A common misconception is that orchids are difficult to grow. In fact, many orchids are tough, resilient plants and are not that challenging if you just learn what growing conditions they prefer.
No longer delegated to florists and special greenhouses, orchids are sold at nurseries and garden centers. The most common orchid available is the moth orchid or Phalaenopsis orchid. A plant will remain in flower for at least one month, often longer, making its purchase price more than competitive with cut flower floral arrangements that last 7 to 10 days. Consider giving a living, blooming plant next time you want to recognize a birthday, anniversary or special day. The recipient will be reminded of your thoughtfulness every time the plant reblooms.
The genus name is from the Greek for “moth appearance.” The first species discovered produced beautiful sprays of white blooms that resembled big moths in wide-winged flight. With the discovery of new species and the development of hybrids, the color range goes well beyond white and includes white with a colored lip, pink, yellow, green and red, with spots, stripes or bars in many different combinations.
The plant’s growth habit is attractive, with low-growing, elongated leaves rising in opposite directions from a central crown. Plants send up leaves individually during periods of active growth. And as they do, older leaves will tend to yellow and should be removed. Usually, not more than three to five leaves are on a plant at one time.
The classic phalaenopsis has long, pendulum-like flower stalks bearing a number of large, rounded, white or pink flowers. But many species and hybrids produce flowers in a wide variety of colors and forms, including small flowers in large, branching clusters and short, upright spikes. A well-grown plant can send up multiple flower spikes. Each bloom can last a month or more and a plant can flower for months at a time.
Indoors, they will thrive in a brightly lit window facing east, south or west. A shady north-facing window may not provide enough light to encourage blooming.
You can place your plants outside during warmer times of the year. After nighttime temperatures reliably stay above 55 degrees, move them to a shady spot that receives no more than a couple of hours of morning sun or dappled light. (Too much direct sun will burn the foliage.) Putting them outside also provides a temperature drop between day and night of at least 10 degrees, which these orchids prefer.
Because phalaenopsis are epiphytes like our own resurrection fern and Spanish moss, they must be grown in containers with a special orchid mix. Store-bought orchid mixes are generally based on chopped fir bark. Phalaenopsis should be potted in a medium-grade bark or medium-fine bark mix (medium bark with perlite and chopped sphagnum moss added). You can successfully grow orchids using bagged lava rock. Its porous nature allows for excellent drainage yet retains enough water for good root growth.
These special mixes greatly influence how we water orchids. To water orchids, you must run water through the mix until it is properly moistened. This cannot be done with the plant sitting on the windowsill, because water would go all over the place. This is best done indoors at the sink, allowing warm water to flow through the mix until it is thoroughly moistened. Outside, just use a hose. Unlike some orchids, phalaenopsis do not have water storage organs and should be kept moist. Let them dry only slightly between watering.
These orchid mixes also contain very little in the way of nutrients. To keep your phalaenopsis growing vigorously, fertilize them monthly from spring to early fall using a soluble fertilizer, such as 20-20-20, according to label directions.
It is important to remember that there are many different kinds of orchids, and each type has its own preferred growing conditions. It’s really not all that complicated. But it is important to know what type of orchid you have when you’re trying to learn how to grow it. When you receive one of these wonderful plants, make sure you save the label with the name of the plant on it. It will help considerably when you start researching how to care for your new orchid.