They are elegant and sophisticated. They’re certainly exotic. But if you think orchids are hard to grow, think again.
For a long time now, orchids have had the rather dubious reputation for being temperamental beauties that require meticulous care, plus a healthy dose of luck, for them to grow and prosper.
But, in fact, there are many types that will thrive in the hands of the average gardener in a typical home, including the popular corsage-type orchid, among many others.
And in the past few years, bucking their family's delicate reputation, one species of orchid, Phalaenopsis, has gone from exotic flora to supermarket staple. Cloned in Taiwanese labs and nurtured in California nurseries, they're popping up in droves at supermarkets, big box stores, nurseries, garden centers, and discount clubs.
Native to tropical Asia – including the Philippines, Java, and elsewhere – the orchids in this group, including many species and hundreds of man-made hybrids, make excellent indoor plants because they need only filtered light and average indoor temperatures for them to thrive.
Orchids that look like moths
These rather mundane-looking plants produce some of the most wildly exotic flowers imaginable. The arching sprays of so many brilliantly colored, flat, winglike blossoms give Phalaenopsis its common name – the moth orchid.
And because the blossoms on a single spray often open in succession, a single spray of the heavy-textured flowers generally lasts for two or three months, and sometimes even longer.
Although a couple of smaller varieties of orchids have taken up permanent residence on my windowsills in the kitchen, the majority of my plants are grown in the basement under lights.
A couple of weeks ago the first spikes finally burst into bloom. Decked out in a full range of luxurious colors, silken textures, and nocturnal scents, this group of luscious charmers strutted out a rainbow of colors from cream and yellow to shades of pink. .
Typically, modern hybrids of the moth orchid range in color from white and cream to pink, rose-cream, and yellow with colored lips in rose, red, wine, or spotted.
Although the white blooms are the largest and have the best form, imaginative breeders worldwide have improved the many colored ones. Thus, the range of many of the newer “novelty” colors – yellow, green, dark purple, sunburst, and blush – has also exploded.
And the colors of the orchids may either be solid, or marked with stripes, bars or spots. [Editor's note: Do click through all the photos at the top of this post and above left. They'll give you a fuller idea of what's available.]
Caring for your orchids
I’m not 100 percent successful at getting my orchids to thrive and rebloom each year – I do lose a couple every now and then – but I’m successful enough to add a couple of new plants to my collection each year.
If you keep the following information in mind, you should have minimal trouble growing orchids in your own home:
– Temperature should stay between 70 and 75 degrees F. (21 C to 24 C) during the day and 60 to 65 degrees F. (15.5 C to 18 C) at night.
– Proper light it critical for getting plants to rebloom. Moth orchids are low-light plants that prefer an east or lightly shaded west window, They can also be grown under regular grow lights that are positioned about a foot above the plant. They do not like direct sunlight.
– Ideal humidity is between 50 to 60 percent. For a greater chance of success, cluster pots on trays filled with gravel and water, making sure that pot bottoms sit above the water level.
– Mastering the watering of orchids is often one of the most puzzling challenges of their culture. Moth orchids have a low tolerance for drought, enjoying an evenly moist, not wet, soil year-round. I water my plants weekly, flushing the pot well with water, then allowing it all to drain out before putting it back on the water-filled tray.
– During the growing season, I fertilize with a weak (l/4-strength) orchid fertilizer every time I water, cutting back to once every two to three weeks when the plant is in bloom.
– To induce a flower spike and subsequent bloom, plants need a bit of a cold spell. My basement is ideal, where temperatures dip to the mid-50s F. (13 C) for a couple of weeks during winter.
– Plants do best when they're grown in a potting media that's for orchids and in free-draining containers. Repotting is usually necessary every three or so years.
Moth orchids are very rewarding, generally non-demanding, plants for the home grower as long as you find the right balance between humidity, temperature, and light.
Betty Earl is one of eight garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” is one of eight garden writers who blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.
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