Orchids: Exotic Beauties

Lynn Coulter
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phaleonopsis

For all their exotic beauty, many orchids are surprisingly easy to grow. The key is choosing a plant that can flourish in the average home. Phalaenopsis, sometimes called “moth orchids,” come in spectacular colors and are great for everyone from beginners to experienced orchid enthusiasts. 

Phalaenopsis orchids

One look at their wing-like blooms, and you’ll see why phalaenopsis remind many gardeners of moths in flight. The blooms appear from winter to early spring and may last as long as 2 or 4 months. Look for them in snowy white, yellow, pink, lavender, and other colors.

cymbidium

Give your moth orchid bright light, but not direct sun, like an east-facing window. The plants like temperatures above 60 degrees F at night, and 70 to 82 degrees F. during the day. Let them dry almost completely between waterings and grow in a planting medium made for them.

Phalaenopsis need good air circulation. Feed them with orchid fertilizer, following package directions.

Cattleyas

These are the big, showy flowers often used at weddings. Cattleyas usually bloom once a year, from winter to late spring, although some have two flushes of flowers. They need cool evening temperatures in the winter, around 55 degrees F., to trigger blooms.

 Grow cattleyas in a porous, fast-draining orchid medium, and use slatted baskets or pots with slots for air circulation. The plants prefer temperatures from 55 degrees at night to the 80s during the day.

cattleya orchid

Let the plants become dry before you water. You’ll know they’re well-hydrated when the thickened stems, called pseudo-bulbs, look plump and filled-out. It’s better to underwater than overwater.

Cattleyas need filtered bright light. Fertilize when the plants are actively growing, following package directions.

Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Paphiopedilum species)

These tropical orchids make good houseplants because they tolerate lower light. Outdoors, they need partial shade. The blooms are green, brown, mauve, yellow, or mottled colors. Don’t let your Lady’s Slipper orchid go completely dry, and apply orchid fertilizer as the manufacturer recommends. 

Lady's slipper

 Oncidiums

Also known as “dancing ladies,” oncidiums get their nickname for their long stems of small flowers that sway in a breeze. They’re happy with daytime temperatures from 75 to 85 degrees F. and nighttime temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees F. They thrive in bright, indirect light with high humidity. Fertilize less often in winter, when the plants aren’t growing as vigorously.

Tips For Growing Orchids

  • Most orchids like to be root-bound, even if some of the roots grow over the sides of the pot or up into the air.
  • Watch your watering. Experts say if you’re not sure whether it’s time to water, wait a day.

For Northern Gardeners

  • Be sure all danger of frost has passed before you move your orchids outdoors in the spring.
  • If your plants don’t get enough light indoors, try using grow lights.

For Warm Climate Gardeners

  • You may be able to grow orchids outdoors if you live in parts of Southern California or Florida, where the weather is mild year-round, or in Hawaii or Puerto Rico.
  • Cymbidiums are popular outdoor plants for coastal areas of southern California. They need garden beds or containers with excellent drainage and dappled light. Feed them with a soluble inorganic fertilizer.
  • Gardeners in parts of Florida can grow cattleyas and phalaenopsis on trees with moderate shade. Hang the plants in baskets, or use wire to attach them to trees with rough bark, and pack Osmunda fiber or coco fiber around the roots. Mist as needed in hot, dry weather. Eventually the plants will produce roots that grab onto the tree.
  • Orchids thrive in Hawaii’s warm, humid climate, although they may need a lath house, a simple frame structure with strips of wood nailed across the top, to give them partial shade.

For Gardeners in Dry Desert Climates

  • Group your orchids together to help raise the humidity, mist them often, and/or put them on top of pebbles in a tray filled with some water. Remember: don’t let the plants touch the water, to help avoid rot root.
  • Provide shade for your orchids if needed. Direct sun can scorch their leaves. 

Phaleonopsis image: Shutterstock/Vorobyeva; Lady’s Slipper image: Shutterstock/LeonP; Cattleya image: Shutterstock/Paul Atkinson

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