The popularity of orchids has increased tremendously in recent years. Fresh cut stems of spray orchids are being produced by the hundreds of thousands in places like Hawaii and Thailand. Orchid plants are regularly featured in the interior layouts of shelter magazines, and more and more flower shops are carrying them on a regular basis. Orchids are now the second-highest selling blooming plants in the U.S. (behind poinsettias), and as availability has increased, prices have come down.
Orchids have always been associated with a sense of the exotic, wild, and rare, and orchid care has a reputation for being difficult and mysterious, which seems to make them that much more special and desirable. In fact, growing orchids isn’t really that hard if you choose the right varieties. Some are quite durable and resilient. But even if you don’t want to actually grow them, orchid blooms last a long time on the plants; longer than a bouquet of cut flowers. So you could think of a blooming orchid plant simply as a very long lasting fresh arrangement, and discard the plant when it’s finished flowering. To most people, orchid plants aren’t that attractive without the flowers.
One of the easiest orchids to care for is the phalaenopsis (fail-an-OP-sis), sometimes called the Moth or Butterfly Orchid. The phalaenopsis orchid produces flowers with a broad, flat petal on either side, resembling the open wings of a butterfly. These orchids are most often seen in a crisp white color with a lemon-yellow throat, although many other colors and patterns are grown, with new ones appearing on the market all the time. Purple, pink, and peach shades are prevalent. Some varieties have minute speckles on a contrasting background color. Others have flashy pinstripes on their petals. The flowers usually range from about 2 inches to nearly 5 inches wide. Depending on the variety, a phalaenopsis orchid can produce a scape (flowering stalk) with anywhere from 3 to 20 flowers on it, and older, mature plants may have 3 or 4 scapes in bloom at one time. The plant also grows elongated, often rounded leaves that lie more or less flat in two ranks on top of the growing medium. Wiggly, silver-gray aerial roots are also produced, which serve to draw moisture from the air or from the potting mix.
Phalaenopsis orchids, like the majority of orchid plants, are known botanically as epiphytes. In the wild, epiphytic plants (including orchids, bromeliads, anthuriums, and many ferns) live high in the branches of trees where they can benefit from maximum exposure to bright light and fresh air. They absorb needed moisture from the humid atmosphere of their natural environments. They obtain nutrition from decomposing organic matter, such as leaf litter, that accumulates among their roots or in the forked tree branches where they’re perched. In order to provide the best orchid care, we try to duplicate those growing conditions as closely as possible. That means that orchid plants are typically potted in a growing medium composed of bark, crushed charcoal, lava stones, sphagnum moss, or some combination of the above. Planting an orchid in ordinary potting soil would eventually lead to its death from suffocation.
An orchid’s roots must have access to humid air, and orchid growing media are designed to provide a moist and humid environment around the roots, while at the same time allowing plenty of fresh air to circulate. Bark and porous stones, etc., give the roots something to anchor themselves to while supporting the orchid plant upright in its pot. Allow the potting mix to approach dryness in between thorough waterings. Such a growing medium will drain quickly, preventing the roots from drowning. However, it will not retain very much nutrition for the orchid plant. Therefore, orchids should be fed with almost every watering, using a dilute solution of fertilizer, specifically prepared for orchid plants. Once the flowers have come and gone, stop fertilizing and slow down a bit on the watering. Let the growing medium dry slightly and give the orchid plant a chance to rest for several weeks, but don’t allow the leaves to shrivel.
Most species of orchids require very bright light in order to grow and flourish. However, the phalaenopsis orchid is one type that will survive in less light, making it easier to grow. Another somewhat shade-tolerant variety is the Lady Slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum sp.). The Lady Slipper has a rounded lip that extends from the face of the flower, looking like the toe of a ballet slipper and giving this orchid its common name. The ‘paphs’, as they are affectionately called, often have colorfully-mottled foliage, making them somewhat attractive even when not in bloom. In any case, it’s best to grow orchid plants in pots that are placed on top of a gravel-filled tray. Keep the gravel wet, with the bottoms of the pots above the water level. As water evaporates from the tray, the atmosphere immediately surrounding the orchids will stay nice and humid.
There are, of course, many other species of orchids which may be successfully grown indoors, including cattleyas, miltonias, cymbidiums, and others. For more detailed information about orchid care, visit the website of the American Orchid Society (www.orchidweb.org). There are more than 20,000 known species of orchids, and untold numbers of wild orchids that haven’t been discovered. The sad truth, however, is that the natural growing habitat of orchids – the tropical rain forest – is rapidly disappearing through irresponsible management and clear-cutting.
Among cut flowers, some of the more popular and readily available varieties are the so-called spray orchids, including dendrobiums, oncidiums, arachnis, arantheras, and vandas. Dendrobiums usually come in white, purple, or some combination of the two, although green varieties are also obtainable. The flowers are normally between the size of a quarter and a fifty-cent piece, occurring on graceful, linear sprays anywhere from 10 inches to two feet or more in length. They’re long lasting and can add a touch of class to any flower arrangement.
Oncidiums, also known as Dancing Lady orchids, have delicate yellow flowers speckled in brown, and are arranged on wispy, branching stems. Their common name comes from the fact that the lower petal of the flower is wide, rounded, and slightly ruffled like a miniature ballgown. Though not quite as durable as the dendrobium orchids, oncidiums are exquisitely bright and appealing.
Less commonly seen as cut flowers are the vanda, the arachnis, and the aranthera orchids. Vandas are usually crowded on relatively short, fairly thick stems. Long lasting and sturdy, they’re available in an interesting range of colors, including a smokey purple, a deep burgundy, and a brassy gold with tiny brownish speckles. Arachnis orchids are also called ‘Spider Orchids’, and the shape of the flower lives up to the name. Their stringy, greenish-yellow petals are eerily marked with blood-red splotches. Arantheras feature slender blossoms on firm stems. One variety, ‘James Storei’, has attractive brick-red flowers on long, branching sprays.
Even though they may be grown in faraway places, your favorite professional florist can usually get any of these orchids for you with enough advance notice. Perhaps they are already carrying them as part of their usual inventory. In any case, with Mother’s Day approaching, consider sending Mom a long-lasting orchid plant, some sprays of cut orchid blossoms arranged in a vase, or a traditional cymbidium orchid corsage. She’ll be sure to appreciate the exotic beauty of these fascinating flowers.