Learning Orchid Care

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

“Oh no, not another orchid,” I thought with dread as my July dinner guest handed the plant to me with a smile. Little did she know how much this species of plant has challenged me. Sadly, I’ve killed many over the last 30 years, despite the fact that I’m known for my green thumb, especially with houseplants. At least it was a moth orchid (Phalenopsis), the most common orchid in the marketplace.1

I muddled along for a couple of months. By October,  the plant had dropped all its delicate pink flowers (which I had neglected to photograph) and I had cut the stems down to an inch. (It’s questionable whether I should have done that but what is done is done.) Six broad waxy leaves remained. Then, determined not to fail yet another orchid, I headed over to the Triangle Orchid Society’s show and sale at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in early November armed with photos of my plant and specific questions.

Dallas Ingram, an exhibitor from South Carolina who makes pottery containers for orchids (and is also an orchid grower), was happy to field my questions. Later, I also consulted the American Orchid Society website among other resources.

What kind of container does my orchid need?

I was surprised to learn that the holey ceramic pot I had purchased years ago specifically for an orchid, was not recommended. Dallas explained that pots with lots of openings on every side are designed for orchids that grow in very humid home environments, like Florida. The pottery he makes to contain orchids have two narrow vertical openings which he says are just enough. He didn’t try to sell me one of his pots, or even make the suggestion; He said there was no need to change the pot my orchid was already growing in – as long as I watered correctly. 

Let’s talk about watering

My orchid came with watering instructions: do weekly with warm water. A plastic three-ounce shot glass was provided for the task. I know overwatering a plant can be a detriment, but this way didn’t seem to make sense either. Even with a careful attempt to sprinkle a shot of water over all the bark, the water streamed quickly through the container and collected in the bottom of the cachepot, still missing some roots. Dallas gave me permission to use more water so long as I gave the orchid time to drain outside of the cachepot. The American Orchid Society says to avoid salt-softened or distilled water. So, nowadays I share my room-temperature bottled water with the orchid.  

How much light is best?

Dallas was precise in his reply: bright, indirect light equal to 8,000 to 10,000 lumens. He has found the light from East and even West facing windows to be sufficient. The Orchid Society concurs that an East-facing window is best and South and West are sufficient if covered by a sheer curtain.

What’s happening to these roots?

Some roots protruding above and dangling out the bottom of the container looked dead to me – I showed them to Dallas and learned that what I thought was a root was really a root covering (the velamen); it protects the real root which is a narrow string inside this covering. Orchids metabolize slowly and the root covering stores excess food and water for later usage. I had come close to snipping off those “dead” roots, so I was really glad I asked this question.  

“Velamen is a silver-white in color, but becomes transparent when wet, so that when the root is wet it turns green as you are able to see through to the inner structures of the root that contain chlorophyll .” (2) Photo by A. Laine

A surprising piece of information

It is often a challenge to get a flowering houseplant to reflower again and again. I’m inclined, as I think many people are, to treat them as a temporary attraction and then relegate the plant to a back corner or even toss it. But given the price of an orchid plant, tossing it has never felt like a viable option! As it turns out, coaxing a Phalenopsis orchid to rebloom is not a given. The success rate is 50 percent. Given my history of limited success growing orchids (and having none reflower), I find this news comforting.

I was also delighted to find information at the American Orchid Society’s website that was written expressly for people like me; a Novice Phalenopsis Culture Sheet. I’m not a novice at trying to grow orchids, but I am absolutely a novice at succeeding in growing orchids. However, with new, expert advice in hand, lower expectations about reflowering, and, the joyous sight of a new leaf on my orchid, I am enjoying this addition to my houseplant garden.

The joyous sight of a new leaf on my orchid!   

Of Note: The Triangle Orchid Society holds monthly meetings on second Mondays in the Doris Duke Center at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Meetings feature a speaker and begin at 7:30 p.m. Learn more at http://triangleorchidsociety.org/

Footnotes & Additional Resources

1, 2, https://longwoodgardens.org/blog/2017-01-31/identifying-orchids Identifying orchids is important to understanding what growing conditions they prefer

Tip sheet for novices

Where to cut the stem: