Making my way back (Part 2)   Leave a comment

The Way Back (Part 2)

Two weeks had passed since Irma made landfall twenty miles from my home, and my lawn was still underwater.  Fish fled as I waded to the greenhouse.  Yes, fish – big ones – swimming on my lawn.  Everyone’s life in my part of the world was miserable.  Finding fuel to run the generator, gas for the vehicles, and water to drink became my priority.  I had no time for my plants.


My mailbox and front yard, 2 days after the storm.

The greenhouse was a shambles with mess strewn everywhere.  The water had receded  but the growing area was little better off than just after the storm.  Most of the plants had been raised out of the swamp, but they still cooked in the sun, and the light green-yellow patches of sunburn were visible on many specimens; some spots had already turned black.  A quick blanket of shade cloth was the best protection I could offer.  Heat and humidity stifled recovery and magnified otherwise simple problems.  Fungus infected nearly every plant in the collection; some had already succumbed to disease in the sweltering conditions.  Seedlings were dying, and plants were melting from Phyotphthora.  But with no place to work, no materials to work with, and no economic resources, I despaired that Blu Llama Orchids was finished.


After the water receded.  The bench that sat over this bench was destroyed.

Blu Llama was no longer capable of drawing any income.  The seedlings were dead, and almost every other plant still alive needed to be rehabilitated before sales could once again bring the much needed funds to my small operation.  I had even less time for my flasking lab, and was making no new crosses.  Speaking engagements made no sense as I had nothing to offer for sales.  A small business loan was coming due, and the needed repair and rehabilitation of the greenhouse and collection loomed large.  I had thoughts of just shutting the operation down, abandoning the plants, declaring bankruptcy, growing the few plants I had left on the trees, and finally putting an end to this chapter of my life.  It wasn’t an idea without merit.  The decision would have been easy to justify.

Some of the plants I lost

When I initially erected the greenhouse, I knew that I wanted the structure to meet a high standard, but funds were limited.  I had time, but even that was restricted by life’s necessities. I built the structure I wanted, to the standard I expected, and with the limited budget I was allowed, but it took me two years.  Now my plants were roasting and rotting in the south Florida heat, and I didn’t have two years to make it right. I was faced with a significant problem.  A rough estimate put the cost of the repair and replacement at near ten thousand dollars. I simply didn’t have the funds.

Mary-Margaret knew how this was affecting me.  I was depressed at the idea of giving up, but I saw no other way.  She wanted me happy, and proposed that I start a fundraiser.

It would surprise no one that I have an ego and a set of principles that discourage begging.  Not in judgement of others, but with the disappointment in myself that I have failed to provide for my own needs by way of my own accomplishments.  So it was with an air of self-doubt and guilt that I created a GoFundMe campaign.  What happened next was perhaps the kindest and most generous event I have known so far in my life.  People, those I knew and didn’t know, started donating money.  Ten dollars, five dollars, twenty dollars, one hundred dollars – money trickled in and by December I had enough to start cleaning up and repairing some damage. Finally, it was time to start recovering.

(To date, the Blu Llama Orchids Greenhouse Rebuild fund has raised $1500 of $7000.  If you would like to donate, here is the link).


Posted April 17, 2018 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography

Making my way back (Part 1)   Leave a comment


Making my way back.

The water was 12 inches deep.  I know this because one time, when I was 13, I measured my legs.  In a bout of tween enthusiasm, my brother and I had engaged in a bit of full-contact, garden tool gladiatorial combat.  It resulted in about 2 inches of a cultivator prong burying itself into my left calf, 14 inches from the ground.  The water was about 2 inches shy of the scar.  In places, the scar was completely submerged.  Ahead of me, a debris field of submerged plants, pots, potting mix, and miscellaneous junk stretched the entire length and width of my 3000 square-foot greenhouse and spilled out onto the two and a half acres where I live in Naples, Florida.  Hurricane Irma had screamed through two days before, on September 9, 2018.  What remained of Blu Llama Orchids now stood in the enormous shallow lake that was my backyard.

Greenhouse post Irma

Two days post-Irma

Blu Llama Orchids is me, yours truly, Brian Monk.  My day job is a night job – I work as an emergency veterinarian several nights a week. This affords me the time during the day to pursue the thing I am most passionate about – orchids.  I despise poor exposition, but Blu Llama Orchids requires some explanation.  It is named for two things.  Blu is the name of the first restaurant I took my wife to.  I had the skate, she had the filet.  Llama is a bit more enigmatic.  It was just a nonsense word that I had taken to vocally demolishing and then repurposing every syllable.  Why?  Because it got on her nerves.  It was actually her idea to incorporate and form Blu Llama as an official business, a consequence of her legal training.  I doubt she knew exactly how I would take that, but I am nothing if not enthusiastic.  I promised that I would make Blu Llama work as an entity, not just some half-assed money pit.  Which essentially means that Blu Llama Orchids is a hobby run amuck and I am trying to make it pay for itself without the benefit of any significant financial investment; a classic “shoe string” scenario.  That was 13 years ago, 2005.   I have spent those 13 years, as well as the 23 years prior, pursuing orchids as both a vocation and avocation, as both an artist and a scientist.   I have spent that time photographing orchids from the perspective of a documentarian taking portraits of AOS awarded plants and from the perspective of a closet surrealist finding joy in odd compositions.  I have spent that time educating and entertaining orchid societies, presenting on Cattleyas to Cymbidiums.  I have spent that time developing an orchid collection directed at creating my own hybrid lines, and then building a lab to pursue that task.  I pursued an AOS judgeship briefly, but after 3 years in the program Mary-Margaret informed me that I only had the time to “look at orchids or grow them. Pick one.”   I chose growing them, but that has never stopped my own personal education.  All of these things exist under the umbrella of Blu Llama Orchids, and I take great pride in that work. I’d take money, but no one is offering.

