If you’ve just acquired a Cymbidium or are thinking about adding one to your orchid collection, then you’re at the right place. Information is the best tool you can have to keep growing beautiful Cymbidiums year-round.
In this guide, you’ll read about how to provide the correct lighting, humidity, watering, and fertilizer for your orchid.
To care for a cymbidium orchid, you need to provide very bright light (around 4,000 fc), keep the temperatures around above 58ᵒ F (14ᵒ C) at night, yet during the day thriving in between75ᵒ to 85ᵒ F (23ᵒ to 29ᵒ C), raise humidity to 40 to 60 %, and use a balanced fertilizer year-round.
Yet each cymbidium orchid is unique, so the topics above are the basic care guides and instructions. Below I dive into each one of these topics with more detail.
Cymbidium Habitat, History & Identification
Cymbidiums are found growing naturally in the cool, bright areas near the foothills of the Himalayas. From there, they spread out over the cooler tropical and subtropical areas of Asia (covering the north part of India, and extending through China, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Borneo) and finally reaching the coast of Australia.
These orchids are to be viewed differently form the tropical rainforest habitat, the environment we first think of when mentally visualizing orchids. At the bottom of the Himalayas, the climate is cooler yet still humid.
Since Cymbidiums are so common to these areas, 5 of the 55 species have been held in higher consideration. These 5 are called the Asian Orchids, or the Chinese Orchids (yet they aren’t exclusive to China.) The five Asian orchids are:
and the Cymbidium sinense.
History of Cymbidiums In Literature, Poetry, & Art
Cymbidiums are not a new plant to orchid growers. In fact, cymbidiums are the oldest orchids grown indoors (or in greenhouses) that are mentioned.
Their history across China dates back to Confucius (around 551 BC), when he mentions Cymbidiums, calling them the “Kings of Fragrance”. They are also mentioned in writings dating back to the Chin dynasty, which is from 221 BC to 207 BC.
Yet, Cymbidiums weren’t named formally as orchids until 1799. A Swedish botanist named Olof Swartz (1750-1818) was the first to write about these orchids. He called them little boats, in honor of the bowl-like structure of the bottom petal, (or the labellum).
Cymbidiums now had entered the formal documents of Europe and appeared in the first of Olof’s six published books about botany, Nova acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum Upsaliensis.
Why did Olof Swartz have the privilege of naming Cymbidiums? In other words, why was he so special? Swartz had a vast knowledge of botany and his personal travels to East Indies, Jamaica, and “the New World”, as they called it, all built a solid base for this information.
Olof Swartz not only collected information; he was famous for his personal collection of over 6000 orchids, which upon his death were donated to the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
With his vast knowledge of orchids and his famous travels, he was offered a position with the East India Trading Company as a traveling physician on deck,
but he refused it.
Instead, Olof preferred to continue his studies in botany and venture out on his personal travels.
Meaning and Significance of The Word Cymbidium
Where did Olof Swartz come up with the word Cymbidium? Cymbidium is derived from Latin. Cymba, which means boat, cup or bowl was added to -idium, which means little. This perfectly describes the Cymbidium, since the bottom petal, called a lip (or labellum), looks like a small boat or bowl.
Cymbidiums became a fever in Europe after Olof Swartz made them known. One reason is long time that the flower can remain in bloom, which usually ranges from six to seven weeks, depending on the species. The other reason is that they make an excellent cut flower for floral arrangements.
Cymbidium Orchid Care For Beginners
There are actually two distinct types of Cymbidiums, and their care is similar, so I’ll include them in the same list. Miniature Cymbidiums are breed from warm-climate orchids, and won’t need the difference in temperature, but as for the rest, the care is the same.
After all, how to you care for Cymbidiums? You have to recreate the same habitat that Cymbidiums are found in nature. All that info in the beginning of the article is important because the same lighting, watering, humidity, fertilizing, air circulation and other factors have to be extremely similar for Cymbidiums to grow well.
The main complaint that orchid growers have is that Cymbidiums will blossom once, and nevermore. This is because the conditions were met to some degree, but usually came up lacking in one area or another. In the Cymbidiums case, it’s usually the lack of temperature drop at night.
Let’s look at each item independently: lighting, humidity, potting media, and other.
Lighting Requirements for Cymbidiums
Outdoor Lighting for Cymbidiums
Cymbidiums prefer high, bright light, but not direct sun. They don’t like as much as direct light as Cattleyas or Vandas, which can tolerate sunlight. Cymbidiums do well on the outer edge of the shelf where light isn’t as direct or hot.
These are cool orchids, so the sunlight that enters the window must never get too hot.
If you have your orchid outside, which they’ll absolutely love, then find a place where the light is bright, but diffused. A great place would be in the shadows of a filtered tree, where morning sun can reach it, but not more than that. Late afternoon sun could be stretching the light requirements to the top/maximum.
As long as the Cymbidium doesn’t get direct sunlight for too many hours, has more shade than sun, and stays in bright light for the most part of the day, it will thrive in the outdoors.
During spring to autumn, it will need more bright light than during winter, when it’s best to bring them inside.
