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Tips on growing orchids

6/27/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Dayle Davis


Orchids come in all sizes, from tall to small. The potted orchid plant pictured above and below is about 5 inches tall.
Photos courtesy of Dayle Davis
Disclaimer to all expert orchid-growing WSL readers: I am a newcomer to the world of orchids. This story is 100 percent researched, drawing upon many sources from the Internet rather than personal experience.

A friend dropped by this past October, handed me my very first tiny potted orchid in full bloom and said: “I don’t know how to take care of this. I hope you do.”

Well, I didn’t, and other than placing the plant — by chance — in an east-facing window, I followed printed instructions to give the plant one ice cube per week. In exchange for those measly ice cubes, my orchid maintained those flawless velvety blossoms for four months. I was completely captivated.

When the blooms finally faded, I snipped off the spent stem and assumed the mature plant would produce new shoots from its base. I expected the plant to behave similar to a bromeliad — to eventually die, leaving the side shoots to carry on. That’s not what happened.

For several months, I faithfully kept up the arduous task of placing one ice cube on the surface of the soil each week. Finally one skinny shoot developed. Last month, the shoot began unfurling — not to produce new leaves, but to produce new brilliant magenta blossoms shown in the photos on the next page. Wow. If having lovely orchids in one’s home is this easy, who wouldn’t want one?

So here’s some facts I have gathered about orchids:

  • Some botanists believe that the orchid family is the largest plant family in the world, with more than 20,000 species and hybrids in excess of 100,000.
  • Orchid blossom colors and shape varieties are endless; all are quite striking, and the beauty of some will stop you in your tracks.
  • In the wild, orchids don’t grow in soil like other plants do. Rather, their roots cling to organic structures such as trees.
  • Also in the wild, orchids are subjected to extreme day and night temperature changes.
  • Many orchids set buds in fall and winter.
  • As houseplants, orchids are potted up with porous materials such as small chunks of bark or pebbles that allow for quick drainage and lots of oxygen pockets for the roots.
  • Despite their delicate appearance, most orchids are robust plants that easily make do with the growing conditions they find themselves in.
  • Orchids perform best as blossom-producing houseplants when provided a day/night temperature difference of at least 10 degrees F.
  • Potting an orchid in soil spells certain death to the plant.
  • Orchids like at least 50 percent humidity. If the window over your kitchen sink is east or south facing, that windowsill may be the best place for orchids to grow.
  • Avoid west-facing windows. Too much direct sunlight will fade orchid leaves or even bleach them to a sickly whitish color. They will eventually brown and die.
  • Avoid north-facing windows, too: too little light.
  • Orchids grow thick roots and stems and fleshy leaves in which to absorb and store water.
  • Simple air supplies orchids with nutrients to absorb.
  • Orchids would rather have too little water than too much.
  • No orchid likes it when temperatures near 90 degrees F.
  • There are three classifications of orchids pertaining to temperature: warm growing, intermediate and cool growing orchids, although many are adaptable to growing across the lines of these three classifications.
    The warm group begins to perform poorly when night temperatures drop below 60 degrees F. The intermediate group are happy with cold nights near 55 degrees F, while a nightly low of 50 degrees F is best for cool-growing orchids.
  • Similar to most outdoor plants, orchids require at least six hours of light per day. Additional light = more flowers; too little light = no flowers.
  • If you want to know if your orchid is getting enough light, look at its leaves. Healthy, glossy dark leaves are a no-no in orchid culture because they signal inadequate lighting conditions for the plant. Slightly less healthy looking leaves with a medium green hue indicate the correct lighting conditions for the plant to bloom.
  • Go easy on the fertilizer. For most of the year, apply a small amount of liquid fertilizer, such as 10-5-10, every other week. Before use, dilute the fertilizer with water by 75 percent. Routinely flush the pots each month with plain water to carry away any backlog of fertilizer salts.
    At the beginning of the season in which your particular orchids begin to produce flower buds, switch to a fertilizer with a slightly lower nitrogen ratio and slightly higher phosphorous ratio, such as 5-15-10.
  • A majority of orchids experience their peak bloom period between November and May.

Following is a sampling of orchid names and their bloom periods:

√ Orchids that bloom beginning in summer: Catasetum, Miltonia and Stanhopea

√ Orchids that bloom beginning in fall: Brassavola, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Epidendrum, Miltoniopsis, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis

√ Orchids that bloom beginning in winter: Encyclia, Ludisia and Odontoglossom

√ Orchids that bloom beginning in spring: Vanda, Sarcochilus, Lycaste and Masdevallia

Visit the American Orchid Society website at aos.org for more information about cultivating orchids.

For general information about gardening, call The Ohio State University Summit County Extension Hotline Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon at 330-928-4769, ext. 3.


Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and coursework in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is a Master Gardener emeritus under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.

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