Maxillaria tenuifolia

This summer, I picked up a maxillaria tenuifolia at my favorite plant nursery. It was a spur of the moment decision based on how lovely and unusual the flowers were. Unfortunately, unlike the oncidium and phalaenopsis orchids, these fragrant blooms don’t last very long, so I missed out on the opportunity to draw the weird, tongued little monsters.

I thought with a little research and some luck, maybe the maxillaria would give me new flowers next year. Unfortunately, the pseudobulbs began to turn brown and rotten. After much procrastination, I decided that this was probably not the natural life cycle of the plant, so I repotted the plant and performed major surgery, cutting off all the brown bulbs, leaving the plant about a third of its original size.

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Just three weeks later, the surviving bulbs were all beginning to turn brown as well. I joined a few orchid groups on Facebook and saw that other struggling plant enthusiasts were asking questions about plant care. I posted a before and after picture, and the nice people of the American Orchid Society group informed me that my plant was dying from “black rot.” Some folks were optimistic and offered suggestions for how to try and save the plant; others said I should toss it and buy a new one. Once it became clear that the rot could infect my healthy plants, I decided it was game over for my sad maxillaria.

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So where did I go wrong with this orchid? First off, this plant had so many bulbs crammed into a small pot, it was hard to water without getting the leaves and bulbs wet. Next time I pick up a plant this crowded, I’ll repot it immediately after the last flower drops. The plastic pot only had holes at the bottom, none at the sides, which may have caused problems with inadequate drainage. Next time I’ll drill holes in the side of the plastic pot. The decorative ceramic pot fit the plastic pot too snugly, so even if I had added holes in the side of the plastic, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for air circulation around the roots, which, when I repotted, seemed the very definition of “rotted roots.”

It was a hot and difficult summer for my plants–I killed the maxillaria, a miltonia, two aloes and even my seemingly indestructible little jade plants. Lesson learned: don’t rent an attic bedroom in a hundred year old house in the summer.

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