From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on Feburary 11, 2004

When Growing Orchids Prepare to Be Seduced.

The recent bestseller, "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, and its offspring, the movie "Adaptation", are what provoke me to write about orchids. First, I read the excerpt of the book in The New Yorker, and I was hooked. Then I read the book.

I was spellbound. It's all about passion. The quest for something more, maybe even unattainable by all but a rare few.

Unlike many orchid growers, I've never been on a trip to the tropics, never been bitten by the bug to grow and duplicate the colorful jewels that hang from the branches of the local trees or even a fence surrounding the yard outside a home. It just sort of crept up on me. My fondness for growing things goes back some forty years, and somewhere along the way, plants that flowered indoors got my attention.

The orchid family is the largest family of flowering plants in the world with close to 40,000 named species. This does not include the hundreds of thousands of crosses and cultivated varieties or cultivars. And, who knows how many go undiscovered or become extinct or are lost to deforestation, or pollution, or ... dare I say it -- illegal collecting. Anyhow, I figured with that many out there, there sure ought to be some that would do fine in my window space with my other houseplants. Bingo! I still have my first orchid purchased thirty years ago, plus considerable offspring by root division. Every winter my Epidendrum produces delicate spikes adorned with orange flowers speckled with yellow and crimson.

They dance and glow on a stem thinner than a coat hanger.

Orchids are not parasites! Most grow on other plants and trees and are called epiphytes. Epiphytic plants include ferns, lichens, and spanish moss (pineapple family) among others. These hangers-on take nothing from the plant they grow on and injure them in no way. The plant simply provides support. Some orchids and other plants grow on rock and these are called lithophytes. Saprophytes grow on decaying vegetation, and, of course those that grow on sand or soil are terrestrials. The vast majority of orchids, however, are epiphytes.

Orchids come in all sizes and shapes and seemingly occupy almost every environmental niche. Some plants are the size of a penny and have flowers smaller than mosquitoes. Some have flowers as large as a platter. Some orchids reach twenty feet in length. Every country in the world and every state in the U.S. has indigenous orchid species. Some orchids only occupy treetops and at least two species grow and bloom only underground. Some have a fragrance that travels for a mile or more, and some have no scent at all, but such unique shape, color, and structure (often mimicking a living organism) that they are assured pollination by insects or birds.

Orchids are long lived and somewhat drought tolerant. Divisions of 19th century specimens are still growing and flowering. Growing them is no longer the rich person's hobby it once was. Plants are within reach of any income and the costly Wardian case, a miniature indoor conservatory not unlike a terrarium, so popular from the mid-1800s on are passe and unnecessary, And, no, you do not need a greenhouse either. A word of caution: Once you've flowered your first orchid -- look out. It's kind of like trying to eat just one potato chip, or peanut, or name your weakness.

And, why not, once you discover that some orchid flowers last considerably longer than most others? Two to four months is not uncommon for many. Little wonder that English naval officers brought them home as gifts to their ladies in the 1750s. By the 1840s "orchid mania" had set in.

Important social gatherings had to have some orchid plants in bloom. A single Cattleya orchid in flower would fetch $ 600. Charts showing secret locations for collecting specimens were considered as valuable as the best treasure maps of the day.

The Aztecs were the first to recognize the commercial value in that they discovered the wonders of vanilla (the seed pod of the vanilla orchid plant) and used it to flavor another horticultural wonder, chocolate. By the 1930s, large scale breeding and cultivating operations were devoting large sums of money and energy to produce the large and showy Cattleya orchids of proms' and Mother's Days' corsages of the '60s. It was, after all, designed by man to excel in its size, gaudy bright lavender color, and general magnificence.

The majority of today's orchids are no longer the rare and fragile plants they were once considered to be. They are tough, long lasting, easy to grow and prolific.

Like all houseplants, they live within the ordinary parameters of moisture, temperature and light. They're vulnerable to the same pests, principally mealy bug and scale. They use water in direct proportion to temperature and light, and inverse proportion to humidity. So, what's the difference? Most orchids that I suggest you try to grow are epiphytes. No potting soil, as you know it. Instead, it's a mix of firbark chunks, charcoal, pieces of cork, coarse perlite, or styrofoam peanuts or popcorn and some peat moss or sphagnum.

Imagine the roots clinging to the bark or twigs of a tree limb. It rains; the water runs over and through the roots leaving them dampened; the excess water drains away. Something orchids like that most houseplants benefit from, but rarely get except maybe in summer, is movement of air. Remember, we're trying to simulate that plant clinging to a tree branch.

You've probably guessed by now that most orchids prefer bright but filtered light, not direct hot sun. They also prefer a lower night temperature than day temperature. Many will tolerate a drop of 30 or more degrees at night. Sounds like outdoors in the Catskills, late spring through early fall. Years ago I once had one hundred and thirty orchids that summered under a covered deck outside my kitchen.

There are generally three temperature categories to look at for orchid growing: Cool = night lows around 50 degrees F; Intermediate = lows between 55 and 60F; Warm = lows between 65 and 70F. They are widely tolerant, however, and my experience with them has shown far greater flexibility with regard to temperature as long as light and moisture requirements are met.

As with most houseplants, it is better to use tepid water applied early in the day so plants will drain and dry some before nightfall. A small fan can guarantee movement of air if the room is small and no one is around. In my once large living room in a busy house, I never had a fan and my orchids bloomed twice a year, year after year. Almost all mature orchids will bloom once each year, but most Phalaenopsis, aka. moth orchids, will bloom two times. What a treat-- they'd continue for three or four months each time. And they lived up to their nick-name, looking so like a cluster of colorful or white moths in flight. I confess these are my favorites.

The Phalaenopsis (fal-en-nop-siss) is the easiest to grow on a windowsill, the most forgiving in terms of temperature and moisture, and night temps near 60 degrees F or even a bit lower, almost always initiates the plant's production of a flower spike. There are a wide variety of flower colors, even speckled and striped.

Another easy one to grow is Paphiopedilum (paff-ee-oh-ped-i-lum) or the lady slipper orchid. These are not the local ones but tropicals in shades of brown, burgundy, green or yellow. Others to try include the Cattleya (kat-lee-a) or corsage flower. These get big, so more room is needed. They also require more light than the first two, and can go right into an unobstructed east or west window. There are several other candidates for growing in your home, but look at a few Phalanopsis plants and see if you like them, first. That's where I would start, providing you like them.

Purchase your first orchid when it is flowering. This way you'll know you will like the flowers it will produce. Whether you go to a specialty shop, a grower, or a chain big box store, besides the usual caveats about the plant should be clean, have good color, suffer no broken or damaged parts, and be insect free, something to look for if it's a Phalaenopsis you're shopping for: if there is a large selection, seek out plants that have two flower spikes, or, if there are none with double spikes, seek one with a branching spike. Both of these traits are genetic and will repeat this growth habit in the future and provide you with many more blossoms.

If you find any of the above tantalizing, you might visit the American Orchid Society web site first. If you enjoy a variety of houseplants, and you want to try something different, take the plunge. They are a houseplant with a difference. And, if you wind up with special light tables or extra shelves in you windows in your spare room, don't say I didn't warn you.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on Feburary 11, 2004

© 2004 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.