Seven months ago, right before Irma landed on my doorstep, I felt that Blu Llama Orchids was finally reaching stable footing.  I had recently published an examination of the species-pair of Cattleya loddigesii and harrisoniana, and had made a presentation on the same topic at the 7th Annual Cattleya Symposium.  I had stopped all commercial lab work several months prior, and was finally getting caught up on others’ projects so that I could work on my own. Most importantly, my greenhouse was finally presentable and organized and ready for the public.  The benches were full of my stud collection, but also divisions of heirlooms and new seedlings from my own work. I was ready to take one more step in my orchid career, and actually start doing what I had promised to do years before and pay back to our personal savings what was lent to Blu Llama Orchids.

The effects of Irma on south Florida were mixed.  Some growers like me lost almost everything (Jim and Melana, I feel for you).  Some lost nothing, or at least didn’t suffer the loss of their growing areas. But twenty miles from my address a wind gust was measured at 140 miles an hour and Irma hit me like a sledge pounding through concrete.  She took the cover from my greenhouse.  She tore down my watering system, and felled my benches.  She put down enough rain that most of my collection was sitting in a foot of water. She actually bent the greenhouse frame, and moved the support posts that were buried in 3 feet of concrete!   But I had no time to fix what was now broken – my time was devoted to fixing the roof on my house, finding gas and drinking water, and cutting down the 18 trees that had fallen and blocked access to much of my property.



And the plants suffered.  Fungal infection ran wild, even after drying the plants. Most of my seedlings died, as did about a third of the collection.  Everything was a shambles.  What was worse is that I was, I thought, prepared.  I had removed the shade cloth from the greenhouse, moved some material into the garage, and made certain that nothing would become a projectile.  A week after landfall, I stood in my greenhouse, water still over my toes, and wondered how I was going to fix this. Hell, I wondered even if I could.

Posted March 27, 2018 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography

Orchid Photography 101   Leave a comment

"Ice Harvest" A good photo can be both artful and documentary.

“Ice Harvest”
A good photo can be both artful and documentary.

Many folks in the past years have asked me how I take photos of orchids, what equipment I use, my techniques, etc.  In fact, I have written an article that was published by the International Phalaenopsis Alliance in their periodical (LINK HERE).  But for those of you without access to that, I thought I would present a short “how to” piece.

I will assume that you, the reader, are already familiar with the basic concepts and techniques of photography.  Subjects such as the relationship of F-stop to depth of field and shutter speed to F-stop, etc. have already been thoroughly covered ad infinitum, and without knowing these things, nothing I will tell you will improve your photos.  I recommend that everyone stop using the Automatic setting on their cameras and start learning.

"Volcano Queen" The use of lines can draw a viewer into the image, toward the subject.

“Volcano Queen”
The use of lines can draw a viewer into the image, toward the subject.

Orchid photography is basically portraiture or still life photography.  As such, the basic principles of portrait photography are very important to understand.  And the most important of these is lighting.  Light, after all, is the essence of photography.  An image is no more than the photons of that particular instant being laid down via a transducer (film or a sensor) into a permanent format.      Manipulation after the fact is difficult to do, and requires a tremendous amount of time and training, so creating the right image “in camera” is  essential to a great image.  What this translates into is this: a basic knowledge of how light behaves and how it interacts with your model is necessary.  There are several basic set ups for portrait photography, from simple photos that show the most basic elements of the subject (like a mug shot) to high-art productions that use multiple off-camera lights and multiple images to produce the kinds of photos one sees in a fashion magazine.

"Jason Fischer" Even portraits should be able to tell a story.  Leave room for your viewer's imagination.

“Jason Fischer”
Even portraits should be able to tell a story. Leave room for your viewer’s imagination.

First, let me say this plainly: “A flash is not necessary.”  The benefit of flash is that you aren’t a slave to the sun, control of the light is much more refined, and the high light levels available from the strobe allows handheld shooting without a tripod.  But using natural light is a perfectly reasonable technique.  It is how I started, and natural light does reproduce some colors better than flash.    However, it can limit your creativity.  You MUST use a tripod with natural light, as shutter speeds needed for adequate exposure fall very far short what is necessary for tack-sharp images (Remember, the rule for sharp photographs when shooting hand-held is that the shutter speed should be the inverse of the focal length of your lens.  An 80 mm lens should be shot no slower than 1/80, etc.).

