Orchids and their care

My history with orchids

I attended a seminar on orchids earlier today, at a branch of my favorite nursery in our area, American Plant (AP). I love AP not only because they are committed to environmental stewardship and sustainability, and not only because they have a beautiful array of plants, flowers, edibles and gifts. They also boast an incredibly well-trained, passionate staff who always seems to know the answers or is willing to find them.

Orchids vex me. I love them and their weird, minimalist-water energy which nonetheless produces incredibly magical, long-standing blossoms in a spectrum of vivid hue. I like the concept of sucking what you need from the air around you and the trunk off which you grow. It's very essential and efficient and, frankly, a little inspiring. They ask little but offer much.

Like many folks, I tend to buy orchids with great zest; there is so much promise in each bloom and pregnant bud, and I am certain that this orchid will be the one I grow old with, separating it as it reproduces, learning the ratio of bark to sphagnum moss that it prefers, and just how much light and water.

I went to today's seminar because, at present, I have four beautifully potted orchid plants that have the greenest of leaves and the brownest and barest of canes. You're still with me, aren't you? I know. The whole crowd was. We all have green leaf sticks at home playing hard to get.

Orchid types

There are many orchid varietals that hail from all over the world, primarily in temperate climes. In nature, they most often grow horizontally off of a tree trunk or the like and as such are never sitting in water and so are largely epiphytic, aka "air plants." They experience breeze and filtered sunlight, and

The ones I was familiar with prior to today's seminar were Phaleanopsis (pron: phal-en-OP-sis), native to the Philippines, New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia, and Dendrobium (pron: den-DROH-bee-um), hailing from New Guinea and Australia.

Phalaenopsis orchids are the ones I see most frequently for purchase at groceries and markets: their canes arc majestically and display a number of flat-faced blooms that stick around for up to three months!

Dendrobiums, also known as the Lei flower because they're commonly used in Hawaiian leis, in my experience have smaller blossoms than Phalaenopsis and bloom for a shorter length of time.

We also learned about Cattleya (pron: CAT-lee-a) orchids, Oncidiums (on-SID-ee-um), and Paphiopedilum (paff-ee-o-PED-i-lum), aka the Lady Slipper. These varietals originated in Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

I was surprised by how fragrant some of these are and how varied are the leaves, root systems, petal colors, needs and size. I was also surprised that the nursery expert seemed to pooh-pooh the Phaleanopsis; like it's the Bose speaker of orchids.

Important things I learned about care and treatment of orchids

  1. When planting, cutting back and repotting orchids (and really, the experts said, all plants), be sure to sterilize your pots and shears. Viruses are easily transmissible and pretty much impossible to cure except by throwing out the infected plant. The best way to sterilize is with a flame.
  2. In general, orchids do best when they receive a thorough watering once a week. For orchids, a thorough watering involves pouring water over the root ball and pot matter until it starts to drain from the bottom of the pot, OR, if your orchid is not in a pot or vessel with drain holes (makes it easier if it is), dunk the entire thing from pot bottom to the point at which the root ball and leaves meet and then drain out what doesn't get absorbed. 
  3. Never let orchids sit in water. As well, don't let water sit in the crevasses where the leaves meet the stalk. Rot will happen, and the plant will die.
  4. Optimally, the water you use to water your orchids should sit overnight to off-gas chlorine. So, fill a vessel with tap water, let it sit overnight and then water your plants. If you're going to fertilize, use a half-strength solution of 20-20-20 fertilizer mixed with the appropriate amount of water and fertilize after you've first watered with, just water.
  5. For about a month prior to the bloom period, many orchids require a temperature shift from day to night of roughly 10 - 12 degrees. Consider the warm days and cooler nights of late summer/early fall. That's what orchids in the wild prefer for generation. You can replicate this at home with lights or greenhouse access or the like, but what I'm going to do is just put the orchids outside each day and bring them in at night. 
  6. I thought orchids wanted shade, but in fact that is likely why my plants boast only lovely leaves. In reality, they desire filtered sunlight on a regular basis; if you have medium-green leaves, you're probably in good shape. Dark green = not enough light; yellow ones are the result of too much.
  7. Sprinkling cinnamon atop a just-cut cane is good. I don't know why.
  8. Educate yourself about the best potting media for your type of orchid. Some like bark, some like sphagnum moss, others like coir, charcoal, lava, or some mix thereof. 

Safe to say I learned a lot, despite being the youngest in the crowd by about thirty years. Briefly I considered if my orchids were ageist, but I suspect not. They're failing to thrive because I didn't know enough. #relief

Once home, my immediate next-steps included putting my orchids outside, watering them appropriately and investigating their pot sizes relative to their root masses. Orchids like to be pot-bound and to be repotted every year or two in either clay or plastic, and I needed to assess where I was in our relationships. 

So, I'll keep you posted, but this is a great start!