Japan is home to potentially the most cold hardy of all Cymbidium orchids, C. goeringii. This remarkable plant lives further north than any other member of the genus, even up to southern Hokkaido (Okushiri Island, 42 degrees north latitude), where it endures below freezing temperatures from late fall through early spring. An added bonus is the amazing fragrance of its long lasting flowers.
Cymbidium goeringii is an evergreen orchid with below ground pseudobulbs and long, grass-like leaves. The pseudobulbs are round and flattened somewhat, growing at tight intervals along the thick rhizome. The roots are many, thick, fleshy and white, and up to a half meter long. The leaves number 4-5 per growth, each being 12-40 cm long and about 1 cm wide. In early fall flower shoots form at the base of that season’s growth. They are thickest at the middle and come to point; 3-4 cm long and about 1 cm wide. This shoot remains in stasis until late March or early April when it begins to grow into a thick flower stalk to a height of 12-25 cm. It is graced with a single flower (very rarely two), and covered by a number of alternating white to green sheaths. The flower is 4-5 cm across.
The sepals and petals are bright emerald green with purple striations and sometimes blotching. The dorsal sepal always bends forward over the lip, but the lower sepals either are cupped forward as well, or they flare out laterally, looking like wings. The petals are always cupped forward and very tightly cover the column. The lip is white overall with purple blotches and is also yellow at its point of attachment. It is strongly recurved back to the point of making contact with its base on the underside of the flower. The ovary is purple-pink in color and covered by a large pinkish-white sheath. If pollinated, the seed pod grows vertically rather than staying in the same position as the flower, and grows to a remarkable size. Plants can remain as single growths for years or sometimes become large clumps numbering 15 or more flowering stems.
This species is found throughout Japan from Kyushu to southern Hokkaido (Okushiri Island) as well as Korea and China. Chinese plants can be quite different looking and multi-flowered (e.g., v. longibracteatum). It is found in an array of habitats, from moist woodlands, conifer plantations, to pine forests on seaside sand dunes. The preferred habitat seems to be on extremely steep rocky slopes that are almost vertical. In these places in can grow as a near lithophyte on the thin humus over bedrock. Found from sea-level to ~800 meters on Kyushu.
This lovely little Cymbidium is a true miniature species. Thankfully, it is still a common plant, sometimes forming colonies with dozens of individuals. Its flower shape and color is highly variable, ranging from the normal green to true yellows, oranges, reds, purple striated forms, and even pure white ones. Because of this, the plant has been collected for many years and hundreds of clones have been named and cultivated. The local wild plants however are much more uniform in color and shape. The flowers are intensely scented with a sweet smell. Supposedly Chinese plants are more fragrant than Japanese ones, though in my experience they all are strongly scented.
Along with Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata, this species is the most wide ranging in habitat selection in the local woods. It is often seen on extreme slopes in rocky woods, but I’ve also seen it growing happily in bamboo groves, conifer plantations, steep road embankments, and on the tops of tall sand dunes in pine forest overlooking the sea. In this last habitat the plant reaches its largest size. I know of one specimen that has 20 or more lead growths and perhaps 100 growths in total. I think they like this environment due to the perfect drainage that 50 meters of sand can provide! One interesting aspect of this plant is that its above ground mass is equal to the below ground mass. In otherwords this species has a huge root system. Although many people list these as “psuedobulb epiphytes”, I’ve never seen them growing in trees, or for that matter, even on rocks. The roots and pseudobulbs are always underground or at the very least in thick humus, thus I would call it a true terrestrial orchid.
Check out this video of me searching for Calanthe sieboldii in the mountains of Kyushu. I also find Cymbidium goeringii, Cephalanthera erecta, Cremastra appendiculata, as well as Calanthe discolor and C. x takane, all in flower:
The Japanese name is shunran, simply meaning “spring orchid”. Indeed, it does bloom in spring, anywhere from early April through May. C. kanran in the same vein is named kanran, meaning “cold orchid” because it most commonly flowers in November-January during cold weather. Sometimes Japanese plant names can be ridiculously straightforward, and sometimes maddeningly obscure.
Happily, this is a fairly easy species to grow if you have warm summers. It is funny to me that some people consider it and its cousin C. kanran to be cool to cold growers. They are the farthest thing possible from that. They do need a cool off in winter to go into an appropriate dormancy, but both thrive in hot summer temperatures. When I think I’m about to die from the August heat, I take a look at my shunran collection and it is at its peak performance, growing like mad. I’ve been told that people have trouble growing this one in climates where summer temperatures are cool. No doubt that here in southern Japan they get only hot temperatures from July to early September (above 30 C daily). So goes the “cool to cold growing” myth!
So, what does it need? The following: a perfectly draining medium, bright shade, a very deep pot, cool winters, and warm summers. About the growing mix first – you don’t need to use much organic material at all, just fertilize regularly while in growth. I grow mine in inorganic substrates only, such as pumice or kanuma. Addition of a little bark or humus is fine if the drainage remains perfect. Use a deep pot. The root system grows mainly downward, not laterally, so pots need to be deep. These plants have remarkably large root systems. Here in Japan plants are grown in special pots that are very narrow, but extremely deep, for example, only 15 cm in diameter, but 30 cm high. This insures lots of room for the aggressive rootstock. Under-potting is best since this does tend to make the plants flower more.
Regarding fertilizer and water – in the late summer stop fertilizing and dry them out a bit too. The reason is simple, if you keep feeding and watering them they will grow wonderfully, but won’t set flower buds. In Japan there is a pronounced summer monsoon, but this is followed by a drier, hotter period in August and early September. During this time flower shoots are produced just off that season’s new growths. These will persist throughout the winter months and expand into flower stalks in the spring. As one grower told me, “in late summer be mean to your shunran, don’t baby them, think torture.” While I don’t torture mine, I do dry them out more and stop feeding. This works like a charm.
The next important point is temperature. These are temperate plants and require a cool down in winter. Here in Fukuoka they are subject to temperatures between -8 C (18 F) and 10 C (50 F) during the winter months with the average being around 5 C (41 F). I would give them no less than three months of temperatures below 15 C (59 F) starting in December, and colder is OK. However, the summer temperatures should be warm, averaging above 20C (68 F) from late May to early October. From late spring through mid-summer give them lots of water and fertilize regularly. They can withstand sun, but prefer bright shade to grow and flower well, at least in warm climates. In cooler climates I would plant them in a protected spot, say a south facing wall or against a large boulder. They should do well in UDSA cold hardiness zones 9a-7 without protection, and even colder if protected in winter.
All in all, it is a pretty easy plant to grow and bloom. While I wouldn’t call it exactly a showy species, it is a nice addition to the woodland garden. I’d grow it for the smell alone. Highly colored forms, in particular yellow, orange, and red ones, exist and are coveted, especially in Japan and Korea. I will handle these in a separate article since they have some requirements that differ from the wild forms.