There are 5-6 different “classic” lighting set ups for portraiture photography of people, and I invite you to examine all of them and try them out.  All have a few things in common.  Obviously there is at least one main light source, and this is called the “Key” light.  Any other light that falls on the subjective front of the subject is called “Fill” light.  Any other lights involved have specific uses, typically to highlight details or provide atmosphere.  Background lights and hair lights are types of these light sources.  The second commonality in these lighting set ups is directionality.  All position the key specifically to achieve certain effects.  Side lighting and Rembrandt lighting places the key to the side of the subject, and these positions offer a more dramatic image to the viewer by placing some areas of the subject in deep shadow while brightly highlighting others.  Butterfly lighting or Paramount lighting places the key light in front of the subject, sometimes directly on center.  Orchids come in many forms, and their 3-dimensional character is what makes them both so unique and sometimes difficult to photograph.  Translating this three dimensional nature onto a two dimensional image most often requires multiple light sources to allow the entire flower to be seen, and for details of substance and texture to be visualized.  In short, no single light set-up works for all orchids.

"Chilterns Hundreds" An example of a Rembrandt style of portraiture, using dramatic side lighting to emphasize the intense contrast between shadow and light .

“Chilterns Hundreds”
An example of a Rembrandt style of portraiture, using dramatic side lighting to emphasize the intense contrast between shadow and light .

I use 2 to 4 lights when I take my photos.  I position the key light slightly above and about 35-45 degrees in front of the subject.  I find this allows accurate depiction of a flower’s depth, as well as providing enough light to appreciate the overall shape of the subject.  I will use a second flash at 2-4 stops less than the main flash to provide fill light.  This light is most often positioned slightly below the subject and 20-30 degrees in front, opposite of the key.  I say “most often” because some orchids cannot be effectively photographed from the front.  Gongoras, Stanhopeas, and others of this section are best viewed 90 degrees from the front, and from slightly below.  Some orchids’ parts project in front or behind the frontal plane of the flower, and so require either additional fill light or different positioning of the primary fill.  I will use reflectors or flashes to provide additional fill.  Generally I place a fill light or reflector directly below the flower, and occasionally one at 90 degrees from the frontal plane.  These positions are effective at demonstrating the overall texture of the flower surface, especially those that are described as “crystalline” or “sparkling.”  I will almost always use a light 3-4 stops below the key flash, positioned 180 degrees opposite the key and projecting its light onto the back of the flower, to separate the flower’s edges from the background.  This type of light is especially good at emphasizing fimbriations or hairs, such as those on the edges of Paphiopedilum petals.

Untitled Lighting from behind highlights the hairs along this flower's petals.

Lighting from behind highlights the hairs along this flower’s petals.

The quality of light must also be considered.  Hard light, such as unfiltered sunlight, produces edges that are sharp and shadows that are deep and strong.  For journalistic flower images such as award photos, this light is inappropriate.  I use this when I have a specific idea about the flower and something about that flower that demands dramatic portrayal.  But most often, the light should be bright and soft, such as that on an overcast day or in a very bright shadow.  I use a diffuser to produce this light.  A soft box with a strobe is my favorite diffuser, and it transforms a harsh flash into a broad and even light source that softens shadows while still accurately depicting a flower’s form.  I use a portable soft box designed for strobes, as I do not want to invest in or cart around a large studio lighting system.

"Light Touch" Very intense back lighting against a white background can produce very dramatic high key images.

“Light Touch”
Very intense back lighting against a white background can produce very dramatic high key images.

Another aspect of light quality is color temperature.  Adjust your camera to the light you are using for the image.  This means ALL of the light sources at the time the image is made.  I say this because rarely is one shooting in a darkened room with no other light source that the flash.  Flash and typical room lighting have different color temperatures, and adjusting for one while ignoring the other can lead to problems with the colors you are trying to depict.  A white card or grey card is incredibly helpful, and I don’t shoot without one.  With this tool, it is easy (or at least easier) to adjust colors in post-processing to the true representation of the subject.

"Tsiku Taiwan"   Groups of three work very well, as do groups of 2, or 5, or even 7.

“Tsiku Taiwan”
Groups of three work very well, as do groups of 2, or 5, or even 7.

The part of the image behind the subject and out of focus is called the bokeh (say “BO-kay”), and can complement or compete with your subject. Backgrounds for portraiture should not be too complex.  Fantastic patterns and mixed colors will contend with the subject, and at worst can draw attention completely away from the flower, even if they are significantly blurred.  I prefer neutral colors, darker than the subject, and of even color.  A piece of black velvet is my favorite background.  A black background defines the flower very well, and velvet generally collects all errant light making a perfect black.  I will occasionally use a background of a complementary color to the flower (red flowers on a light green or grey-green background, for instance) but I prefer to keep these colors very muted.  This is most often helpful with exceedingly dark flowers.  I have been experimenting with a pure white background, created with strobes projecting through a sheet of translucent white acrylic.  I have also created some of my own backgrounds of many colors using a piece of foam board and spray paint applied randomly.    Beware of putting the subject too close to the background!  Often orchids must be shot at a very small aperture (a high f-stop) to ensure a great enough depth of field to put the entire flower into focus.  Imperfections in your background, like pieces of hair and lint, become glaringly obvious in a larger image, and removing them from an image in post takes a great deal of time and effort.   I try to remove any “hardware” from the scene, like flower stakes or hangers, as well as lint or dust from the flowers themselves, but sometimes this is impossible without damaging or significantly altering the subject.

