Sobralia decora

Bateman 1841

Native to Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica

Edited 12 April 2012
© Nina Rach

Sobralia decora photo by Greg Allikas

Original publication: Orch. Mexico et Guatemala t. 26. (1841)
The type specimen was a cultivated plant sent from Guatemala by Skinner (McVaugh 1985).

This species grows in large clumps, with bamboo-like stems up to about a meter tall. The stems are somewhat lax. It often has "branches" or keikis, with roots forming at the node. The leaves are "thin and veiny but stiff and plicate, mostly 10-20cm long, 2-3cm wide, articulate at base and eventually deciduous" (McVaugh 1985).

Short, cone-like inflorescences produce beautiful 10cm (4"), cattleya-like flowers, in succession. The color varies, but petals and sepals are often a transparent pink. The large lip is darker pink with a deeper-colored throat. Each blossom is short-lived, but many blossoms are produced over several weeks. It is one of several orchid species in different genera known as the "Bamboo orchid."

Greg Allikas [Orchid Photo Page] writes: "Flowers of Sobralia decora [photo at left] are not as large or showy as macrantha or leucoxantha but the unflowered plant would be at home in any Victorian parlor with its bamboo-like canes. Here is a view of a few more flowers. [photo below, right] Sobralia decora by Greg Allikas "The plant that we have has nearly concolor rose flowers but when we were in Belize last autumn we saw huge clumps of a delicately-colored variety with almost white flowers and a pink lip. Our plant lives outdoors in the garden and receives no special care whatsoever... Sobralias are very nice orchids in or out of flower." [From "Orchids as Foliage Plants", Orchid Safari archives, 4 Feb 98]

On the Pacific slope of western Mexico, Sobralia decora is found growing in "shaded ravines and along streams, on rocks, in tropical subdeciduous forest or oak or oak-pine forest, 800-1700m, flowering Jul-Oct" (McVaugh 1985).


Plants were observed in Costa Rica flowering near sea level (10m elevation, February) in the Osa area of Puntarenas Province; (40m elevation, April) in the Arenal area of Alajuela Province (central highlands); and at 400m elevation in primary forest of the Osa area of Puntarenas Province (central Pacific coast) flowering in January.

There is some confusion between Sobralia decora and the South American species Sobralia sessilis. The type plant for Sobralia sessilis was collected by Schomburgk in what was British Guiana (now Guyana) and published by Lindley in 1841. According to McVaugh (1985) "Williams (1951) places S. sessilis in the synonomy of S. decora, on the authority of Hooker (in Bot. Mag. 77: pl. 4570. 1851). Dunsterville (Bull. Amer. Orch. Soc. 49: 486. 1980) states that Hooker was in error, and that the name S. sessilis applies only to a localized South American species."


Sobralia decora and hummingbird plate #85 by Gould

Sobralia decora var. aerata was listed by Williams and Allen (1946; 1980) as occuring in Panama, but Dressler (1980) points out that this is actually Sobralia atropubescens. See: Sobralia atropubescens for the line drawing as published by Williams and Allen (1980).

Two color forms are available from Tropical Orchid Farm, Haiku, Hawaii (pale or dark). Jeff and Kathy write: "Flowers last a single day but bloom very frequently throughout the year, and on the morning when you see it in its full radiant glory, you will gasp out loud! Extremely showy displays, and lovely floral scent fills the nursery. My large plant has had up to 40 flowers at a time. [Pale form] flowers white with pink blush, contrasting light pink lip with some orange inside."



Also available from Countryside Orchids, New Mexico; and Neptune Orchids, Florida (photo by Jay Pfahl).


At left, Plate 85 by Gould

AOS awards:

Sobralia decora 'KG's Fleeting Moment' CCM/82 pts
West Palm Beach Center Monthly Judging, 22 September 2001 [AQ 33(2): 134 P].
"Twenty-four very cupped flowers and four buds, borne individually and terminally on 28 90-cm canes; very clean plant 140 cm in diameter by 90 cm high grown in lava rock in a 44-cm clay pot; sepals and petals pale lavender, heavily flushed dark lavender; ruffled lip dark lavender with apical white line, orange-lavender flush in throat; identified by John Beckner, Orchid Identification Center. Nat.spr. 7.0cm, 4.1cm vert; ds 1.2cm w, 5.0cm l; pet 1.5cm w, 3.0cm l; ls 1.6cm w, 4.0cm l; lip 1.9cm w, 4.4cm l." Exhibited by Greg Allikas and Kathy Figiel, West Palm Beach, Florida.
Sob. decora 'Mello Spirit' CCM/AOS photo by Danny Lentz
Sobralia decora 'Mello Spirit' CCM/88 pts
Atlanta Center Monthly Judging, DAY MONTH 2006 [AQ __(_): ___; Photo by Danny Lentz, at right].
"Thirty-three flowers borne terminally on 22 reed-like stems, 11 double-flowered, to 100-cm all; ovate leaves to 20-cm long; sepals and petals white suffused lavender centrally; lip rose-purple, throat old gold, white apically; texture firm, substance matte. Nat. spread 9.5 cm, 5.0 cm vert." Exhibited by David Mellard and Sal Marino, Doraville, Georgia.

