Dracula Orchid Care
Dracula orchids are found natively in tropical North and South America, often hanging from trees in the cool and rainy sides of mountains. They vary greatly in their flowers, but their leaves all share a delicate, grass-like structure with a pointed tip. They’ve evolved to be pollinated by insects which normally interact with arboreal mushrooms, so they tend to settle in the darker and moister nooks of trees and let their flowers descend, much like mushroom caps, but there are several that also happen to produce flowers that look like little monkey faces, with hair, eyes, and a nose, and thus sometimes are called the monkey orchid.
Unlike more popular orchids, Dracula plants are adapted to very high humidity and frequent mist and rain, and thus don’t store away water in succulent leaves or bulbs, but are found happily growing in patches of pillowy green moss. They are still epiphytes, however, and by nature of growing on trees are unable to handle their roots staying potted in soil or in a boggy environment; and due to their habitats staying humid, have trouble flowering in dry air, so it’s best to grow them in a terrarium or some type of greenhouse where the flowers can open.
Keep Dracula orchids are room temperature (60 – 85 F)
Require high humidity for the flowers to develop and open well (at least 70% relative humidity during the day, ideally higher at night), but can handle growing in 50 % relative humidity; ideally in places where moss and ferns grow well.
Don’t keep it boggy and wet, but don’t let it stay dry like other orchids like to; it should grow like a sponge that dries out regularly but is still springy.
Don’t give it too much sun; it grows under the canopy and in shady sun (~ 1000 – 1500 foot-candles)
Black leaf tips : too much water Brown leaf tips : water that is too high in dissolved solids/salts
Repot every two or three years to remove old potting mix before it decomposes
Most Dracula orchids are found between 800 and 2700 m (2400-8900 ft) elevation above sea level, and thus are in cooler locations than what you expect in the tropics; since they are found close to the equator, though, this means they don’t experience seasonal temperature changes, and thus it’s generally best to keep them at room temperature, between 60 and 80 F. Although, they can handle down to 50 F with little trouble for a few days; but above 85 F, many Dracula can start to suffer from heat stress if exposed to high temperatures for prolonged periods, especially if they are kept above 70 F at night. In these cases, we’ve learned that naturally heat waves are accompanied by droughts, so only lightly water if you are having heat trouble, and lessening sun/light exposure during hot days helps reduce heat stress too.
These orchids are usually found in very misty regions, where the clouds or fog roll through mountains. They are thus accustomed to blooming when it’s very humid and under the same conditions certain variety of mushrooms sprout, which might be under warm or cool conditions. Since the flowers themselves are papery thin and often fuzzy, they are best presented in humid conditions.
High humidity can cause some problems with growing, however; it can be the perfect environment for mold or bacteria, so if there’s any standing water left after misting or watering, it’s often best to have a little fan moving air around to evaporate water droplets, or to leave the doors open for a few hours after watering. If problems, like fungal spotting or infection, start to become noticeable, it’s best to treat quickly with Hydrogen Peroxide or a disinfectant alcohol (like rubbing, grain, or wood alcohol) and let the environment dry out a little more. But prevention is usually easier, so by keeping the base of the plant unobstructed and having air flow, along with letting the plant get dry but humid (like a sponge you’ve wrung all the water out of), most issues are avoided. It’s also useful to note that often forests dry out for a few hours during the day, so letting the humidity drop for a little while as you let fresh air in greatly improves the air quality and removes fungal spores or bacteria that can accumulate. I’ve come to think of orchid terrariums and greenhouses like aquariums, where the air can get dirty, and just like cleaning and replacing water in a fish tank, it’s important to remember that rainforest air is very clean and that breezes clean the air in a natural environment, but not in a box.
Humidity can be added by spraying the surfaces with water or using a fogging system, as well as simply watering the plants in an environment; if the enclosure is sufficiently air-tight, the humidity will linger as the water evaporates and prevent leaves and roots from overworking to keep their moisture balanced.
When it rains in the forest, the whole plant will usually get wet and it lasts for a few hours; since Draculas don’t grow in the soil, that rainwater is all they’ll get, so they are used to frequent cycles of drenching followed by breezes drying out their roots. Thus, we find planting a Dracula in a basket is often the best way to grow them, especially with something that holds moisture, like sphagnum moss or some fine fiber/orchid mix. The baskets expose the potting mix to more air than normal in order to dry out faster than in a closed pot, and the holes also allow the flower stems to descend out the base and orient themselves downward (with a couple exceptions to species like D. lotax).
The basic rule of thumb is that a Dracula should be watered the day before it fully dries out; when planted in moss, this ideal point is when the moss is slightly lighter, somewhat dry and still springy. In other potting materials, it can be a little harder to tell, but one way to know is to track the weight of the plant after being thoroughly soaked and see when the weight becomes constant, and then counting how many days it took and subtract one; or you can use a toothpick or popsicle stick to check to see how much water is still in the potting mix like an oil dipstick in a car by how much the wood darkens. Generally (this is subject to many variables), this means that in a greenhouse it takes weekly waterings, and in a house it’s every 3 days or so. Having said this, nature is never perfect, so orchids have adapted to droughts and rainy seasons, and if you’re a little late every so often, it’s better than staying a little too wet.
As an epiphyte, a Dracula orchid can also be mounted onto a piece of tree bark; we would recommend using wood that won’t decompose quickly or one where the bark detaches from the wood (oaks tend to do so), so most people use cork bark, redwood, cedar (make sure there’s no fire retardant), or cypress, but there are many different other woods or even clay objects that can be used as a mounting plaque. In these cases, the frequency of watering will depend on how much moss is around the roots. In a natural environment, there’s only a little bit of moss, about ¼ – ½ inch ( up to 1 cm), so it would need water every three days or so; with more it will take longer to dry, and if the roots are bare, then the plant would need to be watered about six times per day.
The water quality is another aspect that can be important, mostly if there’s a problem. Since Draculas are used to only rainwater, they as sensitive to fertilizer and water with high amounts of dissolved solids. You would see this if the leaf tips start to turn black as the solids build up where there’s less vein pressure and slowly stain the leaves. If you have a water softener, you need to make sure you’re not using water with added salt (you’ll know if you have one), and with fertilizer make sure you’re only using about ¼ teaspoon per gallon, as well as rinsing through to leave behind less sediment. If you have trouble with fertilizer causing root or leaf damage, you can also wait ½ hour and water the plant again with clean water; the roots will have absorbed all they could in that time and the clean water will rinse off the excess that can cause problems. We generally fertilize once a month or so.
These grow among mosses and under the cover of shade, much like Bram Stoker’s character, so dappled or indirect light is best, approximately 1200 foot-candles, or about what many begonias or Paphiopedilums do best in.