"Simplicity" An example of a homemade background.  I used a piece of foam board and randomly applied spray paint.

An example of a homemade background. I used a piece of foam board and randomly applied spray paint.

Composition is a huge subject, and again something you should be familiar with at the basic level.  But I can offer a few tips to help.  Be aware of the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Section, and use them to add visual interest to an image.  Understand the importance of lines in your image, and use them to draw a viewer into the scene rather than lead them out.  Small identical subjects provide the most visual attraction when presented in groups of prime numbers.  Pay attention to the empty space as much as the subject.

Framing the subject appropriately is important as well.  Always check the edges of the frame to insure the main subject isn’t cut off.  Stray leaves or objects protruding into the field will prove to be distracting.  Objects or reflections that cross through the frame will form lines and draw the eye away from the subject.  These may seem like small annoyances at the time, but they can ruin an otherwise perfect photo.  Framing can also help your image tell the story you wish to show the viewer.  A portrait of an entire inflorescence tells a much different story than a close-up of a single flower.  It is up to you to find the best pose for your subject, but a general rule to follow is try to find at least 5-10 different ways to take the photo.  When I don’t do this, I often find myself wishing that I had taken one more series of shots of a pose that I didn’t even think of until much later.  The best thing one can do is get it right the first time.

"Magic Bell" Hard light emphasizes edges and shadows.

“Magic Bell”
Hard light emphasizes edges and shadows.

Post-processing is the act of digitally altering an image directly from your camera with software like Photoshop or Lightroom.  Most images need some degree of sharpening – sensors have not advanced enough to record individual photons.  Some adjustments to exposure and contrast may also be helpful.   Everyone develops a different work flow, but it is important that yours be smooth.  Repetitive actions used on multiple images can be scripted and automated with some software, and this is extremely helpful when processing many images.  The best piece of advice I can give you about post-processing is “less is more”.  Strive to create the perfect exposure and composition when you are taking the image!  If you do this, you may only have to sharpen your images to finish them.

My last piece of advice is simple.  If you want to be a better photographer, then take more photos.  There is no substitute for actual experience.  Don’t be upset when you make a mistake; it is a way to reinforce a lesson learned.  I have had many moments where I realized what I did wrong after the fact, and experiencing these problems first hand prevents me from doing so again.  Look for the opportunity to shoot, even if conditions don’t seem perfect or even right at all.  Force yourself to use your camera’s functions as the tools to overcome photographic problems.  You will be rewarded with some fantastic images that are unique to you alone.  I hope this helps!

Lake Harbor 'Marvelous' Soft light of adequate intensity can make even a dark subject pop on a black background.  Rear lighting also separates a subject from the background.

Lake Harbor ‘Marvelous’
Soft light of adequate intensity can make even a dark subject pop on a black background. Rear lighting also separates a subject from the background.

Posted October 23, 2015 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography

October in the new greenhouse.   1 comment

Tsiku Taiwan EV

In bloom now

Some of these posts I am doing mostly for myself, because I need a diary for the new greenhouse.  Just some facts:  The greenhouse is approximately 107 feet by 32 feet.  That is approximately 3400 square feet.  I moved all of the plants (approx. 1000 plants) about 3 months ago, and they have settled in nicely.  Seeing as how they were treated like red-headed stepchildren for the 9 months previously.  I was lucky I didn’t have more losses.  But many seedlings were lost, and many name tags amongst the seedlings were jumbled, requiring the identification of these as they bloom with care and research into my meticulous record keeping.     Work on the remaining superstructure is slow, as I have to fabricate the rafters individually (they cost me 40 per to make, and 250 to buy!).  The benches are set as piers perpendicular to the side walls, and are about 12 x 6.  Some are double levels, for storage and raising Paph and Phal seedlings.  I am trying to make good use of the space, so aisles between the benches are 3 feet.  My space up front for storage and work is approximately 15 x 32.  This means that I will have room for 10 benches per side, with 120 square feet per, so approximately 2400 square feet of bench space.  I have 6 built so far.  That’s a lot more plants!  YAY!  The automatic watering system is now going to be fast tracked, as the rains of summer have let up.  Tsiku Taiwan EV 2

Rain every day for the last 2 months has caused some fungal loss of even more seedlings even with 2 applications of fungicide.  But the Paphs and Phals are thriving, and a few very nice things are starting to spike.x-venosa-Big-Surprise

The loddigesii are looking particularly fine, and several select seedlings are finally nearing maturity.  ‘New Blood’ and ‘New Hope’,both from the most recent loddigesii offerings from Cal Orchids, are going to bloom very well.0408101440loddigesii NewBlood 2

The hybridizing programs are widely diversified, and I should probably scale back, but the truth is all are specifically focused so I have difficulty justifying their retirement.  Most exciting this year has been the intergeneric Oncidiinae program.  Ultimately, my goal is to produce colorful and HEAT-TOLERANT intergenerics.  Given the possibility of expanding the influence of Miltonias, their lack of fertility, and the dearth of tetraploid clones in the yellows and whites, I have had to make a number of straight Miltonia crosses this year, specifically for the purpose of treating them for polyploidy.  What follows is a list of crosses with pods holding so far.

