By Anne Galer, Extension Master Gardener
I first fell in love with orchids while living in Hong Kong many years ago. Every Friday a plane load of orchid blossoms from Singapore came into Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong and flooded the local outdoor markets with huge buckets of blooms. Later I lived in Singapore, joined the Royal Orchid Society and learned to grow them on the balcony of my apartment.
No longer in the tropics, my orchids live indoors now and thrive in the high desert climate of Albuquerque, which shows how adaptable they are. They are treated like my other houseplants (African violets, Christmas cactus, etc.). I water them once a week and keep them near a shaded south-facing window where they get early morning and late afternoon direct sun. Different orchids have different humidity and light requirements, so I have learned to choose those that fit into a low-humidity, good light regime.
A guilty secret: many of my orchid plants have come from Trader Joe’s. Because they are blooming at the store, you can choose the one you like, enjoy weeks of blooms and then look forward to a new round of flowers in several months. (Plus, they are an inexpensive, non-caloric temptation you can succumb to without guilt.) Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), Oncidiums (dancing ladies), and the occasional Dendrobium are the most common at TJ’s, and all of these will do well for growing at home. If fragrance is important to you, be sure to sniff before buying.
Impulse purchases aside, it is a good idea to do some research and find the varieties that fit with your indoor growing conditions. One of the best sites for orchid identification and care information is the Smithsonian Gardens site. The site has lovely pictures and describes the growing, light, and watering requirements for each of the main orchid genera. The site Orchid Care Tips is another good one with extensive information on orchid types and care. Even better, when the U.S. Botanic Garden opens again, take the time to do live research in the orchid room. Societies, such as the National Capital Orchid Society, are another good way to meet other orchid enthusiasts, get growing tips, and purchase plants.
Despite individual differences there are some orchid basics that apply to almost all of the plants: Orchids are epiphytes, meaning they derive moisture and nutrients from the air and rain; in nature they often grow on trees or other plants. With a few rare exceptions, they cannot be planted in regular soil. Their roots need free access to air and water and they are best potted in a bark medium labeled for orchids, available at most garden stores. After I bring them home, I move my newly purchased orchids to a new pot with bark medium once they have ended their bloom.
Whether you use an orchid pot with holes on the sides or a regular pot, make sure it has good drainage. When watering use room-temperature water and let it run through the bark medium and drain completely. Like other houseplants, orchids should not sit in water or their roots will rot. Weekly, weakly is the mantra for orchid fertilizer, but I rarely apply a very weak solution more than once a month and mine seem fine with that.
Over time you will learn what types of orchids do best under your conditions. For example, I have learned that orchids with thick leaves, like Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium, do better with the low humidity in my house. Consulting at the Albuquerque Orchid Society plant clinic, I found that the reason my beautiful “Dancing Lady” Oncidiums were growing stunted, wavy leaves was lack of humidity, so I gave them away to a friend with the right environment. I couldn’t part with my thin-leaved Miltonia, however, so I try to spritz it with water more frequently and accept that it won’t bloom as often.
While I will never achieve the orchid growing status of my friend who had a glorious Cattleya named after her, I always delight in my plants and enjoy watching the flower spikes develop into the weeks-long sprays of bloom. As the snow falls outside on this early February afternoon, the room is filled with the tropical fragrance of my Dendrobium nobile as I admire the pink-tinged white blooms it gives me with such little effort on my part.