Indoor Lighting for Cymbidiums
If you are growing Cymbidiums indoors, find the brightest windows in your house and place them there.
I personally refrain from saying things like, “Pick a west window, or south window…” Especially because that depends a lot on what is outside your window. Yet, you have to analyze factors that include: Is there a building that blocks the natural sunlight? Is there a large tree? How shady is it? Is the sun too hot that comes in through the east window? All these variants make statements like the one above so hard to be measurable.
But…to stay true to tradition, if you have a southeast or east window, pick them over the rest.
These windows don’t need to get direct sun, but they do need to have abundant light. If the Cymbidium sits in direct sunlight, it will get too hot, and the leaves will burn. In my particular case, none of my windows are good for orchid growing, and that’s why I have to use grow lights during winter.
If you use artificial lighting, you’ll need to not go over 5,000fc (foot candles), which is the maximum light tolerated.
In this sense, Cymbidiums are right next to Brassia, Degarmoara, Dendrobium and Oncidium.
How do you know how much light is perfect for Cymbidiums? Check the leaves. They should have an apple color, not too green, and leaning more towards golden-yellowish-green.
If they are bright green, they need more sun. If they are “purpling” on the edges, they have the maximum sun that they can stand, almost leaning towards too much. Too much sun, and little white streaks and spots will appear on the leaves.
Fertilizing Guide for Cymbidiums
For a beginner, it’s best to keep it simple, which is described int he third method. Choose a balanced fertilizer every other week, which can be 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 and apply it from March to September.
Once in bloom, which is late fall and winter, cut back on fertilizer to once a month. Some orchid growers prefer to use a 6-30-30 during the winter period, up until late February, which is described in the first method.
Since there are many different types of fertilizing methods, here is what the most common methods are:
| During Winter
December Through February
| During Root and Leaf Growth
Spring to Late summer
Boost spikes and buds for Fall
December Through February
|During Root and Leaf Growth
Spring to Late summer
|30-10-10 High Nitrogen
Boost spikes and buds for Fall
|10-30-20 High Phosphorus
December Through February
|During Root and Leaf Growth
Spring to Late summer
Boost spikes and buds for Fall
Each method has their pros and cons, but I prefer the second method myself. Again, if you are new to orchid fertilization, I recommend the last method, because it’s the same year round, and will teach you how to fertilizer before you change fertilizers. It’s the safest way to start.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll need to best analyze and see what method works for your orchid in your home. To take into consideration the best fertilizer to chose, you’ll need to see what your tap water looks like.
Is it hard or soft water?
How many minerals are added to it?
You can also aid your orchid by adding Epsom Salts, and if you want more info on that, check out this article.
Cymbidiums need the extra water. Being native to the base of the Himalayas, Cymbidiums love humidity and cool water. Yet, they don’t want to be wet all the time.
It’s like taking a hike on a nature trail by a river. It’s amazing to jump in and splash around in the water, but it’s also fun to dry off with a towel later on. Don’t stay in the river after dark.
Cymbidiums also don’t want to stay wet after dark either. You’ll need a small fan to promote air circulation, so the water inside the pot and around the stem will dry quickly.
Unlike Phalaenopsis which need to have their root dry out in between watering, Cymbidiums prefer to have more water and not dry out. Yet they don’t want to be soaked either. I’s a fine line… If you water your Phals once a week, water the Cymbidiums once every three days.
What Not to Do When Watering Cymbidiums
Whatever you have read or do, please don’t use ice cubes. This is just a wrong habit that has propagated itself and it will do more harm than benefit to your orchids.
Cymbidiums will tolerate ice cubes better than other orchids, just because they are from cooler climates and are accustomed to receiving cool rain. Other orchids will hate you until the day they die if you “ice cube” them. But just to be fair to all the orchids on your shelf, don’t use ice cubes as a method to water Cymbidiums.
Watering Cymbidiums During Different Seasons
During the winter, you’ll need to water less. If you keep up the same routine for watering, you will promote root rot.
This happens because the water is absorbed by the velamen (a thin layer that protects the actual root) but since the orchid doesn’t use the water, it just sits there…accumulating bad ideas. The root then suffocates and can’t exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The roots slowly decay and bacteria takes over, destroying both the potting medium and the roots. So, in summary, don’t water as much during winter as you would the rest of the year.
The Right Temperature for Cymbidiums
Unlike most tropical orchids, Cymbidiums don’t prefer the higher, hotter temperatures of tropical rainforests, and can better withstand the cooler nights. In fact, they love cooler temperatures. They tolerate even low temperatures almost down to a little above frost.
That being said, Cymbidiums are outdoors plants. As soon as you can, take them outside. And that is strictly, as soon as you can. They thrive well at anything above 58ᵒF (14ᵒC), but can still remain alive above 40ᵒF (4ᵒ C) during the night. So as soon as spring rolls in, take your plant outside. Leave it there until the autumn nights drop to 40ᵒ F (4ᵒ C) again.
