Oncidiwn papilio: Butterfly Orchid
In travel books and old orchid-hunters’ diaries one often comes across various comparisons used to try and describe the unusual shapes of. Orchids were compared to crouching tigers, helmets, skulls, and objects of wrought metal, but most of all to butterflies, and it is not surprising that Lindley, the discoverer of this species, was enchanted by its handsome flowers and gave it the name papilio, meaning swallow-tail.
Oncidium papilio is a native of South America where it is found over an area extending from Trinidad and Venezuela through Colombia to Peru. It is an epiphyte that usually grows on old trees in the forks of branches or in deep fissures in the bark. Only very occasionally does it grow on rocks in a shallow compost composed of selaginellas and small ferns.
The pseudo-bulbs are flat, oval, about 8 cm (3 in) high, and single-leaved. The leaves, which reach a length of about 20 cm (8 in), are stiff and leathery with reddish blotches, which makes these plants an attractive decoration even when not in flower. The scape is firm, wiry, and grows to a length of about 60 cm (2 ft). This must be taken into account and the plants given plenty of room when they are grown in a plant-case. The individual flowers, approximately 8 cm (3 in) in diameter, appear in succession, on the same scape often even after several years. For this reason they are not used for cutting, even though they are quite firm, for thereby we would deprive ourselves of the beauty of further blooms in the ensuing months.
Oncidium papilio does not have a pronounced period of rest and should therefore be kept in a warm (not hot) room and watered regularly throughout the year. Only when new growth starts should watering be somewhat more liberal. Ideal conditions for growing this orchid successfully are provided by the indoor plant-case where the plant should be attached to a branch or piece of bark, together with a small ball of light epiphyte compost. If it is grown in a container, only a very light mixture, composed mostly of fern roots, should be used.
The similar species Oncidium krameranum, with somewhat more brightly coloured and more wavy flowers, has more or less the same requirements in cultivation.