Mark Cullen on growing and caring for orchids
Canada AM gardening expert Mark Cullen
Published Monday, June 18, 2012 1:43PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, June 18, 2012 1:53PM EDT
The orchid family is the largest in the plant world. Surprisingly, common horse chestnut and northern catalpa trees belong to this family. So if you said, "I would like to grow an orchid," some smart alec salesperson could take you out to the tree section of the nursery. I know this is hardly what you have in mind.
Most people who are just starting out with orchids are looking for a long-flowering, easy to care for plant with exotic flowers and a general habit of reblooming without much fuss. Ah! That narrows it down. No trees in that category.
There are orchids that are so easy to care for that I put them in the same category as African violets, only orchids are easier.
If you enjoy ignoring your indoor plants and allowing them to go dry for long periods of time, I have the answer for you. Many of your friends are going to think that your brown thumb morphed over the New Year into the greenest of green!
Orchids go main stream
The availability of orchids today is a testament to the advances made in plant propagation through a technique called "meristem propagation." This is not Frankenstein genetics. Meristem propagation was first used by Karl von Nägeli in 1858. We have merely perfected the process since then and put it into production.
Orchids consist of more than 26,000 species and 143,000 hybrids (about 1,500 of which are naturally occurring, including many that grow here in Ontario). Most orchids sold for use in the home are members of these three families: Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum and Dendrobium. They are reliable indoor performers that tolerate our dry air in winter and the low light of our northern latitude. Their limited root mass also makes for the perfect window sill plant.
I will classify the popular orchids according to the amount of care that they require and their desired location in your home:
This is the most popular of orchids for the home gardener. They are epiphytic, which means that they grow in trees and rocks in the tropics. When the bloom fades, cut the stems below the last flower, just above a node where the leaf meets the stem. In most cases a new stem will develop and it will re-flower.
- Location: warm home, low light conditions. If space is limited, look for a miniature Phalaenopsis.
- Light: no direct sun. Enjoys a north facing (low light) window but prefers an east facing one.
- Temperature: low of 18°C and high of 29°C.
- Humidity: stand in a tray of pebbles among a group of like-minded plants. Mist leaves with tepid water often including the roots that are exposed.
- Reblooming: three weeks of cooler (18 °C) temperatures will "kick start" this orchid into reblooming.
Paphiopedilum (just call them "Paph" for short)
Chances are this is the variety of orchid that was either given to you or that you gave on the night of your high school prom. (Do kids do that anymore?)
These are "ground dwellers" (terrestrial) orchids that grow naturally in tropical and subtropical Asia. They are easily identifiable by their pouch-like lip, much like our native "Lady Slipper" orchids. This is a spectacular species with gorgeous single blooms born on a stem ranging in colour from white, green, brown, claret, red, yellow and pink.
- Location: defused light to direct sunshine. Versatile.
- Temperature: low of 13°C this time of year to 24°C in summer. Generally they like it cool. Green-leaved hybrids are the toughest of them all vs. varieties with mottled leaves.
- Special needs: humidity using a pebble tray increases humidity. Misting can cause mould.
Originally known as a "vuylstekeara," there is no need for you to know or remember this name. The point is Cambria orchids provide a spray of bloom on a single stem that is quite impressive.
- Location: diffused light, north or west facing window is ideal most of the year. North is favoured during the intense summer months.
- Temperature: low of 13°C and high in the summer of 24°C.
- Humidity: group with other plants and use a pebble tray with water in the bottom of it to raise humidity, especially in late the spring and summer. In winter, reduce temperatures and watering frequency. Fertilize with half strength Schultz orchid fertilizer.