Milt. Xenia ‘Purple Tiger’ x Milt. Sandcut ‘Leopard’ – Hoping for more floriferous version of pastels with contrasting lips and strong watermarksXeniaPurple Tiger.
Milt. Guanabara ‘Nuuanu’ x Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’ – Looking for the same.guanabara SandCutLeopard2
Milt. Ken Peterson ‘#2’ x Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’– Hoping for contrasting lips with deep purple color.KenPetersonNo2 a SandCutLeopard
Milt. Binotii ‘Peloric #1’ x Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’ – Completely prospective to investigate pelorism in Miltonias.
Milt. Xenia x Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’ OR Milt binotii ‘Light Peloric’ – So much for my meticulous record keeping!
Milt. Sandy’s Cove ‘Woodlands’ x Milt. Binotii ‘Light Peloric’ – More pelorism.
Mtssa. Olmec ‘Waterfall’ x Milt. Sandcut ‘Leopard’ – More flowers on a very strong spike with fantastic mix of mind-blowing colors? Yes, thank you!NOID SandCutLeopard
Mtssa. Olmec. ‘Waterfall’ x Milt. Tropic Dawn – moreliana-sized flowers in yellows and oranges with watermarks and contrasting lips.TropicDawnBL
Milt. moreliana ‘Monarch’ x moreliana ‘Questions’ – Tetraploid breeding with extremely full flower crossed with an extremely large flower.morelianaMonarch moreliana Questions
C. Fulvescens ‘#2’ x (C. Christopher Hausermann x C. harrisoniana) – Pink breeding, with compact pinks the end result.HarrisxHauserman FulvescensMontage
Mtssa. Dark Star ‘Darth Vader’ x Milt. Leucoglossa ‘Grassy Waters’ – Hmmmmmmm.
Mtssa. Dark Star ‘Darth Vader’ x Milt. Sandcut ‘Leopard’ – Imagine moreliana with watermarks and waterfalls!
Mtssa. Dark Star ‘Darth Vader’ x Milt Castanea ‘LaJolla’
Mtssa. Olmec ‘Waterfall’ x Milt. Tropic Dawn – Big vibrant Miltassias sure beat the browns and whites we have now.
Lc. Wolterae ‘Everglades’ x C. harrisoniana ‘Volcano Queen’ – anceps breeding with a very large (4N? mericlone) harrisoniana, should be very interesting temperature tolerant soft pinks similar to Puppy Love but with deeper color.
C. harrisoniana ‘Volcano Queen’ x vLc. Wolterae ‘Everglades’ – Reverse cross.
Simplicity ‘In The Pink’ x Triumphans – Simplicity is Hoff. L. longipes x C. loddigesii, with a self-supportive spike of 5-8 star-shaped deep pink small flowers with contrasting cream lips.  Triumphans is rex x dowiana.  These should be really cool, like a miniature Mrs. Pitt with more flowers.Simplicity-ITP
Fulvescens #1 x Triumphans – A double dose of dowiana with a quarter rex and forbesii.  An entirely new line of compact yellows.
Mtssa. Moonlight x Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’ – A white Miltassia with a yellow Miltonia with a contrasting pink lip.  Hoping for yellow Miltassias with deep markings.TranquilityMoonlight SandCutLeopard2
Mtssa. Olmec ‘Waterfall’ x Milt. Sandcut ‘Leopard’ – I liked it so much, I made another pod.
Milt. Castanea ‘LaJolla’ x Milt. Christina Carpenter Rumfelt ‘Everglades’ – Milt. C.C.R is a huge purple with beautiful light purple watermarks in the petals and sepals.  Milton Carpenter considers it one of the finest pure Brazilian Miltonias he has seen, or made.
Milt. Sand Cut ‘Leopard’ x Milt. Christina Carpenter Rumfelt ‘Everglades’

Feel free to comment!

Posted October 3, 2015 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography

Miltonia spectabilis vs. Miltonia moreliana. Which is which?   Leave a comment

In a recent Facebook discussion, this flower was presented and the owner asked the audience to identify it.   The flower, a large purple Miltonia, could potentially be Miltonia spectabilis, Miltonia moreliana, or a hybrid containing genes from either of these two species.

A plant that I received as Miltonia moreliana, and very similar to the plant in question. Is it really moreliana?

A plant that I received as Miltonia moreliana, and very similar to the plant in question. Is it really moreliana?

Here is a link to Eric Lu’s Purple Miltonia

I thought that I would write a short discussion of these two species and talk about them in relation to this plant, so that I could keep from writing this over and over again, as is the nature of online discussions.

