Archives For Jim Ault

While we are in the midst of the exquisite Orchid Show, the Garden is already planning a summer of Brazil in the Garden, highlighting the influence of Brazil on gardens, arts and culture, and conservation. This seems like a great opportunity to publicize some Brazilian orchids that have been among my favorites all the years I have grown orchids at home.

PHOTO: Cattleya coccinea and hybrids from the Wisconsin Orchid Society Show on February 26, 2017.

Cattleya orchid (Cattleya coccinea) and hybrids from the Wisconsin Orchid Society Show on February 26, 2017—my plants!

First, a few facts.

Brazil has one of the highest diversities of orchid species of any country in the world, with more than 2,500 species reported, and no doubt many more undescribed species from the botanically unexplored interior. If you enjoy orchids at all, you have already seen Brazilian orchid species or the hybrids derived from them. Just a few of the well-known orchids that are indigenous to Brazil are many of the Cattleya species as well as many of the former Sophronitis and Laelia species now included in Cattleya; also species from Epidendrum, Maxillaria, Miltonia, Oncidium, Phragmipedium, Stanhopea, and others. The national flower of Brazil—Cattleya purpurata (formerly Laelia purpurata)—is also an orchid.

The native orchids of Brazil are often epiphytes growing on trees and shrubs, but can also be terrestrial, and even lithophytes (growing on rocks). They can be found from hot and humid lowland tropical areas, to seasonally dry and cooler interior regions, to high elevations in cloud forests. The care of Brazilian orchids and their hybrids in cultivation is as varied as the number of species and their habitats, but where they naturally occur provides clues for how to grow them in cultivation. Luckily, the vast orchid literature available often includes information on their culture. 

Which brings us to Cattleya coccinea, the compact—yet brilliant—jewel of my orchid collection.

Cattleya coccinea

PHOTO: Cattleya coccinea

Cattleya coccinea

Formerly recognized and still more commonly referred to as Sophronitis coccinea, C. coccinea is one of perhaps six to nine species and as many varietal color forms included in the former genus Sophronitis. While all the species are delightful in their own right, C. coccinea is the best known. It has long been grown, line-bred (crossed within the species) to improve it, converted to tetraploids (double the typical number of chromosomes) to produce plants with even larger flowers, and especially used in breeding to impart large bold flowers on compact plants. Literally thousands of orchid hybrids have C. coccinea lurking in their background. But I prefer the species or hybrids that are at least 25 to 50 percent C. coccinea, and so still bear a strong resemblance to the species.

Cattleya coccinea is a diminutive grower, with cylindrical pseudobulbs less than 1 inch tall, each topped by a solitary leaf all of 2 to 3 inches in height. A clue you are giving your C. coccinea sufficient light is when each leaf has a red stripe on top of the mid-vein. Under my growing conditions, C. coccinea can produce flowers any time from November to May, and will often bloom two or three times in succession. One to two flowers are produced per new pseudobulb. The flowers can be from 1 to nearly 3 inches wide in the best forms, dwarfing the plant. Flowers are a brilliant red to orange-red with some yellow and/or orange in the small lip. Look for forms with flat flowers and broad overlapping petals. They are always a draw in bloom. Related species are less frequently encountered. Cattleya cernua (Sophronitis cernua) has much smaller flowers but produces more per growth, is very vigorous, and tolerates warmer summer temperatures. There are yellow-flowered versions of both C. coccinea and C. cernua, but these are very hard to find and are priced accordingly. Cattleya wittigiana is similar to C. coccinea but with attractive rosy-pink flowers instead. It has been put to good use in breeding. Confusingly, C. wittigiana is also known as C. rosea, Sophronitis wittigiana, and Sophrontis rosea. The other species are rarely seen.

PHOTO: Cattleya-dichroma-(formerly-Sophronitis-bicolor)

Cattleya dichroma (formerly Sophronitis bicolor)

Tips on cultivating Cattleya coccinea

Culture of Cattleya orchids can be demanding. In its relatively high-elevation native habitats in Brazil, C. coccinea is an epiphyte on trees and shrubs, receiving strong light to full sun, high humidity, strong air movement, and cool temperatures. Try to duplicate these conditions in cultivation. I grow mine mostly in New Zealand sphagnum moss in small clay pots, replacing the moss every winter. They can also be mounted on small pieces of cork bark with a bit of sphagnum moss to help retain moisture. Do not repot them in the summer. Cool temperatures are optimal, with nights as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit (I aim for around 52-degree nights) and day temperatures no higher than 86 degrees in the summer. Constant high relative humidity and excellent air movement are essential. Never allow the roots to dry out for too many days. These are also sensitive to hard water. If you can, water with rainwater if your water quality is suspect. I fertilize mine weekly when in growth with a variety of fertilizers, alternating 15-5-15 Cal Mag with an occasional 30-10-10 acid feed. (Other growers rarely fertilize at all. It is a matter of personal preference and cultural conditions.)

The former Sophronitis species are not for beginning orchid growers. But with attention to their cultural preferences, they can thrive in the hands of experienced orchid growers. I adore them for their interesting foliage, dwarf habits, and their vibrant and glowing flowers that dwarf the plants. Look for their easier-to-grow hybrids as well.

PHOTO: Cattleya Wild Fire, a hybrid of Cattleya coccinea and Cattleya wittigiana.