Sobralia decora 'One Day Wonder' HCC/AOS 77 pts
Great Lakes Center Monthy Judging, July 17, 2004 [AQ 36(1), p. 75 B&W photo by Bruce Blyth].
"Nine flowers on nine inflorescences borne on a clean plant with 12 canes up to 98 cm tall, five 8- to 22-cm keikis attached at approximately 45-cm; sepals white, blushed pink; petals blushed darker pink; lip rolled, white, heavily overlaid dark pink, copper centrally, midlobe white distally; column white; substance average; texture matte. Nat.spr. 9.1cm, 4.3cm vert; ds 1.4cm w, 4.8cm l; pet 1.5cm w, 3.4cm l; ls 1.4cm w, 5.2cm l; lip 2.4cm w, 3.8cm l." Exhibited by Glenda Lask, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Sobralia decora 'Santa Barbara' CHM/80 pts
Pacific South Center Monthly Judging, 13 September 1999 [AQ 31(2): 151 color photo]
"One cupped flower and two buds borne terminally on three 65-cm, dark green-maroon canes with dark green leaves; sepals and petals white, flushed lightly with lavender; lip dark lavender with white apex, orange-lavender flush in throat; origin lower elevations Western Mexico to Panama; commended as a desirable species with vigorous, compact growth habit of dark color contrasting the bright flowers. Nat.spr. 4.0cm, 3.4cm vert; ds 1.0cm w, 4.5cm l; pet 0.9cm w, 3.5cm l; ls 1.0cm w, 4.5cm l; lip 2.0cm w, 3.0cm l. Exhibited by Santa Barbara Orchid Estate, Santa Barbara, CA."

Printed References:

Paul H. Allen (1958) "Sobralia Intermedia," in: Bull. Amer. Orch. Soc. 27(8):534-535. [Sobralia decora; Sob. X intermedia; Sob. leucoxantha; Sob. liliastrum; Sob. macrantha; Sob. panamensis; Sob. sessilis; line drawings of decora and leucoxantha]

Michael J. Balick, Michael H. Nee & Daniel E. Atha (2000) Checklist of the vascular plants of Belize, with common names and uses. Mem. New York Bot. Gard. 85: 1246. The New York Botanic Garden Press. [Sobralia decora, fragrans, macrantha, mucronata]

Robert L. Dressler (1980) "A Checklist of the Orchids of Panama as Known Today," in: Orchids of Panama. Missouri Botanical Garden, Monographs in Systematic Botany vol. 4.

G.C.K. Dunsterville (1980) "Sobralia Sessilis--An Orchid Hunt in an Orchid Herbarium," in: Bull. Amer. Orch. Soc. 49: 486-488. [S. decora, S. sessilis, S. valida; S. violacea; color photo of S. sessilis]

Eva Ledezma, Giovanny Ramirez, Nayive Pino-Benitez (March 2006) "Forest Orchids of the Choco Region / Orquideas silvestres del Choco," in: Lyonia 10(1): 17-31. [Elleanthus capitatus, steyermarkii; Palmorchis trilobulata; Sobralia decora, fragrans, klotzscheana, liliastrum, macrophylla, madisonii, pulcherrima, valida; Fig. 4 shows Sobralia pollinia].

Rogers McVaugh (1985) Flora Novo-Galiciana. Ann Arbor: The Univerity of Michigan Press, 363p. [pp. 292-294, incl. line drawing]

Louis Otho Williams (1951) The Orchidaceae of Mexico. Tegucigalpa: Ceiba, vol. 2, 344p.

Louis O. Williams and Paul H. Allen (1946-1949) The Orchidaceae, Flora of Panama. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. [in four parts; line-drawing of Sob. decora var. aerata]

Louis O. Williams and Paul H. Allen (Nov 1980) Orchids of Panama. Missouri Botanical Garden, Monographs in Systematic Botany 4. A facsimile reprint of the Orchidaceae, Flora of Panama, also containing "A Checklist of the Orchids of Panama as Known Today," by Dr. Robert L. Dressler. [line-drawing]

Web References:

Index Nominum Genericorum [ING], URL: from the U.S. National Herbarium, Dept. of Systematic Biology - Botany, Smithsonian Institution.

International Plant Names Index [IPNI],

Franco Pupulin (accessed 2003) "Orchid florula of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, Quepos, Costa Rica," URL: [Sobralia decora description and Fig. 37].

Data from three separately collected specimens of this taxon is available in the BIMS Database for Costa Rica [Biodiversity Information Management System].

Photo and comment by Greg Allikas, Orchid Photo Page

Plant of the week: Sobralia decora

Sobralia decora page by Rufino Osorio at Wildflower Nirvana.

Putting Down Roots: AOS Headquarters Landscaping

Sobralias at Fairchild Tropical Garden, Coral Gables (Miami), Florida

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