From the original description of Miltonia moreliana, in 1857.

From the original description of Miltonia moreliana, in 1857.

Miltonia spectabilis and Miltonia moreliana are both widely grown, widely used in hybridizing, and widely misunderstood and misidentified in collections.  The confusion occurs for several reasons: both are from Brazil, both are from the genus Miltonia and are very similar morphologically, and moreliana until recently was considered a variety of spectabilis.

Miltonia spectabilis, from Edward's Botanical Register (1815-1847)

Miltonia spectabilis, from Edward’s Botanical Register (1815-1847)

Miltonia spectabilis was described by Lindley in 1837, and used as the type for the entire genus (a “type” plant is typically the first one described of that genus, and used by taxonomists as a standard by which all other members of that genus are included).  But there is another population of plants, similar to spectabilis but significantly different enough to garner its own varietal name. (A variety of a species must be actually scientifically documented and published before it can be used, and then is referred to with the abbreviation var. If a form of a species has not been described as per these rules, it is referred to a “forma” which is abbreviated fma.) This population of plants was described in 1867 by Warner and given the name moreliana.  Interestingly, Warner himself considered this to be a separate species, although it was considered a variety by everyone else.

In 2002, another paper was published investigating these two flowers.  The paper, entitled A Morphometric Analysis of Floral Characters in Milt. spectabilis and Milt. spectabilis var. moreliana (Carlini-Garcia, van den Berg, & Martin), uses the measurements of the flowers and the flower parts to try and establish the final word on whether these two populations are varieties of each other or true species.  The paper is located on the web, at this link: spectabilis v. moreliana Paper.

Milt. moreliana 'Everglades'

Milt. moreliana ‘Everglades’

For those of you who don’t want to read it, I will provide a synopsis.  Multiple flowers from wild populations of these two flowers were collected and then measured in about as many different ways as one can measure.  The flowers themselves, and each individual part of the flower, were measured and the final measurements compared statistically between the two groups to determine if there actually was a discernible difference.  The upshot is that these two plants produce flowers that are indeed different enough to change Miltonia spectabilis var. moreliana into simply Miltonia moreliana, giving it the status of a full species.

So what are the differences between these two species?  How can the average grower determine what is growing in his greenhouse?

Miltonia spectabilis fma. alba, a tetraploid clone from Everglades Orchids.

Miltonia spectabilis fma. alba, a tetraploid clone from Everglades Orchids.

There are some differences between these two species that are not immediately apparent.  The ranges of each species are significantly different, with moreliana occurring north of the range of spectabilis, and possibly stretching all the way to Venezuela through the interior of Brazil.  Also, the times of peak blooming differ.  As I have observed, spectabilis always blooms earlier than moreliana, in the early summer or even late spring.  Milt. moreliana blooms later, in the late summer and early fall.  There is some overlap between these times, so it cannot be used to rule out one from the other.

But let’s look at the similarities.  The plants themselves are short, with a vigorous and rambling appearance thanks to the relatively long inter-nodal distance (the distance between bulbs).  Both of these species have small, flattened pseudobulbs, from which arise two sets of leaves with multiple enlarged bracts at the base of the bulbs.  The roots are thin and fine, as in all Miltonia species, an adaptation to their epiphytic habitat and a clue as to how to grow them (lots of water/humidity with excellent air-movement).  Both produce short inflorescense with a terminal presentation of the flowers.  Last, both species tend to present flowers sequentially, with only a single flower open at a time.  In some plants that I have seen, more than one flower may be technically open but this is a small period of overlap between the first flower dehiscing (falling off) and the second flower opening.  Milt. spectabilis may have two or more flower buds developing while the first flower is open, and moreliana tends to have only two flowers/buds total (again with only one open at a time).

Milt. moreliana 'Monarch'

Milt. moreliana ‘Monarch’

The size of the segments is distinctly different between the two species.  The most obvious difference is the size of the lip, with moreliana having a lip that is basically round, with a ratio between length and breadth that is about 1:1.  Milt. spectabilis’ lip is longer than wide, with a ratio of 1.5:1.  In general, the sepals and petals tend to be wider in moreliana, with a width of 1.5-2 cm, vs. 1-2 cm in spectabilis.  These characteristics give moreliana a stockier, broader appearance than spectabilis.  Also, spectabilis presents its flowers on a slightly longer peduncle (that part of the stem that includes both the stem and ovary) but again there is significant overlap.

Milt. Danny Denton 'Everglades', an advanced hybrid that looks almost identical to moreliana.

Milt. Danny Denton ‘Everglades’, an advanced hybrid that looks almost identical to moreliana.

All of this makes it seem as though identification of these two species can be confusing.  Statistically the measurements of flower parts of the entire species as a whole do not overlap, but between individuals this overlap can prove frustrating.  However, there is one specific difference between these two species that no one seems to talk about, despite the fact that it is the most obvious of all floral characteristics: color.  Yes, the difference between the two species can be narrowed down to a single dramatic difference.  Milt. moreliana is purple, and spectabilis isn’t.  Milt. spectabilis presents in three forms: white, white with a colored lip, or pale pink/rose.  But they are never purple.