During the spring, summer, and fall, Cymbidiums should be outside in the shade. Verify the temperature where they are at is around 75ᵒ to 85ᵒF (23ᵒ to 29ᵒC) and that they are getting enough humidity.
At night during summer, the temperature should be anywhere from 50 to 60ᵒF (10ᵒ to 15ᵒC).
If you’re having problems getting the temperature to drop that many degrees at night, lightly mist the leaves during the evening hours. Make sure it’s just a light misting, because just like the river at night, Cymbidiums will not do well if their roots are soggy and wet and night.
One of the main reasons that your Cymbidium will not bloom twice, is because the temperature at night is not falling enough. If you have your Cymbidium indoors, you’ll need to turn off the heat at night, so it will feel the temperature difference.
“File:Cymbidium Nut 3zz.jpg” by Photo by David J. Stang is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 This is true of most Cymbidiums.
If you have a miniature Cymbidium, the night temperatures will not be as crucial to promoting blooms as the full plant would.
The Right Humidity for Cymbidiums
Since your Cymbidium will be outside for a good part of the year, you won’t need to worry about humidity (unless you live in a really dry area). If you think your orchid isn’t getting enough humidity, you can try a humidity tray.
Once you bring your orchid inside during the winter, you’ll need to keep it a little above normal indoor condition, anywhere from 40 to 60% of relative humidity (rH). Since this is pretty high, always keep a fan on, even during the night hours.
Air circulation will prevent root, stem, and crown rot, since the water will evaporate before it causes any harm to the cell structures.
If you need hints on the best humidifier, then check out this article. I elaborated it as a by product of the thousands of searched I did when I wanted to buy my humidifier. I ruled out the millions of options down to the five best, and mentioned the one I use in my home office (which is where my orchids are).
Potting Medium For Cymbidiums
Cymbidiums need a potting mix that is both sturdy and will allow water to flow freely in and out of the pot. You can use a combination of different organic media that you’d like:
The list is quite long and very versitle.
When you purchase fir bark, aim for the medium grade as to the finer or larger pieces.
Since Cymbidiums like to be more moist than other orchids, adding sphagnum moss to the media will help to trap in that extra humidity that you’re looking for.
Whatever combination you use, make sure water will flow quickly through the pot and not get trapped in between the various layers of media. I made a whole article about potting media for cymbidiums since this topic is a bit more extensive than I can summarize in one small part, so click here to read that article.
If you want to avoid the hassle, you may use the same potting media that Paphiopedilums use. But aren’t Paphiopedilums terrestrial? Isn’t their mixture soil? Technically it’s loam, a mixture of sand, silt, and clay. Cymbidiums can adapt to this medium because some Cymbidiums are terrestrial.
If you aren’t sure which media to get, search for the species orchid ID, with its complete name. In most orchid databases, like this one at Orchid ID, you can read whether they are epiphytes (growing on tress), lithophytes (growing on rocks and in crevices) or terrestrial.
Make your own Potting Media for Cymbidiums
It’s hard to give one basic recipe for all Cymbidiums for the best potting medium, since seedlings and older, larger plants will have drastically different needs.
Where you live also will interfere in what should go into the potting media. If your climate is more humid, you can go with 40% large grade bark, 40% fine grade bark, and 20% perlite.
If you live in a place that is prone to drier climates, you can change that recipe into a sandier media, which retains more water.
You need to repot every two or three years in the spring, after the Cymbidium has dropped it’s last blossom. If you repot while in blossom, you may lose the flowers, and bud blast or blossom blast may occur.
Cymbidiums absolutely detest being repotted, and will enter a phase of “draw back” until they get used to the new pot.
You might think that because the roots are protruding to the outside of the pot, that you need to repot. Actually, Cymbidiums are quite content being root-bound. It provides them with a sense of security and stability, so they can focus on producing blooms. This means you can keep your Cymbidium in its pot from 2 to 3 years before you repot.
If your Cymbidium is just way too big to fit in a pot and you need to divide it, count the pseudobulbs. Never leave a division of less than three.
Most Common Cymbidium Pests
Since cymbidiums grow outdoors most their lives, they will be more prone to outdoors pests, more so than other orchids. Snails, ants, wasps, slugs… If they’re in your yard, they’ll be in your Cymbidium plant.
But Cymbidiums also are more prone to viruses, especially the famous Virus Quartet: Cymbidium Mosaic Virus, Odontoglossum Ringspot Virus, Orchid Fleck Virus, and the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. If you think your Cymbidium might have a virus, check out this article on Odontoglossum Ringspot Virus, which is the most common among the four.
Don’t Stop Learning!
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More About Cymbidiums
If you want to read some more about Cymbidiums, check out this article form the Los Angeles Times. The Cymbidium Society of America published is an interview with Ernest Hetherington that you can read here. He explains the importance of the Cymbidiums after World War II and how the “center” of the Cymbidium world moved from Europe to California due to the war. I thought it was very enlightening.
Cymbidiums are a great addition to your orchid collection, and so different from the orchids that are normally sold since they can easily grow outside. I wish you all the best in your collection. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to add them to the comment section below.