thesis was on lycastes and anguloas. The difference is a vestigial flat callus and rudimentary lateral lobes. It is found at 1000-1700m in light shade with year round high humidity, and displays the characteristic leaf abscission spines. Rubra and Alba forms also exist.
Lycaste campbellii is a deciduous epiphyte from Colombia and Panama at sea level. The small yellow , soap-scented flowers arise from the base of the leafless pseudobulbs. Like many of this genus, it is very floriferous with up to eight flowers from each pseudobulb at the onset of new growth. It also has the characteristic leaf abscission spines on the leafless pseudobulbs, and needs to be kept dry while in its leafless state to avoid soft rots.
Lycaste candida is also a deciduous epiphyte or lithophyte from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, generally found in woodlands or full sun at 900-1200m. It is similarly floriferous, carrying up to eight, soap-scented flowers per mature pseudobulb at the onset of new growth.
Lycaste candida was discovered by Joseph van Warszewicz and named by Lindley, although erroneously thought to be synonymous with Lycaste leucantha. During the next 130 years, taxonomists including Reichenbach, Lankester and Schlecter all published conflicting views about the three species, brevispatha, candida and leucantha. I have accepted Oakeley's identification for the purposes of this article.
As can be seen from the photo above, this species carries red/brown colouration in both the petals and sepals, with the form Lycaste candida var rubra having dark red-brown sepals with green margins and bright crimson petals with white margins. An alba form also exists.
Lycaste schilleriana has the largest flowers in the genus at up to 22cm. This striking species is found in Colombia growing lithophytically at altitudes of 1400m. It was originally introduced into cultivation by Skinner in the 1850s and described by Reichenbach in 1855. However, despite its large flowers, it is not a particularly large plant. Its large green to tan sepals are very prominent, setting off the white/pink petals. There are several varietal forms including alba and rosea, however, as Oakeley says, this species remains rare in cultivation.
Lycaste skinneri is perhaps one of the best known species, although is not common in collections, but is present in many of the popular Lycaste hybrids. Lycaste skinneri is found in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador as an epiphyte or lithophyte in deep leaf litter in cool cloud forest at 1500-2000 m (it is the national flower of Guatemala). This habitat has constant mist or light rain and is densely shaded. Cool night temperatures 5-10ºC are needed for vigorous growth and regular flowering. It was named for George Ure Skinner who discovered it in 1840, and it was described by Bateman in the same year. In the early 1900s, a number of superior plants appeared at shows, one of these, Lycaste skinneri 'Ms G Hamilton-Smith' which had been awarded in 1927 was present in many collections (divisions of the original plant) until the 1960s.
Lycaste skinneri was also called Lycaste virginalis for much of the period between 1860 and 1970 as a result of an ongoing debate about who first discovered it. Linden claimed that he had discovered the species and named it in 1840, but later research shows that he was unaware of Bateman's 1840 publication. The confusion continues and often one will see plants advertised as Lycaste virginalis - these are in fact likely to be Lycaste skinneri var alba.
Following its discovery, large quantities were taken from the wild and imported into Europe by George Skinner and his successors. Some reports indicate that consignments of up to 100,000 plants were sold at auction in the late 19th century. It is little wonder therefore that it is no longer common in the wild, and for a time, was listed in Appendix 1 of CITES
While the line breeding in the later 19th and most of the 20th century was conducted by Santa Barbara Estate and Cal Orchids in California and Wylde Court Orchids in UK, the line breeding is now being done in Japan and some very superior forms are now available. Several colour forms exist including alba and some rarer forms including a pink form with an alba labellum. Oakley says that many of the Lycaste skinneri varietal epithets attributed in the period 1850-1950 are only horticultural cultivars not botanical varieties. However, more than 40 cultivars have been awarded by the RHS. This important species is present in many of the present show winning hybrids.
The most common Lycastes in collections in Perth are Lycaste cruenta, Lycaste lassioglossa, Lycaste tricolor and Lycaste aromatica. All three are easy to grow in a shadehouse, provided some protection from being constantly wet is provided during winter.