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The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Orchids


Until this year, my orchid purchases were of the phalaenopsis type, often called moth orchids. I simply left them in the pots they came in and avoided overwatering. It was a thrill when they re-bloomed a year later. 

But I’m going to branch out. My great discovery is that rarer orchids can be successful as long as you grow the ones suited for ordinary home temperatures and lighting, and follow basic guidelines. Orchids have become favorite houseplants around the world.

An easy-to-grow phalaenopsis, or moth orchid

An easy-to-grow phalaenopsis, or moth orchid

My friend Leslie, who grows dozens of corsage-worthy cattleya and dendrobium orchids in her house along with those ubiquitous moth orchids, thinks the moth orchids are even a little harder than some of her others.

She makes orchid care sound easy. She wipes the leaves with rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip if there’s a visible pest such as a mealy bug (catch it early!), checks on the moisture level and plant health, and puts all the orchids except for the moth orchids outside in a shady part of the yard for the summer. If any come into bloom outside, she brings them indoors for display. When repotting, she uses a mix that includes very small bark chips. She likes my way of using clean bark chips from my huge white oak tree.

She gets some of her orchids from Waldor, a specialized grower well known in this region for their fabulous Philadephia Flower Show orchid displays, but others come from grocery stores and even Produce Junction, where vegetable bargains abound but so do floral ones. Her treasure hunts there have yielded orchids costing just two-five dollars. I think it is more of a rescue operation, for she really loves them. 

“The plant must adjust to your place, and it can take three years,” she says. Many of her plants have been with her much longer than that. It is amazing that superior orchids now show up for sale in prosaic locations such as grocery and hardware stores, and cost no more than cut flowers. Widespread use of tissue culture in orchid propagation means that rare varieties become available to everyone in a very short time. It only takes a speck of genetic material per plant. The kinds of orchids you see at Whole Foods, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s used to cost a fortune, and people who grew them had private conservatories. My pet peeve is white moth orchids that have been fed food coloring for unnatural blue flowers.

Orchids for sale at Trader Joe's.

Orchids for sale at Trader Joe’s.

If you are about to jump into orchid growing, my horticulturist friend Mary Ann has some advice. She started out with orchids in her house but now grows hers in three greenhouses, each at a different temperature, so there is a place for many kinds with varying needs. She keeps many fans going for good air circulation. She does not shop at Produce Junction because the orchids are not tagged with their scientific names.

Mary Ann suggests selecting the home location where you want an orchid, making note of the temperature range, lighting and amount of space. Then shop with a good supplier, or at an orchid society plant sale, and ask which type is best for these conditions. You may want an orchid that is smaller, since the sizes range wildly. She favors miniature cattleyas because they bloom more than once a year, are OK with normal home temperatures, and are worth a little extra attention.

Other orchid fans suggest starting with just a plant or two that you love, and then getting acquainted. When shopping, look for healthy plants that have a few unopened flower buds along with the blooms, and lots of leaves. The buds should be fresh looking, not dried out or yellowed. The leaves should not be bleached from too much light, or very dark green from low light. Usually medium green is best, and the color should be even. Make sure the stems and leaves are not bent or broken. If it is a type that has bulbs or pseudobulbs, they should be plump, not dried out. 

While an orchid specialist can help you more, chain stores offer strong types that are easy to grow. Get some orchid fertilizer while you are shopping and follow directions. Be careful taking your plants home. Don’t let them get too hot or cold, or sunburned, or fall over and break.

Does your pot have drainage? Some orchids come in an inner pot with drainage holes tucked inside an outer pot with none. If so, be careful when watering. Lift up the inner pot and orchid, if possible, and water it over the sink until the water runs through. Then put it back into the outer pot and do not water again for a week or so. This will prevent a buildup of stagnant water in the outer pot. If the inner and outer pots can’t be separated, be very sparing with water. The classic orchid pot is unglazed clay with drainage holes in the sides and the bottom. The excellent drainage is great for the plants.

Exposed roots of moth orchids have a coating on them that looks greenish when healthy and well watered, but turns gray when plants are dried out. If the roots get brown and soggy, it means they are rotten from sitting in water.

Yellow moth orchid.

Yellow moth orchid.

Most orchids prefer bright but filtered light and can be burned by too much sun. An east-facing window is great. If the light is too strong where you want the orchids, add some translucent pull-down shades to protect them. If the light is too weak, adding a mirror might help double it.

Moth and oncidium orchids like winter temperatures from 50-75 degrees, while dendrobium and cattleya orchids prefer 50-70 degrees, indoors. But all can take more heat than that if outdoors in summer in a breezy, moist, shady area.

Orchids like cooler nighttime temperatures. Enclosed porches and sunrooms are great for that.

When orchids were first introduced into our climate, people grew them in overheated, humid hothouses. Their failure to thrive led to their reputation for being hard to grow. They do best with moderate levels of heat, light and humidity, and so do people. We have a good match here, so why not enjoy these beautiful and exotic bits of nature at home? 

The American Orchid Society has regional groups in many locations. The chapters may offer informative speakers, plant shows, plant sales, culture sheets and fellowship. A Delaware chapter meets in Wilmington. Visit www.aos.com.