Orchids have always had an air of decadence about them. From the early Victorian period where early botany enthusiasts brought shiploads of the beautiful and strange looking plants from far-flung travels, to the hybridized colours you see in florists and upmarket shopping centres.
Orchids are plants like any other. In fact, they make up probably the second largest plant family in the world, and are found in almost every single habitable zone on the planet.
Although many are small, inconspicuous or close to impossible to grow, quite a few species and thousands of hybrids have been released into the flower market over the past 100 years, and only relatively recently have orchids enjoyed popularity as a hobbyist pastime.
What has recently allowed this orchid explosion is that with the hybridization of popular orchids, the plants tend to become stronger as certain preferred traits become emphasized. Often plants will not have a specie name, but a cross reference (sona x petersii) or even a hybridization name (Sun Rising). Collectors however tend to collect species too, as these represent not only more of a challenge to grow, but often have an exquisite beauty in themselves.
It is notable to mention that a lot has been written about the spell that orchids tend to cast over their minders; from men losing their lives to reach a Disa or Paphiopedilum growing on a cliff to take back to a loved one, to collections spanning thousands of plants in a hobbyist’s backyard or makeshift greenhouse.
Whatever the hold these special plants have over us, what we do know is they are not as difficult to grow as previously thought, and that there will be a species or hybrid that will suit both your lifestyle, personality and your home.
We don’t often think of how plants grow, let alone that they are living organisms. When it comes to the basics of maintaining a plant’s growth, you need to make sure of a few things that we often learn in primary school:
- The medium in which the plant grows (usually potting soil)
- How much water the plant needs
- How much light the plant can take
- The comfortable temperature levels the plant prefers to grow in
Orchids are just like other plants in that these 4 things are what need to be looked at when you consider growing it or not. However, orchids have a special allure in that they grow slightly differently and have attributes that set them apart from other plants.
Among these differences:
- Some orchid flowers are very showy, very colourful, full of perfume and very large
- Most commercial orchids have flowers that last on the plant between 2 weeks and 4 months
- Most orchid plants have a strange shape compared to other flowering plants – from bulbous protrusions to strange leaves to somewhat random large fleshy roots coming growing out of leaves and stems
- They do not necessarily grow in soil, seeing as they have colonized various habitats, and thus often raise eyebrows when people see how some species are grown.
What is important to remember is that, while some orchids have been painted as notoriously difficult to grow, most commercial types are easy to grow and thrive in a typical home environment. When it comes to orchids that can be grown outside in the garden, this list grows even larger and thus an assortment of orchids can be grown for pleasure; from admiring lush foliage to gasping at impressive specimen plants and – of course – appreciating the blooms.
To make things easier, especially if you are curious about orchids but don’t know much about them, these plants are often classified into one of two different kinds:
This kind of orchid most closely resembles the plants we know and grow. These orchids grow in the soil or leaf litter in their natural habitats and are usually the easier of the two kinds of orchids to grow.
These orchids tend to come from temperate areas that often experience extremes in temperature, from a cool to cold winter, to a warm to hot summer. They often require a ‘drought’ period where all growth stops, mimicking their natural environment, in order to prepare the plant for new growth and flowering. However some come from evenly wet climates and thrive in moist conditions year round.
It is worthy to note that most South African orchids are terrestrial, from the famous Disa to Eulophia and Bonatea.
To be epiphytic means that something grows on something else, as opposed to in something else. In other words, these orchids grow on things as opposed to in the ground. But the plant only uses the host object for support, and NOT parasitically as some people might think.
Most often these plants grow on trees – either starting at the base of the tree growing upwards towards the light almost like a vine as in Vanilla or on the branches where leaf litter accumulates or where moss grows on the bark like Cattleya.
Alternatively, these plants also sometimes grow on rocks and in the crevices on cliff faces if the climate is favourable, as in Dendrobium kinganium.
Orchids often also get classified according to what temperature range they will grow in. This is a good way of classification because often in the home environment the factor that limits your choice of orchids for your collection is the temperature range in the area where you live. What this means is that although an orchid might survive out of its preferred temperature range, it might not flower and could eventually die. Hybrids however tend to be more temperature tolerant than their parent species.
