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Orchids 101

By Pat B.

Photo of orchidOrchids date back to the dinosaur age. (Orchid pollen found encased in amber has been dated back 80 million years!) They are one of the largest plant families in the world with one out of every eight flowering plants being an orchid. While the bulk of orchids are found in Central America, northern South America, and southeastern Asia, there are some species that can be found in other locations. (The so-called “ghost orchid” that grows in the Florida Everglades is a good example.) Antarctica is the only continent on which they aren’t naturally grown. There are about 35,000 natural species of orchids and many more hybrid (i.e. man made) ones. Most of the orchids being sold today are hybrids. Orchids can only be produced by sowing the finite seed in a special mixture inside a flask (and not in dirt.) Orchids are epyphtes and can be found growing wild with their roots exposed to the elements. Orchids grown in pots require a bark mixture that is stabilized by the pot. They can also be grown on a slab of wood (manzanita is ideal) with a little spaghnum moss tied to the root area. (The spaghnum moss allows them to drain quickly after they are watered.)

Orchids can imitate the appearance of certain insects to attract that particular insect for the purpose of causing pollination. Other orchids attract insects using color and strong scents (which are both pleasant and unpleasant to our noses.)

Orchids can be grown in homes as well as in greenhouses. For best results, select a species/hybrid that is appropriate for your growing conditions. A vanda orchid, for example, requires intense light and high humidity and is probably not going to do as well as one that requires less light. The orchids sold by nurseries are, for the most part, hybrids and should readily adapt to growing conditions in Descanso. I keep my orchids by a south window during the winter and then move them to my unheated plastic-covered greenhouse when the weather becomes warmer. (My greenhouse is shaded by a large Chinese Elm tree that diffuses the sunlight on hot summer days.) I fertilize only when I see new growth on a particular plant, using a weak mixture of a good quality orchid fertilizer. (It’s better to under-fertilize than to over-fertilize!) Pick your orchid according to its recommended temperature and light requirements. Here are the temperature guidelines: COOL: 68-55 degrees, INTERMEDIATE: 70-60 degrees, and WARM: 80-64 degrees. These are year round temperatures that take into consideration nighttime drops. Orchids can adapt, but it’s better not to push their light & temperature ranges too far. Most of the orchids that are designated as “intermediate” will be do fine here in Descanso. (Be sure to bring them inside during the winter.) Also, be sure to watch how much light your orchids receive when you have them outdoors. (Most orchids require indirect light.)

I suggest that you get a blooming orchid for your first plant rather than one out of bloom. Here are some orchids that I can recommend:

Phalaenopsis (moth orchid): the non-fragrant blooms will last several months and, if cut back to above a node, can re-bloom again. These will do well in a warm, humid environment such as a bathroom with good indirect light.

Mini and medium-sized cattleyas: these require good indirect sun. (In winter, place them by a south window, but not too close to glass.) The color of the leaf should be a yellow-green. The flowers come in many colors and are fragrant. It has one bloom cycle per pseudo-bulb (i.e. the bottom portion where the leaf comes out.)

Brassavola nodosa (lady of the night): even though this is a popular “beginner orchid” with a HIGHLY fragrant bloom, it can be a little tricky to grow.

SOME of the Mexican specie orchids: encylia/epidendrum, laelias, oncidiums (dancing girl orchids) will also do well in Descanso.

If in doubt on a particular species, “Goggle it” to find out where it comes from and what its suggested growing requirements are. Another good source for orchid information is Botanica’s ORCHIDS. This 608 page reference book lists over 1,200 species and is lavishly illustrated with color illustrations and photographs. It is something that anyone interested in orchids should have in their library.

Everyone should try at least one orchid during their gardening career. One word of warning however: once you get start growing orchids, it is VERY EASY to become addicted. Enjoy!!


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