Masdevallia Cheryl Shohan 'The Babe'
Updated: Feb 3, 2019
Orchid friends, forgive me if this post reads as "do as I say, not as I (can usually) do." I am fairly new to masdies, and the past year has held some trials for Orchid Muse masdevallia-kind. I feel that there's really one secret to masdevallias--and probably all of its compatriots in the pleurothallid alliance. I won't keep you in suspense: this orchid, more than most, must have constant gentle air movement, and the air must be cool, humid, and fresh. You can get away with less than perfect air movement for many orchids, but not this one. If you do this, your efforts will be rewarded with a bloom that's out of this world.
Masdevallia Cheryl Shohan 'The Babe' (Xanthino-Veitchiana x Redwing) is electric red, with extra-long sepals that look like neon yellow eyelashes. Its petals are the comparatively tiny structures in the center of the flower, and to my surprise, the diminutive lip (dark red, dead center below) is hinged, much like a bulbophyllum. It bobs in the breeze--can you discern what she is whispering to you?
The flower above is 4.5 inches (11cm) long, which makes it large in comparison to the plant: most of her leaves are only a few centimeters longer than that. Our firey little diva likes low light (phalaenopsis light is great) and to be fairly constantly moist in the growing season. As I warned above, do your very best to keep the humidity above 60% and the air constantly moving. In my case, this little beauty only started looking great (and quickly threw up a spike) when I placed her on a low, shady, open windowsill. The cool, humid nights of an upper-Midwestern summer worked their magic. She loves night-time temperatures in the upper-50s F (15C), and don't let her bake in anything more than the lower-80s.
Examine the leaves above and in other images here. The long, straight ones show good culture. The crumpled, wavy ones show that the poor girl went through periods of dryness and low humidity. Often, in less than ideal culture, the leaves will become crumpled as they emerge at the base, kinking the leaf permanently and probably dooming that structure to a future without a bloom. In my culture, I water my masdevallias like I water my thin-rooted oncidiums and maxillarias (which means very often!), but again, the masdies are much more picky than either aforementioned genus when it comes to buoyant fresh air.
Masdevallia orchids like low-TDS water--rainwater, if you can supply it. Fertilize lightly. The orchid above is in desperate need of a re-pot. I use small-gauge bark and sphagnum with a bit of perlite to balance its need for water-retentiveness with some airflow. Almost as important as moist moving air is keeping your masdevallia below 80F (28C). If you go much above that for any length of time, the leaves will show signs of scalding (brownish bumps on flaccid leaves). If your masdie has black leaf tips or patches, it probably means you need moving air that's much more humid.
I learned a good rule from a Longwood Gardens online orchid class: cool-growing orchids can handle lower-than-ideal temperatures with extra water. But for higher-than-ideal temperatures, make sure masdies are DRY. In this beginning, this seemed to cut against my orchid intuition. But then I realized my intuition has been shaped by more experience with warm-growing orchids like cattleya, brassavola, and phalaenopsis. (Those orchids, and other heat lovers, handle excessive heat better with more water, but excessive cold with dryness.)
Cheryl Shohan 'The Babe' changes colors in different light, transforming from a firey red to more of a burgundy. I caught a light sweet scent from this one in filtered morning sun. To lengthen bloom time, once it is fully open, move the orchid to a cool and shaded spot. Water a bit less, but keep up the airflow. If you have success with your masdevallias, and want to share them with friends, when dividing them, make sure to have no less than six leaves on each division. She'll recover faster and bloom more easily that way.
For as much difficulty as many of us have with masdevallias, I'm devoted to keeping a few of these stunning, otherworldly orchids in my collection, now that I know the tricks. The leaves are a spritely green, and there's nothing better than a compact plant that occasionally shocks you with its sexy alien flowers.