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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Orchids

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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Orchids

January 14, 2019

“Orchids seem to drive people crazy,” the author Susan Orlean wrote in The Orchid Thief. “Those who love them love them madly.”

This has been true for centuries, and in the 18oos Europeans’ obsession with the tropical hothouse flowers reached such a fever pitch that it was dubbed Orchidelirium. These days, the once-expensive exotic epiphytes have become common, thanks to tissue-cloning techniques that makes mass production possible.

But although you can buy an orchid for under $20 at nearly any neighborhood supermarket, this does not mean you will know how to keep the plant alive at home. Orchids can be fussy—or at least mysterious—in their demands.

Let’s reveal a few of the flowers’ secrets—here are 10 things nobody tells you about orchids.

1. The easiest orchid to grow is a Phalaenopsis.

A Phalaenopsis orchid will grow in low light. For more details, see Best Houseplants: 9 Indoor Plants for Low Light. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: A Phalaenopsis orchid will grow in low light. For more details, see Best Houseplants: 9 Indoor Plants for Low Light. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Also known as a moth orchids, Phalaenopsis is a a beginner’s best friend because they will grow in low light and do not require extreme humidity. “Speaking as a home hobbyist grower, I also think Phalaenopsis orchids are probably the easiest to get to re-bloom,” says orchid seller Susie Turner of Green Door Design in Mill Valley, California. For more of her tips, see Orchids: Expert Advice from Susie Turner.

2. If you think it’s time to water your orchid, wait one more day.

Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Photograph by Erin Boyle.

“Avoid overwatering which leads to the demise of many more orchids than under-watering,” warns the American Orchid Society. To determine if your orchid needs water, “use the pencil trick (the point of a sharpened pencil, when inserted into the medium, will darken with moisture if the plant has enough water). And, there’s always the old standby – put your finger in the mix. If it feels wet, it is wet. If you aren’t sure whether it is time to water, wait one more day,” the society recommends.

3. To get an orchid to re-bloom, trick it into thinking it’s in the tropics.

Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

When an orchid stops blooming,, cut off the flower stalk at the base of the plant. Then put your moth orchid in a room in your house where you can simulate the tropical climate conditions it likes. It needs a month’s worth of  daily temperature drops of at least 10 degrees from day to night, says orchid whisperer Mary Gerritsen, the author of A Bay Area Guide to Orchids and their Culture.

Read more tips at How to Make An Orchid Bloom Again.

4. You probably don’t need to put your orchid in a bigger pot.

Photograph by Leslie Santarina.
Above: Photograph by Leslie Santarina.

Orchids like tight spaces. Don’t repot yours until its roots have grown through the holes on the pot and are dangling in air. (One exception to this rule is if you buy an orchid that is potted in moss. In that case, repot it immediately in a proper orchid potting mix.)

See more in How to Repot an Orchid (Without Killing It).

5. Your orchid will not be any happier in a special Swiss-cheese pot.

A Miltonia orchid is happy in a clay pot (with proper drainage). Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: A Miltonia orchid is happy in a clay pot (with proper drainage). Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

The Swiss-cheese pots attempt to replicate orchid-growing conditions in the wild, where the plants either grow visibly on the surface of trees (with roots attached to the bark of  tree branches) or on rocks, with roots working their way into crevices. But it’s not necessary to use an open-air orchid pot if your plant’s roots have good air circulation in a pot.

6. An orchid will not grow in soil.

Designer Rose Uniacke London designer fills her London conservatory with orchids. See more in Among the Orchids: Designer Rose Uniacke at Home in London. Photograph by Matthew Williams.
Above: Designer Rose Uniacke London designer fills her London conservatory with orchids. See more in Among the Orchids: Designer Rose Uniacke at Home in London. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

Orchids are epiphytes, and in their native tropical environments, they grow on trees (not in soil). Plant orchids in an orchid potting mix (which contains wood chips or bark) and they will be happy.

7. It’s not OK to use ice cubes on orchids.

We used to think this was OK. We were wrong! Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: We used to think this was OK. We were wrong! Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Some orchid owners avoid over-watering by putting an ice cube in the pot at the base of the plant. As the ice slowly melts, it releases water for the plant’s roots to absorb. But experts warn against this practice. For one thing, orchids are tropical plants that love warmth—and ice cubes are cold.

Here’s what the Oregon Orchid Society says on the subject: ” The ice cube idea is to provide minimal water in the orchid’s suboptimal conditions. The problem is, even though this might mimic the amount of water that the orchid had in their upbringing, misted hourly in mass greenhouses, over time the plant will die from being cramped in suboptimal conditions.  If you want to keep your orchid alive for years, the solution is regular watering with room-temperature water after repotting the orchid into proper orchid mix (usually bark) and a good, well-draining pot.”

8. An orchid’s flowers can last for many months.

For more of this orchid, see DIY: A Hanging Orchid, Father’s Day Edition. Photograph by Sylvia Moreno-Bunge.
Above: For more of this orchid, see DIY: A Hanging Orchid, Father’s Day Edition. Photograph by Sylvia Moreno-Bunge.

9. There are more than 25,000 different species of orchids.

A spectacular moth orchid in designer Rose Uniacke’s London conservatory. Photograph by Matthew Williams.
Above: A spectacular moth orchid in designer Rose Uniacke’s London conservatory. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

Popular houseplant varieties include Lady’s Slipper Orchid, Oncidiums, pansy orchids, moth orchids, and Phalaenopsis crosses. See more at Best Indoor Plants: 6 Flowering Orchids to Grow.

See more in Orchids: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

10. In the 1800s, collectors paid thousands of dollars for a single orchid plant.

A lacy-flowered Oncidium orchid. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: A lacy-flowered Oncidium orchid. Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

Orchidelirium (similar to the tulip mania that swept Holland in an earlier century) prompted Victorian-era plant collectors to buy rare orchids for high prices at auctions. Until the publication of the first edition of “The Orchid Grower’s Manual” in 1851, very little was known about how to propagate orchids or care for specimens brought back to Europe and the U.S.  from tropical climates. Nowadays, thanks to improved propagation techniques that growers developed in tissue culture labs, an exotic orchid can be purchased for a few dollars at nearly any supermarket.

N.B.: Featured photo at the top of the post by Leslie Santarina.

Read more growing tips in Orchids: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated design guides to Tropical Plants 101. Feed your orchid obsession with more posts:

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