Orchids, Orchidaceae: “First Corsage”
In a long-ago time when only boys could ask for dates and girls were expected to spend their days waiting for the (dial) phone to ring, orchids loomed large. If you were a girl invited to a prom or other formal party you could reasonably expect to be presented with a small florist box containing an orchid corsage. The orchid would be large and solitary except for a poof of netting or a ribbon and would never be in any color except purple or, in rare cases, white.
For centuries their fickle nature limited orchids to either being the coddled specimens of fanciers or the expensive indulgences of the wealthy. But these days the Cattleya has broken out of the tiny florist box to become a popular house plant, thanks to the increased availability and affordability of orchids.
Also unknown to us was that this bloom, which we regarded as simply a status symbol, was a descendant of ancient plants that had been alive in the age of the dinosaurs. We would have been astonished to learn that the fragrant flower pinned to our chest was just one of as many as 30,000 species of orchids.
If you google “Cattleya” today, it’s obvious that there is no need whatsoever to think of this as a purple or white flower because the range of its colors is dazzling and vast.
Many orchids were once extremely difficult to propagate. However, in the 1960s reliable new commercial propagation techniques enabled the mass production of orchid clones via tissue culture. Today orchids are the most valuable floriculture crop produced in the United States and experts estimate the number of orchid hybrids at 75,000 and growing.
For a visual feast that will open your mind to the vastness of the world of orchids today, a trip to the New York Botanical Garden’s 15th annual Orchid Show is highly recommended. The show focuses on Thailand, home to more than 1.200 native orchid species.
There are so many flowers to examine at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory that you may need to visit the show multiple times to give your overwhelmed brain and eyes time to process what you have seen.
As orchids become more common as house plants, we are faced with learning to care for them. They are not difficult to grow but they are tropical exotics and have very specific requirements that are quite different from your standard fern or Sansevieria. Various types of orchids need distinct and special care; experts advise learning the individual needs of your exact plant. However, there are some general guidelines that will serve you well and get you started on the path of being the proud caretaker of some fabulous flowers.
- Orchids love and need plenty of humidity. If your home is dry, place your plants on a saucer of pebbles that is kept full of water. Use a layer of landscape fabric or other barrier over the stones to make sure the pot will not take up the water from the saucer. You can also use a humidifier.
- Orchids are tropical plants and like warmth. Don’t water them by placing ice cubes in the pot or by using cold water. Avoid getting water on the crown where the leaves join at the center.
- Adequate circulation of fresh air is vital for orchids. Make sure your plants are not placed too closely together and open a window or use a fan to ensure they have plenty of air moving around them.
Keep It Alive
- Orchids need plenty of light. A general rule of thumb is to give them as much light as they can take without burning the foliage.
- Many orchids are done in by overwatering so be sparing in providing moisture. A drench and drought technique is recommended where the plant is allowed to dry out completely before getting a thorough watering.
- Orchids should only be grown in specially prepared growing mediums, never in soil. Orchid mixes are composed of large, firm, chunky natural materials such as orchid bark, sphagnum moss, and lava rock.
- Even potting mediums designed especially for orchids will break down and reduce the plant’s much-needed air circulation and rapid drainage. You will need to repot your orchid in fresh medium frequently to keep it in good health.
One thing that will determine how you care for your orchid is whether it is terrestrial (grows in the ground) or epiphytic (grows on other plants such as trees or even on rocks). It is important to note that “epiphytic” does not mean “parasitic.” Epiphytic plants use other plants as supports but do not take any nourishment from them. Some types of orchids that are found growing on trees in the tropics are Cattleya, Phalaenopsis, and Dendrobium. You can choose to grow these orchids on slabs of cedar, tree fern or cork bark or in baskets lined with sheet moss. Epiphytic orchids can also be grown in pots in free draining orchid medium.
They can tolerate somewhat more moisture than epiphytes and can be grown in pots with slightly denser potting medium. Some of these are hardy in temperate climates and can be grown outdoors in pots or beds.
Whatever orchid you choose to grow, some research and conscientious care should insure a bountiful and floriferous reward. Who knows, on your next special night out you might even wear a corsage orchid you have grown yourself.
N.B.: See our Gardening 101 plant guides for more Tropical Plants.
Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for orchid with our Orchid: A Field Guide.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various houseplants with our Houseplants: A Field Guide.
Interested in other tropical plants for your garden or indoor space? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various tropical plants with our Tropical Plants: A Field Guide.
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