Orchids: they're not just a hothouse flower

Orchids have an undeserved reputation. They're generally thought of as delicate plants that are difficult to grow. But in fact these magnificently flowering plants are tough and sturdy. A greenhouse is the ideal place to grow orchids, of course, but a bright window or a place for a small fluorescent light will do, too.

There are 30,000 species of orchids, so the most difficult task is choosing which type of plant you wish to start with. Most orchids bloom once a year. By choosing plants that bloom in the different seasons, you can enjoy blooming orchids year-round.

Cattleyas are probably the most familiar of orchids, and they are some of the easiest for the beginner. Mention cattleyas and one usually thinks of the large lavender or purple flowers that were once popular as corsages, but there are thousands of varieties in almost any color imaginable.

Whatever your choice, it is best to buy a blooming plant or a plant in bud. The cheaper seedlings require several years to reach maturity, and the difference in price is not worth the wait. If you buy a plant already in bloom, you will know exactly what you are getting.

Cattleyas are epiphytic; they must not be potted in soil. To do so would kill them. In the wild they grow in the tops of trees, where rain quickly drains off their roots. They need that quick drainage in pots as well, so plant them in fir bark or osmunda, both of which are available at orchid nurseries. Cattleyas have pseudo bulbs which store moisture, so they don't need to be watered often. Water only when the bark or osmunda is dry. Put the plant in the sink and drench it thoroughly. Let it drain, then return it to a south window in the winter, or an east window in the summer. If possible, it is beneficial to the orchid to summer outdoors in light shade. This also will help induce flowering. Once a month, fertilize with a complete fertilizer such as 20-20-20.

Normal home temperatures suit cattleyas well. In the winter, when most are semi-dormant, cool night temperatures of 58 to 62 degrees F. are beneficial, but not required.

After the flowers fade, which will take a month or two, stop watering and allow the plant to rest for about six weeks. Do not fertilize. When you see new growth appear, resume normal care.

If you can grow a geranium or an African violet, you can grow an orchid. Grow them on your window sill, grow them under lights, or grow them in a hobby greenhouse.

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