Cymbidium ensifolium
By Ned Nash

Reprinted from the September 1996 issue of Orchids -- The magazine of the American Orchid Society

Cymbidium ensofolium

If longevity is a criterion for value, surely Cymbidium ensifolium must be the most valued of all orchids. Known to civilized culture since before the time of Confucius (500 BC), and described by Linnaeus in 1753 in his seminal Species Plantarum, this oriental cymbidium has attracted attention as much for its elegant aspect as for its delicately perfumed blossoms. Indeed, lan -- which is the Chinese word for "orchid" and synonymous with Cym. ensifolium -- was used to denote "good, elegant, fine, refined" as an adjective to connote "orchid-like" in some particular feature of the described object. Today, oriental orchid growers, both Chinese and Japanese, focus on highly treasured Cym. ensifolium varieties in their collections, while Western growers are finding an increasing number of reasons to include this species and its hybrids in their collections as well.

Included in the subgenus Jensoa with Cym. sinense, Cym. faberi, Cym. goeringii and other similar oriental cymbidiums, Cym. ensifolium is one of the most widespread and variable of the genus. Cymbidium ensifolium is found throughout Indochina, China, Japan, Borneo, New Guinea and the Philippines at elevations ranging from 985 to 5,905 feet, although it is probably not native to Japan, having been originally introduced through cultivation. This widespread and broadly defined species has many distinct recognized subtypes that are probably the result of long-term cultivation and selection. While some experts believe that Cym. ensifolium comprises several closely related species, most now agree that it is a single valid species throughout its range. Growers have long been attracted to the many distinct foliar types as well as the range of flower colors and shapes, resulting in part from the wide-ranging nature of the species. We can also credit the tolerance of the plants for a variety of conditions to its wide habitat range. This is not a cymbidium that requires traditional cymbidium culture (though it will do tolerably well side other traditional cymbidiums), but will flourish just about wherever other high-light orchids are grown. It is not a windowsill orchid nor will it do particularly well under lights. However, it, and in many cases its hybrids, will do well out of doors in tropical areas, or on the bench in a typical intermediate greenhouse. It is when growers must commit limited greenhouse space that its dominance for compact stature is most appreciated, since a mature plant does quite well in a 6-inch pot.

A Look at the Species

Several attributes of this species have made it popular for centuries. First and foremost in the eyes of its first growers, of course, is the fine and elegant foliage. A well-grown Cym. ensifolium in proportionately sized container is handsome in or out of bloom. The balance between foliage and pot is all-important and highly prized in the Orient. Occidental growers though, seem to need flowers and here Cym. ensifolium also pleases. Flowers range from 2 to 3 inches, and are borne well-spaced on an upright spike of three to eight or more. Flower life is, unfortunately, somewhat shorter than the better-known cymbidiums, but can still be two to three weeks. Color is most often a mix of reddish brown over a green background, though extremes of nearly red and fully albino green are not uncommon. While the flowers are not truly showy, their exquisite perfume and serene posture more than compensate. Cymbidium ensifolium tends to flower in the late summer into early autumn, as do many of its hybrids. The species is dominant for the fragrance, the spike habit and flower count, as well as the compact growth habit. Unfortunately, it also tends to impart its short flower life and poor keeping quality as a cut flower to offspring. Cymbidium ensifolium's long-term contribution to the cymbidium breeding pool is still being made. As a parent for very early compact pot plants, it remains an important primary parent, with such direct progeny as Cymbidium Super Baby (x Babylon), Cymbidium Chocolate Soldier (x Volcano) and Cymbidium Tender Love (x parishii) in circulation. Not only do these hybrids flower extra early, often beginning in September, but they have a degree of heat tolerance that makes them good candidates for warmer climates. Cymbidium ensifolium's major contribution will come, though, probably through only a few of its progeny, and this story is still being written. Cymbidium Golden Elf (x Enid Haupt) 'Sundust', HCC/AOS, and its tetraploid (4n) variant are beginning to make an impact on breeding. Cymbidium Golden Elf is deservedly popular in and of itself for its ease of culture coupled with its brilliant concolor yellow blooms and their lilting perfume. Be on the lookout for Cym. Golden Elf, which is fairly widely available, as well as its progeny, which should soon begin to appear as tissue-cultured varieties. Cymbidium Korintji (x Rangoon) has also made somewhat of an impact on breeding, though a lesser extent as it gives mainly green which are not too popular at the moment. One particularly fine Cym. Korintji hybrid is Cymbidium Giselle (x madidum), with the clone 'Ballerina' recently receiving an HCC/AOS. Interestingly, the Cym. ensifolium influence was strong enough, even at one generation removed, to overcome the pendent spike habit of Cym. madidum, and instead give upright spikes.

You might think that the next parent's influence would have been slowed by this same fault: The bulk of its early progeny, especially, were green. However, breeders persevered with Cymbidium Peter Pan (x Miretta) 'Greensleeves' 4n. Andy Easton has called it potentially the Cymbidium Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' of miniatures. Since its conversion to tetra-ploid form by Donald Wimber, PhD, and the subsequent discovery of its great fertility as a result of this conversion, Cym. Peter Pan (4n) has been crossed with just about every worthwhile -- and not a few worthless -- cymbidium parent. Many of these parents, especially at first, were also green, naturally giving more green progeny. As breeders branched out, it was found that while Cym. Peter Pan did tend to give a good share of greens, it would also, if judiciously used, give the full range of colors desired in cymbidiums. Unlike many other miniature and semi-miniature parents, many second-genera-tion Cym. Peter Pan hybrids have proven to be fertile. A few of the more important Cym. Peter Pan hybrids that are now, in some cases, going on to sire their own lines of breeding are Cymbidium Peter Pilot (x Fred Stewart), Cymbidium Rolling Stone (x Doris Aurea) and Cymbidium Prettipink (x Alison Shaw), especially unusual in that it is bred for a supposedly "unbreedable" parent. From these, and other Cym. Peter Pan progeny, is coming a new race of compact and floriferous cymbidiums for potted plants that will bloom in many areas heretofore "forbidden ground" for cymbidium production.

Cymbidium ensifolium and its progeny certainly address some of the most common criticisms about old-fashioned cymbidiums. They are generally compact and, in most cases, have attractive, petite foliage. They can flower throughout the year --most heavily, of course, in autumn and late summer -- and in a range of colors. And the perfume is lovely. However, they still have their faults, much like ascocendas when they were first introduced. They were touted as the answer for those who wanted vandas but had neither the space nor the light intensity. These problems were answered to an extent, but ascocendas are still not for everyone. Nor are these cymbidiums. They are still a little large for windowsill culture and require high light. Seek out tissue-cultured varieties and enjoy much greater success with these than might be expected. []

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