Orchid flowers are absolutely beautiful, with delicate shapes and colors borne so intricately on the plant that each individual is a work of art. Orchids are also one of the few commonly cultivated indoor plant species that bloom in mid- to late winter, so they are especially tempting to anyone who can appreciate their beauty. Growing orchids is different from most other houseplants but is certainly something anyone can do with a little knowledge.
The orchids most commonly found in garden centers, shows, fairs and other plant sales are Phalaenopsis species, also known as moth orchids. They have a cluster of thick, wide, flat, glossy green leaves that grow just above the soil surface and bloom on a tall spike that benefits from being supported with a narrow rod or other plant stake. Each spike has several blossoms cascading from it. Flowers last several months and maintain a fresh appearance.
According to the American Orchid Society, there are 63 species, seven natural hybrids and many more distinct varieties of Phalaenopsis orchids. Differences are seen in both the leaves and flowers, with variations in size, shape and color. Flower colors may be anything from solid white to two or three color mixes of pink, purple, yellow and red with interesting speckles and striations.
Phalaenopsis orchids need less light than other orchid species and grow well in an east window or a shaded south or west window. A thin curtain can lessen the intensity of the sun in a bright window.
Some experts say you can place these orchids anywhere in your home or office while in bloom. If leaves turn very dark green, move the plant to indirect light in a window. (Red-tinges on the leaves indicate the plant is receiving too much light and should be moved away from the source or shaded.)
Watering is the hardest part of caring for an orchid as plants need to stay in the middle ground between being wet and completely dry. Check for moisture below the surface before watering or check the weight of the pot to determine a need for water. Set the plant in the sink or bathtub and apply room temperature water until it flows out the bottom of the pot. Let it drain for a few minutes before moving the plant back to its location.
Clear pots or containers are helpful in determining water needs. An orchid potted in a clear container can be set inside of a more decorative container – just remember to lift it out to check water needs frequently.
Use a towel to blot or dry any water that is left on the leaves or crown of the plant after watering to prevent crown rot.
Watering in the morning rather than at night also lessens the chance of root rot.
Daytime temperatures should be maintained between 70 and 80 degrees and nighttime temperatures above 60 degrees for optimum plant growth. Temperatures may fluctuate next to a window, so protect orchids from direct sun, cold drafts, and blasts of air such as from an exterior door opening and closing.
Any orchid fertilizer can be used according to label instructions.
When blooms fade, cut the flower stem/spike back. Cut to the level of the leaves to get a whole new spike for the next bloom, or look for the brown spots or lines on the stem that indicate nodes and cut above the second node counting up from the leaves. One of the nodes will send out another spike in two to three months. When the second spike fades, cut it back to the level of the leaves. Plants should re-bloom within a year.
Repot only as needed and use media that is specific to orchids rather than general purpose potting mixes.
Once you have mastered Phalaenopsis, you might want to try some of the other interesting and unusual orchids. Cattleya and Dendrobium orchids are next in the popularity line, but there are a great number of additional tropical species and also some lesser known and cultivated native species.
The orchid family includes more than 700 genera, 28,000 species, and 100,000 recognized cultivars overall.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”