Cold Growing Orchids
These orchids are comfortable growing in the cooler spectrum of temperatures, and enjoy a cool to cold winter and a warm summer. These orchids often need a cooler winter to initiate spiking, which means the production of the flower stem. Their range is around 5-12 degrees Celsius in winter to 18-28 degrees Celsius in summer. Prolonged heat over summer without cooling often damages the plant and inhibits flowers.
These orchids do not necessarily come from typically cold environments, but can also come from high up in mountain ranges, where it is much cooler and wetter than a few thousand metres below, where there might be a tropical rainforest.
Notable among these are the Cymbidiums, Sobralia, Bletilla, Disas as well as Dendrobium nobile type orchids.
*There are even a group of orchids, called Cypripedium, that is so well adapted to it’s cold environment (North America and Europe-Asia) that it needs freezing temperatures in winter (often accompanied by melting snow) in order to initiate growth.
Intermediate Growing Orchids
These orchids are the ones that will grow quite comfortably in the home, seeing as the intermediate temperatures are the ones we experience in our home environment. They still require a cooler winter but won’t tolerate prolonged temperatures below 8 degrees Celsius. They can also take warmer temperatures in summer, usually to about 30 degrees Celsius before taking strain over a long period of time, when they will require some cooling in the form of misting and some air movement.
Among these orchids are Vanda coerulea hybrids and the Moth Orchid, as well as Coelogyne, Oncidium and Odontoglossum species and their hybrids.
Warm Growing Orchids
These orchids fit into the mould of the plants cultivated in the Victorian era – they like their year round warm temperatures, where in nature they often do not experience drought or very cold winter temperatures. These orchids often have no pseudobulbs and are very leafy, but also tend to have beautiful flowers, and are comfortable in intermediate to warm temperatures year round, from about 16-35 degrees Celsius. These orchids include Cattleya, Vanda, Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium and hard-caned Dendrobium.
Orchid flowers have long captivated both men and women with its beauty and strangeness. Scientists have also looked at orchid flowers because of the plant’s ability to adapt the shape and colour and smell of its flowers in order to attract certain pollinators. From smelling like rotting meat or nectar, to looking like a pollinator’s mate and inducing copulation – thus pollinating the flower - to being pure white in order to attract night time pollinators.
Orchid stems have also received a lot of attention, in the form of pseudobulbs. Pseudobulbs are quite literally ‘fake bulbs’ and are in fact the modified stems of certain orchids, such as in Cymbidium and Cattleya, and as can be expected, fatten up during the growing period in order to carry the plant through leaner times, as well as storing food for when the plant will expend large amounts of energy when producing flowers. Often these pseudobulbs end up being a very attractive feature on orchids when they are not in flower.
Terrestrial orchids tend to have underground pseudobulbs, and often look like corms you would usually associate with fynbos bulb species like Watsonia (as is the case with Bletilla and Eulophia speciosa).
The leaves of orchids are just as varied as their flowers. From thin and grasslike to large and fleshy, they are adapted to the environment in which they grow in the wild. Often a plant with fleshy leaves will not have a pseudobulb, meaning that the leaves store the nutrients and water for the plant, or the leaves can be thin and numerous, in which case it has more a photosynthetic responsibility. Orchid leaves can take up moisture through their leaves as well, and it is wise to mist spray around certain orchid leaves in order to maintain a high relative humidity around them. Often a foliar feed can also be applied successfully to orchid leaves over a long period of time as orchid roots are often sensitive to excessive fertilizing.
Just like most plants, orchids have a root system. The roots also serve the various functions that roots do in other plants, from the uptake of moisture, to micro and macro element procurement as well as anchoring the plant in the growing medium. However, orchids also have specially adapted roots that serve another function. You might have noticed that the typical florist’s orchid (often seen in grocery shops around the country) – Phalaenopsis, also known as the Moth Orchid due to the shape of its blooms – has large whitish-green roots that often protrude from between the leaves, growing at strange angles into the air as opposed to growing into the growing medium. These roots are unique to orchids and most epiphytes have them. They are known as aerial roots. These roots often attach the orchid to it’s host tree or rock and also tend to hang in the air, capturing moisture from the air and even helping with photosynthesis.
Just as important as the plant itself, is how you want to grow it, and in which medium the plant will grow.
Usually the orchid is bought with its roots already growing in a specific medium. It is always best to leave the plant in this medium until at least after the flowering has stopped, seeing as most people buy orchids when in flower.
