Early in my gardening hobby days, I became interested in orchids. Those beautiful, large, colorful, long-lasting, waxy blooms are quite enchanting, and the lure was irresistible to try growing some of these exotic plants. I availed myself to references, books and magazines, and became thoroughly confused, and nearly convinced that folks without greenhouses were not meant to enjoy these botanical wonders, except as corsages on special occasions. Killing a few along the way reinforced my notion that special conditions were a necessity to grow any kind of orchid.
Later, while growing African violets under lights, I tried growing a Phalaenopsis, commonly known as the moth orchid. Not only did I not kill it, but it actually thrived, and bloomed regularly for several years. And, moth orchid blooms can last several months given the right care. That wonderful plant changed my mind about the possibility of growing orchids in the home without the aid of a greenhouse. More on moth orchids in a moment.
Orchids are an amazing group of plants. There are over 30,000 species in about 600 genera. Orchids are not just native to steamy, tropical jungles. No, they come from nearly every spot on this planet, from near the Arctic circle south to islands near the Antarctic. Orchid mania was spurred by the discovery of the large blooming types found growing in the tropics of the New World.
Did you know that there are several orchids native to Texas? Depending on what reference you check, they number between 45 and 54 different species! I even found a native orchid (a Spring Ladies Tresses) blooming in my backyard in Tyler!
Unlike the seeds of many plants that contain a packet of food (endosperm) to aid in their growth after germination (think of big, fat bean seeds), orchid seeds are as fine as dust, having no food source once they germinate, and thus very difficult to grow from seed. Since propagation by division was so slow, they were not readily available, and and therefore very expensive. In the 1920’s, a new way to grow orchid seeds on an artificial medium of agar and nutrients was discovered, providing an efficient means to rapidly grow large numbers of orchids in flasks, and to create new hybrid varieties.
Over the years, orchids have become more readily available, and prices for common varieties have dramatically dropped into a much more affordable range.
Proper conditions needed to grow orchids are as diverse as the ecological habitats from which they come, which was one of reasons for my original confusion. Different orchid species have a range of both temperature and light requirements. Some require cooler temperatures, while others will thrive under warmer conditions commonly found in East Texas. Some varieties require very bright light, even some sun, while others do better under more subdued lighting. My suggestion is to start with one or 2 of the more easy types of orchids, and once successful, venture out from there.
The moth orchid, Phalaenopsis, is perhaps one of the easiest types to grow based on their light requirements. As a matter of fact, the moth orchid was designated as a Texas Superstar plant a few years ago. A former orchid research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center in Weslaco helped the moth orchid to become even more readily available, and now is found in grocery stores, lumberyards and of course nurseries.
The following are some cultural tips for growing Phalaenopsis:
LIGHT. As I mentioned earlier, I grew and maintained a couple of moth orchids under fluorescent lights alongside my African violets. Strong sunlight is actually detrimental to moth orchids. Phalaenopsis orchids grow very well near bright windows, with no direct sunlight. An east window is ideal in the home; filtered south or west windows are acceptable. Two- or four-tube fluorescent lights suspended six inches to one foot above the foliage, running 12 to 16 hours daily. In a greenhouse, provide shade to permit no more than 800 to 1,500 foot-candles of light. No shadow should be seen if you hold your hand one foot above the plant’s leaves.
TEMPERATURE. Phalaenopsis orchids should be grown ideally above 60° F at night and between 70° F and 82° F during the day. Temperatures below 78° F for three to five weeks with good light are needed for initiating flower spikes, so if you keep your plants indoors, take them outside (but in the shade) in early Fall for a few weeks to promote flowering. Bring them in before the night temperatures fall into the 50’s. Widely fluctuating temperatures and low humidity can cause bud drop on plants with flower buds ready to open.
WATER. The growing medium should never be allowed to completely dry out. Plants should be thoroughly watered and then not watered again until nearly dry. In the heat of the summer, this may be every two to three days, whereas during the winter, it may be every ten or more days.
One tip for testing soil for orchids planted in a peat based media is to stick a pencil into the media as you would stick a toothpick into a cake to test for doneness. If the pencil comes out of the media with peat on it, or if the wood is wet, do not water. Do not allow water to accumulate in the leafy crown for long to avoid problems, and do not allow pots to sit in standing water.
Humidity should be between 50% and 80%. If it’s lower than 50%, set plants on trays of gravel, partially filled with water so that pots never sit directly in water. Grouping plants together can slightly raise the humidity in the immediate surrounding area. In humid climates, such as in a greenhouse, keep the air moving with fans to prevent diseases.
FEEDING. Fertilizer should be applied regularly, especially during warm weather when plants are actively growing. Apply a ½ strength water-soluble, complete fertilizer every 2 weeks. Reduce this frequency in winter.
POTTING is best done in late spring or early summer after blooming is finished. Pot Phalaenopsis orchids in a well-draining mix, such as fir bark, tree fern fiber, various types of stone, sphagnum moss, or combinations of these. Orchid fanciers all have their favorite mixes, and are always trying new recipes.
Root rot will occur if plants are allowed to sit in an old, soggy medium that has broken down and holds more water than it used to. This is probably one of the biggest factors in killing orchids. So repotting is necessary.
Young plants should grow fast enough to need repotting yearly and should be potted initially in a fine grade medium to allow good root contact. Mature plants can be allowed to grow in the same pots for two years, potted in a medium grade mix. They can stay in the same pots for years, provided that medium is changed as it breaks down.
To repot, remove all old medium from the roots, trim off soft, rotted roots, and spread the remaining roots over a handful of medium in the bottom of a pot. Fill the rest of the pot with medium, working it through the roots, so that the junction of the upper roots and the stem is slightly below the medium. Avoid leaving large air pockets in the pots. Use a stick to push the medium between the roots. Keep plants shaded and wait for a couple of days before watering.