I remember my first encounter with an orchid. It was given to me in a corsage by a young man who was escorting me to a high school dance. While I cannot remember what dance that was or even the name of the young man, I will always remember the orchid. I was awed by what I thought was a very beautiful and exotic flower, as was my mother. And for most of my life after that I believed that orchids were rare, expensive and difficult to grow. However, after I was given several orchids as gifts in the last few years, I learned that if that was ever the case it’s no longer true.
Orchids are not rare; in fact it is the largest plant family in the world. Orchids can be found in all possible environments, and they grow in every country in the world and every state in the U.S. including Alaska. No plant family is more diverse. Orchids produce flowers that are smaller than a fly or larger than a plate and everywhere in between. Where at one time orchids were considered only affordable to the rich that is no longer true due to modern methods of reproduction. Anyone who wants to have an orchid plant can probably afford one. And lastly orchids are not hard to grow. If you can cultivate other houseplants you can successfully cultivate orchids. They require the same basic things that other plants require; light, air, water and fertilizer.
Orchids need sufficient light to thrive. Lack of light is the most common reason for failure to bloom. You can tell if an orchid is getting enough light by the color of the leaves. Contrary to what we might think, lush dark green leaves indicate insufficient light. Orchids that are receiving an adequate amount of light have leaves that are a lighter yellow-green. To ensure this, it is best to place an orchid plant in a sunny south or east facing window.
Orchid roots need air or they will die. Therefore orchids are not planted or grown in soil. The best potting media for orchids is bark or peat based, which are open and fast draining but retain water. If you purchase an orchid from a garden center, it is very often potted in a bark media and you can see some roots growing above the “soil” line. The planting medium breaks down relatively quickly and the orchid may need to be repotted when the media has broken down; you see dead roots or it has outgrown its pot. You can purchase orchid growing media in many garden centers. Because the roots need air, orchids do not do well in a stale or stagnant atmosphere. Do not leave them in a room where there is little activity; they prefer a well ventilated area with air movement that simulates a gentle breeze. Just the air movement that results from the daily household activity will be beneficial.
Most orchids are killed by incorrect watering. As noted, the roots need air and overwatering will lead to root rot. They should be planted in a media and pot that drains sufficiently. You can usually tell they need water when the surface area is dry or the pot is very light. If you are not sure use a pencil or wooden skewer into the planting media. If it’s dark and moist when you pull it out then the plant has sufficient moisture, if it is still light and dry it is time to water. Water the plant liberally, allowing water to run through the pot for 15 secs or so, which not only refreshes the media but flushes out any built up salts. Allow the pot to drain for about 15 minutes before returning it to its decorative potting. Watering in the morning allows the foliage and crown to dry out before the cooler temperatures of the evening, helping to avoid any fungal diseases.
Orchids can grow and flower for a long time without fertilizer, but you will get better results with fertilization. You can use any fertilizer that you use for your other houseplants that provide all of the trace elements, or you can purchase fertilizer that is specially formulated for orchids. Do not fertilize dry roots because the fertilizer may burn them; they will do better with too little fertilizer than too much. Some people prefer to apply weaker solutions weekly or semiweekly and others prefer a full strength application monthly after watering. It really depends on how often you have to water your plant, you want to apply the fertilizer after watering.
If you are ‘gifted’ with an orchid plant or you choose to buy one I think you will be surprised how relatively easy they are to care for and you will be amply rewarded when shown their beautiful, long lasting and exotic flowers. I recommend you give it a try.
P.S. What a lovely Valentine gift!