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Surprise! Orchids are easygoing

By Steven SavidesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2003



In the frigid climes of the Northern Hemisphere, February surely qualifies as the most solitary and dreary month.

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Despite being the shortest on paper, this month seems oh so long.

"It feels like winter is never going to leave. It lingers, it never gets warmer, the snow keeps coming," says horticulturist and author Ellen Zachos, remembering the many Februaries of her childhood in New Hampshire and those when she was a student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass..

Then her tempo changes. Her tone echoes the explosion of color as her mind's eye pictures an orchid: "But to have a beautiful, tropical, vibrant, enchanting bloom on your kitchen table or on your windowsill lifts your spirits tremendously.

"I get very excited ... seeing a flower open at a time of year when it's kind of hard to find that someplace else."

While orchids bloom year-round, more seem to show their radiant colors this time of year, says Ms. Zachos, author of the book "Orchid Growing for Wimps" (Sterling, $17.95).

Here are her tips for growing and caring for orchids at a time of year when the simplest colorful gesture can far outweigh its weight in gold:

Which orchids would you suggest people grow indoors at this time of year?

Right now is peak bloom time for the Phalaenopsis orchids, commonly called moth orchids. These are the absolute best orchids for any beginner. They're really beautiful and very, very easy to care for....

This is also the bloom season for a lot of the Paphiopedilums. Also known as slipper orchids, these are absolutely gorgeous. They're so exotic looking.

What color blooms can one expect?

On the Phalaenopsis you can have anything from pure white to bright magenta to pale yellow, and there are also some hybrids that are splotched and striped quite dramatically with dark purple. For the Paphiopedilum there's a very wide range of colors: anything from yellow to orange to green with lots of different stripes and blotches and polka dots.

Also, with the Paphiopedilums you have a choice [of] foliage. Some of the orchids are green leafed and some have a nice mottled leaf color, which gives you some variation even when the plant is not in bloom.

What should you look for when you buy an orchid?

First of all, before you buy it, check and see what it's potted in. A lot of orchids these days are sold potted in bark.... That's how you want to grow them. Bark drains very quickly and doesn't keep the roots too wet.

However, more and more orchids are being sold in a long-grain sphagnum moss - which is very nice for shipping because it stays in the container and keeps the roots wet. But it's not so nice for the uneducated grower because it keeps the roots far too wet and tends to lead to root rot.

There's no reason not to buy an orchid potted in this, but you need to make note of it mentally. You're certainly not going to water it more than once a week if it's potted in that.

When [the orchid] has finished blooming, I would take it out of the moss and replant it in a bark mix. But I would not recommend repotting it until it has finished blooming. If you're not really careful, you can shock the plant enough when repotting that it will drop its flowers.

[When shopping for an orchid], while you're still in the store, look it over very carefully to make sure there are no insects.

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