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The hardiest orchids in South America...
The Orchidaceae family in Chile has many of the most beautiful Chilean plants. As is the case with many families in Chile, there is no consensus on the exact number of species, and a number as high as 150 is sometimes cited. In reality, most of these species are synonyms and the real number is around 50. About half of these orchids are endemic and grow only in Chile.
There are several genera; according to C. Marticorena y M. Quezada, Catalog of the vascular flora of Chile, Gayana Vol 42, No. 1 -2, 1985, the approximate number of species in each is the following:
Aa - 1
Bipinnula - 4
Brachystele - 1
Chlorae - 28
Codonorchis - 1
Gavilea - 11
The orchids grow all over Chile, from the very north to the very south, although the largest concentration of species is in the central and central-southern Chile (5th - 9th Region).
The distinctive characteristics of the Chilean orchids is that unlike their tropical counterparts they all are geophytes, are very hardy both in terms of temperature resistance and water and soil requirements. Roughly half of all Chilean orchid species grow in areas with snowfalls (at medium and high elevations).
The Chilean orchids therefore are relatively easy to cultivate and maintain (not from seeds, but from rhizomes). The only important condition is that the plant is offered a substrate with good drainage (It often may be better to pot them, rather than plant them directly in soil; we did have some bad experience with direct planting in clay soil). The amount of organic matter depends on the origin of the plant: if it is from high mountains or coastal areas (70 % of all species), than a lean mixture of sand, perlite, and a little bit of compost can be used. If the species comes from central woody lowlands or south, than a somewhat richer mixture should be used. As far as lighting is concerned, many of the orchids need strong shade, because the species from coastal and woody areas get less than 50% of sun light. Only the high mountain species can be left exposed to sun, but then, again, the temperatures in all cases should be maintained relatively low (not above 25º C). There are many species which grow in areas with much higher temperatures (like the Santiago area, which in summer may experience temperatures as high as 35º C), but the vegetative growth and blooming of these orchids occur during Chilean winter and early spring (July - September), when temperatures are around 15º - 20º C. Since the aerial part of the plants dies out by November, the high summer temperatures do not affect so much the plants, especially considering the fact that there is a great temperature variation between day and night so that the temperature at the rhizome/root level is maintained fairly constant at no more than 20º - 22º C, despite noon peaks of 30º C or more. The watering should be strong during the colder vegetative period (2 - 3 times a week), and then when the plant begins to bloom it should be reduced to about once a week.