Orchids – a bad rap for being “fussy”

Have you ever grown orchids? They have a reputation for being difficult. That’s a bad rap. They are one of my all time favorite flowers and I’ve never met one I didn’t love or had one that didn’t rebloom. If you want to try your hand at growing these beauties, I would begin with the easiest to grow, a phalaenopsis, commonly known as moth orchids. Not only is this variety of orchids sold at local florists and nurseries, I’ve seen them for sale in grocery stores and even drug stores. They are also the least expensive.

Orchids are so beautiful and elegant, they almost look “fake” or artifical. Truth be told, they are actually pretty tough. The blooms can last for three to four months and, with a little care and attention, they will rebloom for years and years. There are records that verify some orchids can live up to a 100 years. So don’t fret if you want to give them a try. They are a good investment.

I usually use white phalaenopsis orchids when decorating for most holidays including Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. The white blends well as I change out the container and seasonal decorations. This one pictured at Christmas 2019 was still around for Valentine’s Day 2020 and almost made it to full bloom for Easter. So almost four months to enjoy this beauty. Today as I write this column, it has a fresh shoot with buds developing. That is resilience!

There are a few simple rules to remember to get the best results when phalaenopsis are blooming and after they stop blooming. Like most flowering plants, phalaenopsis do not like wet feet. They prefer bright, indirect light. When I use them for decorating on my credenza in my foyer they get no natural light, but I do turn on the lamps at each end of the credenza when I get up in the morning and before I got to bed at night. After blooming, I cut off the stem after it starts to turn brown. Once they begin to develop a new stem, usually after about a few months, I give them a shot of orchid fertilizer.

If you want to try your green thumb with another variety of orchid, you’ll have many choices. Orchids are a diverse plant family that includes more than 700 genera and some 28,000 individual species. It is one of the largest of all plant families, and its members are identified by a characteristic bilateral symmetry of the flowers, with upward-facing petals. While there are many native orchids in all regions of the world, those commonly grown by home gardeners tend to be tropical orchids kept as houseplants. Many species of orchids are epiphytic plants—they grow on the surface of other plants and absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. Potted orchids are often moved outdoors during the appropriate months, and many will thrive in bright shade until its time to bring them back indoors.

And this if where I’m going to turn it over to a friend, Becky Basset, who I consider to be an orchid guru. Becky has had stunning success with several different varieties of orchids. So I’m going to show you some of them and share with you her 4-1-1 on what makes them happy.

Becky retired in 2008 after serving as the Director for the Regional Tourism Program at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. I would tour her yard any day of the week! She has spent some of that free time taking a Master Gardner class and putting that knowledge and her green thumb to work growing and nurturing orchids. I think her husband, Jack, has had a hand in gifting her some special orchid plants to experiment with over the years.

After seeing the pictures of Becky’s orchids, the biggest challenge for me was where to begin in sharing them with you. So I will start with the cattleya. It brought back memories as the corsage given to me by my date for high school prom. And check this out if you think orchids are “fussy,” Becky keeps it under a maple tree and it gets watered when the yard sprinkler system turns on. How’s that for easy peasy?

According to Becky one of her favorite orchids is the cymbidium because “they are grand and glorious when in bloom.”

“They are pretty easy to grow. They get morning sun and, again, our sprinkler hits them a couple of times a week. In the winter, I keep them in a carport which blocks the wind. If it gets down below about 29 degrees, I will bring them inside.”

Another orchid that gets her really excited when in bloom is the paphiopedilums or Lady’s Slipper orchid. These are very unique but easy to grow. The requirements are pretty simple. They need to be watered a couple of times a week and require shade if being grown outdoors. If you are growing a Lady’s Slipper inside, protect them from direct sunlight.

One of the most stunning orchids is the Vanda. This group of orchids is heat-loving and native to tropical Asia. In their native habitat, Vanda orchid plants hang from trees in nearly soilless media. It is important to mimic this condition as much as possible when growing a Vanda orchid. The care of Vanda orchids is simple, provided you remember a few key items regarding the orchid’s preferences. Once you have the right growing situation, you can become skilled at how to grow Vanda orchids and enjoy large, colorful blooms every few months.

Let’s recap. To grow a Vanda, no dirt and they can take full sun. They can not take cold weather.

With large sprays of flowers, the oncidium orchid is a beautiful choice. The most common flower variety is often referred to as the “dancing lady”. Unlike some varities, this one thrives on a little more neglect. Water when the mix just approaches dryness. This will mean about every 5-7 days. They also prefer bright, diffused light.

I love plants with variegated or unusual colored leaves. Ludisia or jewel orchid certainly fills the bill. This unusual orchid variety breaks all the rules: it grows in the soil, not in the air; it likes shade instead of a sunny environment; and it gets its good looks from the velvety leaves it produces instead of its flowers. If they’re so different, then what are jewel orchids? They are one of the simplest orchids a budding grower could own. If you can grow a begonia indoors, you can be successful with growing jewel orchids.

If you are ready to dive in to orchid growing, here are a couple of other tips from Becky. Read the instructions for the particular variety you are growing but don’t be initimiated. I also asked her about the “ice cube.” I see orchids for sale that are referred to as “ice cube” orchids. The instructions tell you to just put an ice cube in the orchid instead of watering. She and I both decided that was to limit the amount of water or to prevent overwatering but why put an ice cube in a tropical plant?

Outside of this edition of Green Thumb Gardening there are plenty of great online resources for learning more about these treasures. I would highly recommend the American Orchid Society The American Orchid Society (aos.org).

The skies are gray and the temperatures are cold but you can always brighten your day inside with an orchid. You’ll still be admiring it when the temperatures are warm enough to take it outdoors. And believe me, thanks to Becky Basset, I’m inspired to try more varieties of orchids in the coming year.

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