When the plant is out of flower, it will either go into a rest period or will begin a growth period, in either case you will need to repot the plant with a fresh medium, unless you brought the plant for an orchid nursery (commercial potting mixes need to be repotted after flowering but if you buy from an orchid specialist nursery the potting mix will usually be fine for another year).
Let your florist or local garden centre help with creating a perfect mix for your terrestrial orchid by giving them the name of the type of orchid. In general, a terrestrial mix could include fine bark chips, some sphagnum moss, charcoal, perlite, vermiculite river sand, peat or even polystyrene balls. The most important thing is that the mix is not too dense, drains well, retains water for a few days and has some gaps for aeration of the roots. If you Google the specific terrestrial plant you have you will see numerous ‘formulas’ for mixes from various growers that you can try out.
An epiphytic medium mix is often easier to judge than a terrestrial mix, because the idea is that all you need to do is anchor the plant, as the plant usually just grows on a rock or on the bark of a tree. Let the size of the roots guide the density of the mix: finer roots require a finer bark mix whereas thicker roots require larger pieces of bark, charcoal, polystyrene or rocks. In general epiphytes are grown in mixes that contain larger bark chips (about 2-5cm across), with some charcoal, rocks and polystyrene for drainage as well as a little sphagnum moss to help with moisture retention.
It is even possible to mount your epiphytic orchid to a slab of bark, or the stem of a dead tree fern, or even a makeshift mesh filled with epiphytic orchid mix, and hang it suspended from your ceiling, or perhaps seated in a glamorous bowl on a table, or even affixed to your wall. This will require some planning – especially with regards to watering – but can be a very natural way of growing your orchid in your home. This will however require more watering in general as the roots will be more exposed than they would be in a pot.
In the Western Cape climate, we experience cool to cold wet winter weather, and warm to hot dry summer weather, making it advisable to aim towards the cooler and intermediate growing orchids for inside the home, as most orchids would be shielded from the heat in Summer due to the home climate.
All orchids grown in the home need a few boxes ticked before they will be happy:
- They need a spot where they won’t be moved around too much, so they can acclimatize to the immediate area
- The spot should have sufficient light for the orchid, and preferably experience some wind movement during the day and night (usually this means close to a window is good, or a door, or in a bathroom)
- If you are placing the orchid in a less favorable growing spot in order to enjoy its flowers more (e.g. on a table in the living room but where the light is not so good), that should be fine. However you should at least have a suitable place for it when it is not in flower so that the plant can regain strength after flowering in a prime growing position.
Some tips to make sure your home-grown orchid will be healthy and happy:
Make sure you do not overwater. More orchids are killed because of overwatering than anything else, and this often is because of the medium in which the orchid’s roots are growing, getting too soggy.
If your orchid is a terrestrial type, like Cymbidium, Pleone Bletilla and Sobralia, then water when you can see the top roots or the first 3 cm of the growing medium drying out (you can get the hang of it by feeling with your fingers). This often equates to twice a week in Summer, and once every 8 days or so in winter.
If your orchid is an epiphyte, like Cattleya, Coelogyne and Brassia, then it will need to be watered more often, as the mix is much more porous and will dry out quicker. These epiphytes tend to be watered about 3 times a week in hot weather (every day if mounted) to about once a week or so in winter, depending on whether the orchid needs a dry period or not. In winter it is best to withhold water for an epiphyte until the pseudobulbs start to show signs of shriveling, in which case you could mist spray it at the warmest time of the day in winter, and possibly water it if the mist spray doesn’t help.
When in doubt, rather mist spray the epiphyte orchid than water it, until you are sure.
Never water indoor orchids at night – always in the morning so there is enough time for any water on the leaves to dry before a fungal or bacterial rot sets in, as is often the case with Phalaenopsis.
- Water thoroughly. Make sure the entire mix is wet. The easiest way is to dunk the pot into a basin filled with water.
- Always let the mix drain properly. The roots should never stand in water – in this case the water catchment saucer that the pot sits on.
- Rain water is always preferable but Cape municipal water is fine – if in doubt rather pour tap water into a basin or bucket and let is stand overnight so that any chlorine can evaporate.
- Mist spray your epiphyte (don’t wet the leaves too much) every other day in summer to help balance humidity in our dry summers.
- Feel free to add orchid fertilizer to every 3rd or 4th watering during the actively growing months.