Growing orchids used to be a horticultural mystery for many indoor gardeners, something to be feared and left to the experts and keen hobbyists. It is true that among the 20,000 species and some 100,000 artificial hybrids there are some types that are very fussy about their environment and not for beginners. But, it’s a myth that orchids are difficult to grow. And, thanks to tissue culture (a modern method of propagation where thousands of plantlets can be grown from a small piece of a parent plant) many new cultivars have been bred specifically for the indoor conditions of our homes. Nowadays, most grocery and big box stores offer Phalaenopsis or moth (because of their moth-like shape) orchids for under $20.00. What a bargain! It’s no wonder that this type of orchid is now probably the most popular houseplant in North America.
Native to Indonesia and Java, these orchids are one of the easiest orchids to grow and make ideal houseplants. The plants have broad green leaves that spread outward. They display their flowers on arched sprays and may produce several branches. Although they look delicate, they are in fact very sturdy. One stem can carry as many as nine or more large, waxy, flat flowers that bloom for a 3 months or even more. Often a second flowering occurs within the year.
In the wild, most orchids do not grow in soil at ground level. Most orchids in the wild are not rooted in the ground. Known as epiphytes, they lodge themselves in the debris found in the crooks of trees, sending out aerial roots that absorb nutrients and moisture from the rain.
The flowers come in a wide range of sizes and colours, from stunning pure whites through pastel and deep pinks to yellows and peachy shades. You may have even noticed some in colours that are rather unnatural looking, such as a deep royal blue. This colour does not occur in nature. Growers are always trying to do things that nature can’t manage and manipulating colours is one of them. Though not every one’s cup of tea, these “designer” colours appeal to those who want something different. The colours fade to a softer pastel tone as the orchid matures. But, don’t expect them to re-bloom in the same colour—the second time around, its back to basic white.
Watering: Most orchids die from too much love and attention, commonly called over watering. There are several schools of thought on the “right” way to water an orchid. About once a week I take mine to the sink and aim a gentle spray of tepid water on the plants for a few minutes. The water drains right through. A friend of mine fills the sink with water and lets the pot sit in the water for half an hour and then drains them. That’s a tad too risky for me. I could easily forget about them and too much water eventually means root rot. I’d end up with a dead orchid. Lately I have read that putting a few ice cubes on the top of the pot and letting it melt into the roots is another easy watering method. However, these are tropical plants and I can’t imagine that the frigid temperature of melting ice can be good for them. The truth is, on occasion I have totally neglected my orchids for weeks at a time and they do just fine.
Light : Moth orchids like moderate to bright light, never in blazing sun. You can tell by the plant’s leaves if it is getting the right amount of light. Rather than very dark green foliage, you want leaves that are a light to medium green. Too much direct light causes the leaves to sunburn, turn black and then they die.
Humidity: Moth orchids enjoy moist air. A humidity level of 55-75% is ideal. Placing your plant on a tray with pebbles increases the humidity around the plant. Be sure that the pot does not sit directly in the water. Gently misting plants early in the morning also helps.
Fertilizing : Orchids do not require a lot of fertilizer. In spring and summer feed once a month with a balanced houseplant fertilizer (20-20-20) mixed at half strength. In the fall and winter fertilize every 3 weeks at 1/4 strength.
Re-blooming: It’s about the temperature
Moth orchids enjoy much the same temperature as we do. Minimum temperatures at night are about 18° C (65° F), with warmer temperatures during the daytime. After flowering, cut the stem back to just above a node leaving around 20 cm (8 in) of the stem. Often a secondary spike or flower is produced from this node. In winter providing a couple of weeks of cooler temperatures 13° C (55° F) will encourage flowering. An easy way to do this is to place your orchids close to a window where the temperature drops at night.
Re-potting: Orchids rarely need re-potting. You will notice over time that the roots will just trail over the pot. That’s ok.
Propagation: Sometimes you’ll notice small plantlets (called keikis) on the flowering stalk. After the plantlets have three leaves and 7.5 cm (3 in) of roots they can be cut away and potted up.
Take a Road Trip to See Orchids: You may not be able to see orchids growing in the wild, but you can visit a conservatory nearby to see how they grow. Besides orchids these glass houses have beautiful indoor gardens with lots of greenery and colour to help chase away winter blues.
In Toronto, Ontario, Canada visit: Centennial Park Conservatory, 151 Elmcrest Rd, Toronto or Allan Gardens Conservatory, 19 Horticultural Avenue, 416-392-7288