I was confused about this, because I have never seen it recorded or written anywhere, scientific journal or otherwise.  My suspicions about this color difference have existed since I was shown my first true spectabilis, which was pink.  Next to it was a true moreliana, which was purple.  The difference in the sizes of the floral parts was quite distinct when the species were viewed side by side.  Since then, I have searched in vain for a white moreliana, and for a purple spectabilis.  I have not seen any.  But this kind of observation is completely subjective.  What if there actually was a purple spectabilis or a white moreliana, and I just hadn’t seen it yet?

My confusion became complete understanding when I re-read the van den Berg paper.  This time through, I read every word, including a small part that I had missed.  At the end of the paper, according to their final analysis, the authors have provided a key.  A key is essentially a step by step instruction on how to identify a plant sitting in front of you using whatever characteristics the author of the key feels is important, and identification keys are succinct and complete in the smallest detail.  At the end of each description of each species is the simple information about color that I missed the first time around.  “Petals and sepals white or light pink……..spectabilis” and “petals and sepals purple……..moreliana.”  I have yet to see any proof able to refute this idea.

Miltonia spectabilis fma. rosea, Everglades Orchids

Miltonia spectabilis fma. rosea, Everglades Orchids

I believe that the great majority of confusion about these two species has arisen in part due to the Happy Hybridizer, who assumes that since these two forms are the same species, and that interbreeding them and calling whatever results a Miltonia spectabilis is appropriate.  There is no name for the Milt. spectabilis x moreliana hybrid.   And despite the plethora of purple Miltonia hybrids that exist, not a single one lists Milt. moreliana as a parent.  What we now have is this frustrating population of plants that have been passed down from grower to grower, and used extensively in hybridizing, but are essentially misnamed and quite likely have genes from both of these species.

Milt. Woodlawn Ruby 'Woodlands', an advanced Miltonia hybrid with no mention of moreliana as an ancestor.

Milt. Woodlawn Ruby ‘Woodlands’, an advanced Miltonia hybrid with no mention of moreliana as an ancestor.

So, back to the plant at hand.  What is it?  I would like to be able to say that I know for certain.  I would like to be able to say it is moreliana.  There is some good evidence for this.  The flower’s measurements (ratios only, mind you) are within the range for moreliana.  The lip is a bit long, but again the ratios fall within those calculated from the measurements presented in the paper.  I think in the end the best that I can say about this flower is that to me, it looks like it could be moreliana.  And if it isn’t moreliana, then it is a hybrid.  Again, I have never seen a purple spectabilis, because there is no such thing.  And there you have it, I have answered the question completely and thoroughly, and still we don’t know what the answer is.  Welcom to the wonderful world of orchid taxonomy!

Posted September 7, 2015 by brianmonk in AOS Orchid Awards, Orchid Photography, Orchids

Briazilian Miltonias – Some Like It Hot!   Leave a comment

What are these Brazilian Miltonias of which you speak?!?!? Why Brazilian?  Do they speak Portuguese? Do they practice their own kind of jujitsu, drink caprahinas, and wear glittery alien costumes for a few days in February?


They are more aptly simply called Miltonias, and they happen to be native to Brazil, particularly the southeastern region.  So why am I calling them “Brazilian” Miltonias, when you just said they were Miltonias?  Well there is a bit of confusion here, evident even amongst the most experienced orchid growers (who should know better).  You see, there is another group of plants from the Oncidium alliance that also used to be Miltonias. 

Mitoniopsis roezlii

Mitoniopsis roezlii

These are the Pansy Orchids, beautiful orchids of white, pink, and burgundy tones that grow in the high mountains of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama.   This group of 4-6 species was separated into their own genus, Miltoniopsis, in 1889.  We as growers have had over 120 years to catch up, but some of us just aren’t there yet.  Never the less, the genus Miltoniopsis is considered its own particular group, of which Miltonias do not belong. 

This division is all particularly helpful to us as growers, because even though the anatomical and taxonomic differences between these two genera are esoteric and sometimes difficult to understand, their growing conditions couldn’t be more different.  Miltoniopsis come from high-altitude conditions, where the day time temperatures are generally always below 80F, and the night time temperatures rarely rise above the mid-60’s.  This is the definition of a cool growing orchid.  While some would consider these intermediate conditions, and a few folks even manage to grow these plants in much higher temperatures, the fact is that Miltoniopsis perform best at the low end of their temperature range, and generally melt when exposed to south Florida temperatures. 

But Miltonias will grow in the heat, and grow well.  Anyone in an area that experiences temperatures over 80 during the day, and rarely under 70 at night will be able to grow these plants.  (They will also grow well for the rest of you, but since I can’t grow your Odontoglossums, you don’t count.)clowesiiRodco


But heat-tolerance isn’t the only reason they are worth growing!  These plants ridiculously easy to grow, and will produce large plants with huge numbers of flowers in only a few seasons.  They are the definition of a beginner plant – one which is forgiving of most mistakes and extremes, and bounces back easily from all but the very worst transgressions. 

