Stagnant Phrag besseae?

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Well-Known Member
Sep 11, 2016
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Princeton, NJ
I have a Phrag besseae, it's a very pretty cross from Orchids Limited. I got it as a single growth, in spike, in May 2022.

It flowered beautifully, and eventually started growing a new growth, and the mature growth died by the end of 2022. The new growth lasted through the spring, and then again it put out a new growth and the mature growth died. Now, in Sept 2023, the cycle seems to be starting for a third time, as a new growth is popping out and the mature growth has lost one leaf so far. It did not bloom again.

It's growing in rockwool. I water it with tap water, which as far as I know is fairly clean. I rarely fertilize it, with MSU, typically only in the late spring. It grows on a windowsill, the leaves are not too dark green, they're a bit lighter green but not so light green that it's clearly getting ample sunlight. The leaves always look healthy – no discoloration and no burnt tips. Typically has about 3 - 4 leaves.

I know I'm probably doing a lot of things wrong here: tap water, rare fertilizing, maybe not enough light. But I'm not sure which is most important to change. I'd like this plant to be multi-growth and flowering, even if just occasionally! What should I focus on doing better?

I just moved the plant into a glass cabinet with Barrina T5 lights. Day temp is ~80F and night temp is ~70F. I hope this will help it.

Many thanks.
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Before I moved it and it was just growing under a different grow light that wasn't very strong and gave off no heat and it was cooler pretty much all the time, consistently 70-73
I grow mine underlights and cooler. Daytime temperatures rarely hit 80 degrees. Nights run 65 to 68 with the winter being a little warmer.
Leaf color is medium green, trending towards a darker green. There is no yellowish tint whatsoever. I fertilize twice per month all year round @ 1/2 the recommended dosage. I repot yearly and use straight sphagnum. I never let them dry at all.
I grow them fairly well, I think. As much as I wanted to like rockwool as a growing medium, it hasn't really worked out. I use a bark mix, or a 50% bark/50% coco-husk mix. My best plants, or at least the plants I want to keep and breed with, I grow in bulb pans. 6" or 8" plastic bulb pans. They seem to like being able to find the bottom of the growing vessel.

Sphagnum works well too. Maybe even a mix of sphagnum and something like spongerock or leca. On bigger plants I probably repot every other year, or when they start to climb out. One extra benefit of the bulb pans is that they don't seem to climb as much.

My worst besseae year was in a greenhouse, got too hot in the summer. I moved them to the basement... Now I grow them in my barn under lights, there are no windows. It stays a bit cooler than outside air temps, but I don't have any active cooling system. All the hybrids are outside under shade cloth.
Thanks for all the input everyone. The rockwool it was in (mixed with a sizable proportion of small perlite) had started growing algae on top so I repotted it in straight rockwool. It seems the algae was actually only confined to the top layer though.

Anyway, the roots actually looked quite good, there were 5 small active tips and more roots than I could count quickly (so maybe 6-7?). I had started using Orca liquid mycorrhizae with beneficial bacteria, so perhaps it really liked that.

I moved it to the bottom shelf of my glass cabinet which is cooler (mid 70s). I will think about how to grow it cooler.

My sense at this point is that the order of importance for besseae conditions is :
  1. Lots of water
  2. Cool temps
  3. Enough light but not too much
  4. Clean water
  5. Fertilizer
Does that seem right? Can anyone speak directly to the cycle I mentioned originally about a new growth emerging causing the mature growth to die, over and over? Is that normal for besseae until the plants are 6-7 years old, or does it sound like a symptom of an issue in my cultivation?
I think you are on the right track. If the roots are good you are doing something right.

It could be the genetics of the plant. Some are stronger than others, of course, that is how nature works... On a plant that old, I'd want at least two new growths for every old growth that declines. You should have to pot it to the next size or divide it every year or two. Now that you are getting good root growth, grow it on for a bit before you give up on it. They can be quite vigorous if you have the right clone and the right conditions.
I've been growing phrags for almost 25 years and have a large number of both species and crosses. What I've found is that they do well in rockwool for a while and then after living in it for a couple of years they start to decline. Leaves with brown tips that progress towards the center, uneven greening of the leaves, reluctance to bloom. When taken out of the pots they have very few healthy roots. Repotting them sometimes helps, sometimes I can't save them.

