Why are orchids one of the world’s favorite potted plants? In fact, their popularity is second only to poinsettias in the U.S. Ask orchid fans and you’ll likely get different answers, including their delicate, sculptured beauty; their mystique sets them apart from most flowers; their elegance and almost unreal perfection; their beauty as houseplants; blooms that last from six to 10 weeks, etc.
At one time, they were expensive, but today they are reasonably priced at local garden centers, florists and big box stores. And always choose orchids with more buds than flowers for long blooming time.
There are more than 25,000 different species of orchids existing naturally, and every species has its own unique look. Orchids bloom in every color except black. One even produces vanilla — yes, the extract you use in cake and cookie recipes comes from the pods of the Vanilla panifolia, the only orchid that produces fruit.
According to the American Orchid Society, “If you can grow houseplants, you can grow orchids ... they must have the growing conditions they need, but are amazingly sturdy and resilient.”
Here’s a Primer 101 on orchids.
Most orchids are either epiphytic (grow on trees or above ground on objects — they are often found attached to pieces of bark in garden centers) or terrestrial (grow in soil).
The most popular groups for growing indoors are Cattleya (the big beautiful orchids used in bridal bouquets); Cymbidium (used in Easter corsages); Dendrobium (size ranges from miniatures to eight feet tall); Oncidium (dancing ladies because bottom petals look like flaring skirts); Paphiopedilum (lady slippers because of pouch-shaped lips); and Phalaenopsis (the most popular moth or butterfly orchids, named because of the appearance of the flowers).
A gardening friend has good luck with the Miltoniopsis pansy orchid, described as possibly one of the friendliest looking orchids you can grow. Its bright, open bloom resembles a face, just like the pansies it was named after.
Although orchids have a reputation of being difficult, many gardeners grow them with ease by following the label instructions and providing growing basics, such as bright indirect light and protection from drafty windows and heat/air vents. If lighting is inadequate, one local grower offered this advice: Place orchid beside a table lamp with a high scale LED bulb. Then leave the light on during the daytime.
All orchids have their blooming seasons. For example, Phalaenopsis blooms from December through March, while Cattleya blooms only once a year.
They are heavy feeders. An application of an all-purpose liquid houseplant fertilizer (some experts recommend urea-free orchid fertilizers) — diluted to half the strength suggested on the label — every other week, or weekly at one-quarter strength, will keep plants growing and help them set new flower spikes. Never, ever feed a dry orchid plant.
Probably the biggest killer is overwatering — as it is with most plants. Orchids should be watered every 7-10 days when roots just start to feel dry and should never stand in water.
Some plant tags call for two ice cubes that melt slowly and give the plant a slow drip of hydration weekly. However, sister Rosemary who has successfully grown orchids for at least a decade disagrees. She says orchids don’t like cold water so she waters hers weekly with one-fourth cup of room temperature water over the sink so they can drain freely.
Soil is also important. Always use a potting mix specifically formulated for orchids. Orchids like to be pot bound. “They are happiest when roots are crowded,” a local orchid fancier said.
While some orchids may need to be repotted yearly, most thrive in the same pot for several years. Repot when growing medium starts to break down. Select pot size for root mass, not top size. Usually, repotted orchids do not rebloom the first year.
During the summer, orchids do really well when moved outdoors to a shady garden with other houseplants. High temperatures are not a problem. However, you do need to be on the lookout for snails. Given routine fertilization and care, some will bloom again come fall when it’s time to bring them back indoors.
One of the easiest to grow is the Phalaenopsis (moth orchid). It grows under the same conditions enjoyed by African violets, according to the experts. Flowers are shades of pink or white.
Another favorite is Paphiopedilum (lady slipper orchid) that has attractive foliage and blooms for weeks. Lady slipper leaves are leathery and shaped similar to the amaryllis leaf and flowers are combinations of striping and spotting in shades of yellow, green and pink.
Used by florists in bridal bouquets, Cymbidium flowers are usually two to three inches across with interesting spiky foliage and stems that can grow 24 inches long and bear eight to 20 flowers.
Orchids are also easy to propagate simply by dividing the parent plant. Leave at least three shoots on each division to ensure good growth.
And if all else fails and you are among those of us who manage to kill orchids, here are a couple of options: 1.) Buy an orchid plant and treat it as a floral arrangement; and when the flowers fade, toss it or pass it along to an “orchid green thumb” friend; or 2.) invest in a really nice artificial silk orchid that looks good all year and requires only an occasional swipe with a duster.
Next week, the topic will be: bad bugs in the garden and in your houseplants.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.