However, Miltonias do have a certain set of conditions under which they perform optimally, and if they were said to be picky, it would be these things which they prefer:

  • They like a morning shower. Miltonias prefer to be watered early in the day.
  • They don’t like wet feet. Miltonias prefer to be dry by nightfall.
  • They are sunbathers. Miltonias prefer light in the Cattleya to Vanda range.

Binotii-x-MatGrosThese things are also important:

  • They can be rambling space-hogs. Miltonias have long intermodal distances and they grow FAST. Well-grown plants will double the number of new leads every year.
  • Yellow leaves are not a sign of an unhealthy plant. However, they are the sign of a Magnesium insufficiency.  High light levels destroy chlorophyll, and plants need Magnesium to make more.  Watering with Epsom salts at 1 tablespoon/gallon 2-3 times a growing season prevents this, as does topdressing with pelletized dolomitic lime.


Given these ideas, I generally like to grow Miltonias in one of three ways:

  • I use shallow clay pots like azalea pots, and even then only use about half the depth of the pot.  Miltonia roots are fine and short, and don’t require a deep substrate.  Planting this way also gives more room for the plant to grow into, and I will often times use a 10 inch pot to give the plants another 1-2 growing seasons undisturbed.  I use a media of at least half inorganic/half organic; specifically I use LECA and New Zealand bark.  I use a “medium” grade.

    Potted up in a clay azalea pot.

    Potted up in a clay azalea pot.


  • I mount my Miltonias exclusively on tree fern slabs or poles.  I prefer slabs, and after I secure the plant I simply lay the slab flat.  Tree fern is wonderful stuff, it wets easily and drains well, and Miltonias seem to like it above all other substrates.

    Mounted on a tree fern slab.

    Mounted on a tree fern slab.



  • Hybrid Pot-Mount. I hate to repot.  It is time consuming, and I love nothing better that to do it tomorrow.  So I started using tree fern pots!!  I will mount the plant directly to the hole in the tree fern pot.  Occasionally I will add some media.  Then I just stand back and prepare for the day that I will “repot” this plant with a chain saw and four more pieces of tree fern.

    HonRuby1 a

    Miltonia Hololulu Ruby ‘#1’ potted in/on a tree fern pot.


It is harder to dry a plant out than get it wet, and air movement is extremely important for Miltonias.  As I said before, Miltonias like to dry out after being watered.  I hang some of my plants up, but my potting choices generally result in a plant that needs watering every 2 days during the growing season and every 3-4 days in the winter.WoodlawnRubyWoodlands

The plants produce their new leads in the spring (About April for me), and this is the time to repot them, especially before they form new roots.  The fine nature of the new roots makes them easily damaged.  Plants must be firmly attached to their new growing surface, and even the slightest repetitive movement will cause the root tips to die when they rub across the substrate.  I apply a pelletized, slow-release fertilizer in the spring (Nutricote) and increase my injected fertilizer’s Nitrogen percentage to increase the available nutrition coincidentally with new growths. They will survive and even bloom, but they do their best when they have all of their roots (duh).  New growths emerge as layers and layers of gradually enlarging bracts, and finally the last 2-4 leaves are positioned upon a flattened, spindle-shaped pseudobulb that could pass for a prehistoric flint arrowhead.  The bracts become dried brown sheaths over the growth that can hide mealy bugs.  Miltonias shed their leaves from old growth, and this will happen all year round.  Again, this is not a sign of disease, but exceptional growers will have more success keeping older plants fully leafed out.  Inflorescences appear from the base of the pseudobulbs, and come up inside of the bracts.  Some species will bloom earlier in the year (late April-May), but the blooming season for most is late July through August, and occasionally into September.  Thus they tend to be in bloom when little else is, and are a well-appreciated flower in the doldrums of summer.  After blooming, the plants take a rest.  They may produce a very occasional new growth, but the show is over until next spring.  Not that they need any less attention; wet winter conditions allow for rot, and dry air promotes mites which find the thin leaves particularly appetizing.  A balanced fertilizer with Calcium and Magnesium is kept at a dose of 200 ppm in the winter.


The flowers of Miltonias occur in shades of purple, yellow, and white, with watermarks on the petals and sepals, and waterfalls on the lips.  They can flower singly, or as branches of multiple flowers all open at once.  Lastly, they have been heavily hybridized with other members of the Oncidiinae, and a tremendous number of intergeneric combinations have been made with flowers that cover the spectrum of color and shape.  If you don’t have one in your collection, you need to change that.

Posted August 6, 2015 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography, Orchids

Florida Caribbean Judging Awards Photos, November 17   Leave a comment

Thanks to Greg Allikas for thinking of me as a temporary replacement during his absence, I had the pleasure of taking the awards photos at FCJC on November 17th!  The Jean E. Monnier was especially dramatic, and the judges thought so too:  an FCC of 90 points!!

The Wolterae is a personal plant, given to me by Milton Carpenter.

Posted November 21, 2012 by brianmonk in AOS Orchid Awards, Orchid Photography, Orchids