The Maxillaria (max-il-LAR-ee-a) genus is composed of approximately 600-650 species all of which are found in South and Central America and the Caribbean as epiphytes and lithophytes as well as occasional terrestrials. They can be found from sea level to over 3,000 meter elevations in the Andes Mountains. Many of the species are large plants and are not known for having large or showy flowers -- the flowers rarely extend past the grass like foliage of the plants themselves. Some plants of the genus have highly fragrant flowers in a range of scents from coconut to vanilla and these are the ones that are prized by growers. The best known in cultivation is Maxillaria tenuifolia also known as the Coconut Orchid for its amazing coconut fragrance. Two additional species grown in cultivation are Maxillaria rufescens and Maxillaria variablis, considered easy to grow and tolerant of a wide range of temperatures.
Maxillaria tenuifolia is an attractive plant with branching leaves and flowers held just below the highest arch of the leaves. It has egg-shaped pseudobulbs and produces single flowers on a five inch, or thirteen centimeter, inflorescence. The deep red flowers with a cream lip are approximately two inches or five centimeters across and will perfume the air in a room. A native of Central America it is a summer bloomer, needs good light, and constant moisture as well as warm temperatures to flower well.
Maxillaria rufescens is well known for its bright yellow flowers with a speckling on the lip that has a wonderful vanilla fragrance. The flowers are about half an inch, or three to four centimeters across, but this species shows a great deal of variability in flower color and size. One particularly nice thing about the species is that it flowers throughout the year so you will be able to enjoy the scent at almost any time. The species is found throughout the northern part of South America and in the Caribbean islands growing as an epiphyte in tropical forests. They need good humidity and even moisture to grow well as well as intermediate light conditions. Because of their size, these are good plants for a windowsill.
Maxillaria variablis flowers on short two inch or 5 centimeter inflorescences. The flowers can be yellow and red, dark red or several variations as can be deduced from the name variablis. This Maxillaria will also bloom throughout out the year reaching a height of approximately 8 inches or 20 centimeters. It has small pseudobulbs topped by a single leaf and flowers profusely when well grown. Good humidity, even moisture and bright light are important to grow this species well. This species should be grown as an intermediate with a minimum of 58 degrees and maximum of 88 degrees Fahrenheit or 14.5 to 31 degrees Centigrade.