Lately I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have been asking me questions about orchid care. There was a time when orchids were rarely seen in northern stores and were considered far too exotic and difficult for the average home grower. When they did show up they were usually well out of the most people’s price range. People lived under the illusion that all sorts of special equipment and techniques would be needed to keep orchids happy. Over the past few years, however, orchids have flooded flower shops and grocery stores with very affordable and extremely attractive plants in all manner of sizes, shapes and colours. Partly because of the aesthetics and partly because of the cost, a great number of first time orchid owners are now finding out just what easy and rewarding plants orchids can be.
I was recently in an area grocery store and I was shocked at the variety of orchids on display. It seemed that there was literally an orchid for everyone’s taste. One commonality that I did see amongst the orchids on offer was that they were all from the Phalaenopsis, or “moth orchid”, family. It’s actually quite fortunate that this is the variety that seems to be most widely available as they are also the least picky and easiest to care for. While there are some orchids that require expert care in a greenhouse setting, the moth orchids are perfectly happy at home with you.
The Phalaenopsis orchids are referred to as moth orchids because they look just like large colourful moths when in full bloom. And those blooms are spectacular and very long lasting. Even better, moth orchids are easy to keep long term and will happily re-bloom for you year after year.
As I just said, moth orchids are easy to grow, but they do have very specific requirements. Neglecting their needs will likely result in unhappy plants that continue to live but refuse to bloom. Happy plants should spend more of the year in bloom than they do resting. Few other houseplants boast such a show.
Light, moisture, airflow and feeding are the most critical aspects of moth orchid care. Moth orchids in the wild are epiphytes (not parasites) or “air plants.” For them to be truly happy in your home you must provide them with conditions similar to what they would experience in their rain forest home where they grow attached to the trunks and branches of trees. The light that wild orchids would experience would be bright but mostly indirect. In the home setting, east windows are fine as well as placement back somewhat from more intensely bright windows. Direct hot sun is one quick way to get rid of your orchid well before its time. Growing high up amongst the trees, orchids experience a constant gentle airflow. Placement in your home where the air is free to move around the plants can go a long way to making them feel comfortable. Some growers go so far as to use indirect fans to keep the air circulating in their orchid growing rooms. Water is probably the single biggest issue for orchid growers to get right. Orchids growing amongst the trees of a rain forest experience frequent rainfall but because their roots are simply wedged into the bark of their host tree, they are never in a situation of being waterlogged for any period of time. Anyone who has ever purchased an orchid will have noticed that they do not come in potting soil. Instead, orchids are potted in sphagnum moss, ground tree bark, or a mix of the two. Many orchids come with water retaining plastic wrap or hole-less pots to keep them moist during their time in the store. Immediately discard these wraps and ensure that water can flow cleanly through the potting medium and that air can get to the roots. Watering of orchids should be frequent but light and all water should drain from the potting mix. Your orchids must never be left with wet feet. The other important aspect of orchid moisture needs is high humidity, again, just like they would experience in their rain forest homes. Placing your orchid pots on top of gravel or marbles in a large tray of water allows the roots to remain elevated and well drained while the air around the plant stays moist. Another great alternative is to house your orchids in bathrooms where they will benefit from the steamy shower air or over kitchen sinks where dish washing frequently results in warm moist air conditions. The final critical aspect of orchid care is feeding. As you can likely imagine, the tree bark where they prefer to live is not a highly nutritive medium. Instead, each rain washes a gentle dilute stream of nutrients over the orchid’s roots. Orchid growers refer to orchid feeding as “weakly weekly” with the emphasis on weakly.
With that we’ll put this discussion on hold until next week when we’ll dig a little deeper into orchids.