Demystifying The Orchid

Phaleanopsis orchid flower
Orchids may look exotic, but with a little know-how, you can raise these beautiful plants in your own living room. On The Saturday Early Show, Stephen Orr, special projects editor of House and Garden magazine, offered advice on buying and growing orchids.

Many people are afraid of orchids. They see them as expensive, exotic plants that are hard to grow. While some orchids are difficult to grow, there are now a wide variety of easy-to-grow plants available. As long as you know the needs of your specific plant, you can keep it happy and raise it successfully.

Most people are familiar with the large, white moth orchid. However, these plants come in an amazing array of colors, patterns and sizes. Orr showed some of these easy-to-grow varieties. They include:

  • Phalaenopsis. Includes the popular moth orchids which are probably the most well-known orchids. They are more adaptable to household conditions and therefore are easier to grow.
  • Dendrobium. A widely variable genus of orchids with thousands of types. Will flower on and off all year with bright sunlight.

    Cattleya. One of the largest orchid blossoms; very fragrant.

  • Paphiopedilum. The lady slipper orchid. Unlike most orchids, it grows in the ground instead of in trees.
  • Vanda. Enjoys lots of moisture and humidity.
  • Oncidium. Sprays of numerous small flowers on long stems.
  • Brassavola. Has intensely fragrant flowers at night.
  • Cymbidium. Makes large plants that grow in clumps. Needs cooler temperatures to flower.
These plants are now widely available at most garden centers. And they are not expensive; prices start at $20. That said, be aware that some other varieties of orchids are quite rare and can cost hundreds of dollars.

Because they are originally from tropical locations, rain forests, or the southern hemisphere, orchids bloom in the middle of winter when everything else is dormant.

The orchid's long arms are called "blooming spikes," and each spike contains several blooms. These blooms will remain vibrant for weeks and you may have months of blooms as the flowers open consecutively up the spike.

Once the blooms wither and die, don't assume your orchid is dead. If you care for it properly, it will bloom again next winter, and the plant itself can live for decades.

Here are Orr's five steps for coaxing an orchid to re-bloom:

  1. Cut the spike off right above the second node. (The nodes are obvious, nubby bumps.)
  2. Keep water, light and humidity consistent throughout the summer.
  3. In the fall, a 10-degree drop in temperature will help new buds form. Place the plant in a cooler, but still sunny room - or crack a nearby window at night.
  4. Fertilize lightly and regularly. (Follow the instructions on the special orchid food you buy.)
  5. As soon as a new blooming spike appears, stake it to a simple bamboo stake at four inches and then higher up as needed. You don't want to harm the plant so stake using small clips or paper ties.
Orchids don't grow in basic dirt. Instead, they require a special potting mix that's primarily composed of bark and some other materials that don't absorb water. You can buy this potting mix at any garden store. Orr recommends re-potting your orchid every two to three years.

It's essential to use this potting mix as orchids hate to sit in soggy soil. (In nature, they usually grow right out of crannies in trees.) As a matter of fact, over-watering your orchid is a big mistake. However, the plants do crave humidity. Placing potted orchids on a tray filled with pebbles and water will help keep the air immediately surrounding the plants moist.

Orchids do need warm temperatures during the day. Avoid placing plants in drafty spots such as windowsills. Light needs differ from species to species.