I am fortunate to live just 15 minutes from Orchids Ltd. I have been buying many of my plants from them for a long time. Over the last several months I have purchased a number of plants that I drove down to pick up from their nursery. I've chatted with Jason Fischer a number of times about phrags planted in rockwool and what I have been seeing over the years. He has noticed that same kind of problem in the nursery with phrags planted in rockwool. They are moving away from rockwool and potting most of their phrags in a bark and chunky perlite mix. He believes that over time the rockwool retains too much moisture for too long which contributes to a build up of bacteria in the mix. He also thinks that a mix heavy in rockwool that is kept really wet doesn't hold enough oxygen.

For my own collection I am moving all of my phrags to semi-hydro in LECA. I feel that this will allow the plants access to a healthier environment where bacteria will not be such a problem as well as improving oxygen at the roots.

Another observation I might make is your temps. My plants are grown in my basement which even during the summers here in Minnesota never gets above 75 degrees during the day. During the winter daytime temps are around 70 with nighttime temps around 64. Any temps higher are not the best for growing phrags.

Of course everyone's growing environment is unique and what works for one grower may not work for another.

Hope this helps and good luck!
My cultivar is from Orchids Ltd., it's ("Robert's first" x "Big kiss").

I have some photos back from when I got it (April 2022) and it bloomed (May 2022), my impression is it was a first-bloom seedling when I received it:

A bit after I got it:


Note that there are six leaves! As I mentioned, this growth bloomed, a new growth started, this growth died and the new one got about 4 leaves, and that repeated again, and now the latest growth has 3 leaves and is a single growth with a new growth starting.

Soon after opening:



And a few days later:


I think it's a super nice besseae.

Do these photos help?
And here's the plant today (first pic) along with a closeup of the new growth (second pic).

I'm glad it's growing, and that it looks healthy and growing new roots. But I still don't know why 1) it doesn't have more leaves, and 2) it hasn't flowered since May 2022.

It looks like the plant today has longer, droopier, and fewer leaves, compared to the original growth that had shorter, perkier, and more leaves. Does that indicate anything?


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If anyone has some analysis or input on these pictures and how the plant has changed that would be super helpful :)
Something isn't right. I'd switch it out to a bark or moss based mix ASAP. Now is a good time when the new growth is small. Doesn't look like it is in terrible condition, but I don't know if I'd wait much longer. Fall is an excellent time to repot these.
Something isn't right. I'd switch it out to a bark or moss based mix ASAP. Now is a good time when the new growth is small. Doesn't look like it is in terrible condition, but I don't know if I'd wait much longer. Fall is an excellent time to repot these.

Thanks so much! I'll do that. Which aspect is the most disturbing to you? I feel like I don't totally know what besseae is "supposed to" look like.
Thanks! My grow lights are yellow tinted, so I'm not sure the leaves are that yellow in reality. I can post an additional photo tomorrow. I definitely understand too few leaves though! The root system seems to be in fine shape, it has 5+ good roots and about 4-5 new root tips. I'll switch to a different medium -- would LECA be ok, or should I switch to an organic media like sphagnum or orchiata?
I am growing Phrags in 100% Hydroton and it is working. With any medium, you have to get the watering correct. You need a lot of air space for the roots (which LECA will do) but you can’t have the roots dry out excessively. I water every 5 days most of the year but decrease to every 8 days for my two winter months with coolest temperatures and least day length. HOWEVER, I am misting each plant enough to wet the top layer of Hydroton almost every day. This mimics the frequent fog and dew that get to plants naturally even when rain frequency is decreased. When I look, the interior of the pot is never completely dry so the phrag roots are not drying out. You will have to check in your conditions/humidity to see what happens. Fill one of your usual pots with medium and treat it like your other pots for a week or two and then dump it out right before it should be watered and see how dry things are. You may have to water more frequently if it is too dry. It is all about getting maximum air to the roots while maintaining enough moisture.

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