Cattleya ‘Wild Fire’, a hybrid of Cattleya coccinea and Cattleya wittigiana


The Chicago Botanic Garden does not have any of the former Sophronitis species in its collections (I’ll work on that), but there is a good chance that at least some of the species, or hybrids from them, will be on display at the Illinois Orchid Society Spring Show, held March 11 and 12 here at the Garden. The IOS show, which is layered on top of the Garden’s Orchid Show, will include numerous exhibits, judging of the best plants, multiple vendors with plants and growing supplies for sale, an information desk, and a repotting station. Also, look for Brazil in the Garden in our many gardens and events this summer.

Be sure to visit!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium on plant exploration that was held in Des Moines, Iowa. The audience was enthralled following the plant collecting exploits of such luminaries as Dan Hinkley, one of the founders of the renowned (alas, no more) Heronswood Nursery, to far-flung locales such as Vietnam, China, and Bhutan.

Much of my presentation focused on plant collecting a tad closer to home—not as exotic perhaps, but still crucial in support of my research as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant breeder. So let’s go seek out the elusive wild phlox.

Phlox is predominantly a North American genus (one species sneaks into Siberia) best known for its gaudily—some say garishly colored—harbinger of spring, the moss phlox (Phlox subulata), and for that summer stalwart, the garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). For an idea of the diversity of the garden phlox, you can see Richard Hawke’s latest evaluation report on Phlox paniculata cultivars. The woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and the meadow phlox (Phlox maculata) also have their selections and garden advocates. It’s likely that every midwestern gardener has a phlox or two in their landscape.

Most of the remaining 60-plus phlox species are relatively unknown to horticulture, yet can delight the senses with their almost infinite variation of flower color and fragrance. The underutilized species are admittedly a persnickety group to cultivate, with many of them inhabiting harsh habitats from baking desert valleys to frigid alpine rock outcrops. So phlox breeding efforts in the past have focused (and rightly so) on the more amenable-to-cultivate species mentioned above. 

My breeding work at the Garden has always focused on developing new garden plants from interspecific hybridization, or crossing different species in the same genus. I’ve used this approach to develop new coneflowers (Echinacea) and false indigos (Baptisia), to name a few. In 2006, I started assembling a collection of phlox with the intent of testing my luck in creating novel hybrids between the species here as well. The botanical and horticulture literature wasn’t too encouraging on this front, with perhaps about a dozen authenticated natural and man-made interspecific hybrids known to date. But my perseverance led to two interspecific hybrid phlox, which gardeners may be able to purchase in 2015: Phlox x procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ and Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’.

PHOTO: Pink Profusion phlox.

Phlox × procumbens ‘Pink Profusion’ PPAF

PHOTO: Violet Pinwheels phlox.

Phlox ‘Violet Pinwheels’ PPAF

You may ask,“And where is the plant exploration in this story?” I’m getting there!

Most of the phlox species simply aren’t available in the horticulture trade, yet I desired them for my breeding program. So commencing in 2011, I started my own plant collecting efforts to locate, study, and collect species phlox in the wild. Weeks were spent pouring over old taxonomic literature, maps, herbarium records and the like just to find out where phlox may yet exist in the wild. I say “may,” as the earliest records I located were from the 1940s—never a good harbinger, as urban sprawl, agriculture, and the like all too often swallow up such older stands of native plants. But records from recent years gave me strong hope that some phlox species are still “out there.” Modern collections invariably include GPS coordinates in their notes. Google Earth became my friend at this time, helping to locate potential collecting sites and plan out my trips.

PHOTO: Jim Ault in Russia.

On a trip a few years ago, a bit further afield: an expedition in Russia with colleagues

Finally: boots on the ground! I’ve made local trips around northern Illinois and Indiana, and trips further afield to South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. I’ve settled into a now-familiar routine. Do my research ahead of time, as above. Then go locate the plants in bloom, which translates into days of cruising bumpy, muddy, delightfully scenic and isolated dirt roads out west with one eye on the curves and drop-offs ahead and the other on the disturbed road edges, where so many phlox tend to congregate. Phlox as a rule are resentful of heavy plant competition, and so ironically, often thrive on road edges where the occasional mower or bulldozer damage clears out the competitors. It is that or scramble up steep cliffs and talus slopes, or venture out on to harsh alkaline flats, where yet again the plant competition is light, allowing phlox to thrive.

PHOTO: Haemanthus aliblos in vitro specimen.

Another project in vitro: Haemanthus aliblos specimen
Photo by Jim Ault

As I find populations with plants that appear promising for cultivation, I record field notes and GPS readings, then return in another month or year with collecting permits in hand to collect seed or cuttings. Slowly, I have been building collections of several phlox species, with the hope of ultimately combining through breeding their traits of varied flower shapes, color, and fragrance, plant habits, and adaptability for cold, heat, drought, moisture, high pH, and salinity. Phlox typically take two years from a rooted cutting or a germinated seed to grow into a flowering-sized plant, so the process of growing the species and then using them in breeding is taking time. But this year marked the first I saw a significant number of plants bloom that were hybrids made between garden cultivars and wild-collected plants. As is typical in plant breeding, most of the plants were “dogs” with terrible flowers or habits, or poorly adapted to our local garden conditions. These all got the heave-ho to the compost pile. But a few gems stood out. Stay tuned for future updates!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org