Orchids are among the world's oldest flower groups and one of the largest, with more than 30,000 species. They emerged about 100 million years ago — 30 million years before Tyrannosaurus rex, and obviously orchids were a bit more resilient.
The ancient Greeks were using orchids as were the early Aztecs when they discovered vanilla, one of the world's most popular flavorings — which comes from an orchid.
In the mid-19th century, Queen Victoria had a royal orchid grower who sent hunters around the world in search of orchids. Did you know, orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica?
The orchid craze continues today, but we don't have to go too far to find one.
The first orchid many of us ever saw was in a corsage. Every year around Easter or Mother's Day, small plastic clamshells would appear with a Cattleya orchid corsage in them. Such corsages graced many a woman at church. Rarely were orchids available as potted plants, and unless you owned a greenhouse, the average gardener never gave them a second thought.
Times have changed. You see potted orchids for sale year-round at nurseries and garden centers, but also in grocery stores. While some of the mass-produced plants may not be the long-lasting quality you can find at smaller breeders, they are an excellent entree into the world of orchids.
Most of the orchids we see for sale as potted plants are native to tropical areas where they live in the trees as epiphytes (epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants, but are not parasites).
Some orchids are easier to grow than others. One of the easiest types to try is the Phalaenopsis or moth orchid. If you can grow an African violet and keep it blooming, you can grow a Phalaenopsis. They need very similar conditions.
The ideal temperature is 62-65 degrees at night and 70-80 degrees during the day, which is very similar to most home environments.
Overwatering is one of the biggest killers of orchids, but water needs vary by species. Most moth orchids should be watered once a week, preferring to get slightly dry between watering.
In the wild, Phalaenopsis are found growing in trees where they get almost daily drenchings from rain and live in constant high humidity.
Epiphytes use their roots to attach themselves to trees or rocks where light and air movement are more plentiful. If an orchid plant is potted in soil, the roots will not receive enough air and will be unable to dry out -- which often leads to rotting.
Most orchids should be planted in a bark mix, which is sold in the same area as bagged potting soils.
ICE IS NOT NICE
Occasionally you will see directions for orchid care that say to add a few ice cubes once a week to water the plant. This is a bad idea if you plan to keep the plant for years. If you only want to enjoy your orchid as long as it stays in bloom and then toss it, then fine, but ice is still not ideal. The reason behind this advice to use ice to water is that ice will melt slowly giving the plant a nice slow watering without overwatering, which can lead to an early death. But since most orchids are tropical in nature and have roots at the surface of the pot, ice can damage or kill the roots.
Instead of ice, take your plant to the kitchen sink once a week, remove it from its saucer and let room-temperature water flow through the bark mix. Once all water has drained out, put the pot back in the saucer.
Besides temperature and water, consider the amount of light in your house. For an orchid plant to be healthy and produce flowers, water, air and light must be in balance. Insufficient light is the most common cause of failure to re-bloom, but too much or too little light can cause overall problems.
The leaf color can indicate whether light is adequate. While deep dark green foliage is considered desirable in most houseplants, dark colored foliage is not optimal for orchids. A grassy green color (light or medium green) means the plant is receiving sufficient light to bloom.
Orchids need sunlight to produce food, but too much will scorch the leaves and can shorten the blooming period.
Morning sun is more beneficial to orchids than afternoon sun, so an eastern exposure is best. If you don't have enough light, orchids do respond well to artificial light as well.
Fertilization is something most orchid growers do on a regular basis, but not while the plants are in bloom. Once the plants finish blooming, many gardeners let them rest a bit before pushing them with fertilizer.
When you do fertilize, do so sparingly — often at half the strength recommended on the package. In the wild, the plants aren't fertilized but take their nutrition from the environment. Water-soluble fertilizers are best and should be poured on after you have watered.
Again, you can always add more, but you will burn the leaves if you add too much.
Most orchid plants can stay in bloom for weeks, sometimes even months. Don't be upset if a newly bought plant's bloom doesn't last long -- you often don't know where it came from or how long it had already been blooming.
Try to choose a plant with one or two open blooms but more flower buds waiting.
Re-blooming orchid plants can be challenging for a home gardener without a greenhouse, but the Phalaenopsis generally will re-bloom the easiest.
There are two schools of thought on what to do after the orchid blooms. Some prune the flower stalk by leaving two nodes where the flowers were, but others cut off the stalk at the base where it comes out of the leaves. Either way, with ample light and care, you can see flowers again in a couple of months.
Younger or weaker plants may not re-bloom for a year.
Some other home-friendly orchids include Dendrobium and Oncidium (Dancing Ladies or Dancing Dolls). Lady Slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum) also have beautiful blooms and can be grown fairly easily.
Once you have success you can start adding more to your collection, but unless you have a greenhouse or ample space, proceed with caution. When not in bloom, orchid plants aren't the showiest. Many orchid enthusiasts do have a small (or large) greenhouse so they can cycle blooming and nonblooming plants into and out of the home.
Don't be alarmed if you start seeing roots coming out of the pots. Roots often venture over the edges of pots or baskets, hanging out in the air — as they do in nature. While orchid roots take up water and nutrients, like all roots they also serve as a means of support. Orchids — when growing in the wild — use their roots to secure themselves in the cracks of bark or rocks. In your home, the roots may attach themselves to the insides of containers.
You will need to repot every two or three years, typically when the plant starts to outgrow its container or if the larger chunks of the potting material are breaking down and becoming too soil-like. Repot any time from spring through fall, but not when the orchid is in bloom.
There is a lot of information available about orchids. The American Orchid society, established in 1921, has a wealth of information on its website at aos.org.
They also have more than 400 affiliates worldwide, with two of them in Arkansas.
In Little Rock, the Arkansas Orchid Society meets at 1:30 p.m. on the third Sunday of every month in Christ Episcopal Church, Sixth and Scott streets, while in Springdale, the Orchid Society of the Ozarks meets at 1:30 p.m. on the fourth Sunday each month in the Northwest Tech Institute, 709 S. Old Missouri Road.
They are always interested in new members. They also hold an orchid auction each fall where you can pick up some great new plants.
Retired after 38 years with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Janet Carson ranks among Arkansas' best known horticulture experts.
HomeStyle on 01/19/2019
Print Headline: Growing orchids at home can be easy