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Orchids are the largest family of blooming plants in the world with nearly 28,000 naturally occurring species and well over a hundred thousand man-made hybrids. They are also the most highly evolved family of blooming plants. Orchids are native to every continent in the world with the exception of Antarctica.
Orchids first became popular when a horticulturist named William Cattley was intrigued by strange bulbous stems used as packing material in a shipment of tropical plants from Brazil. He potted the stems up and in the fall of 1818, the plant bloomed with beautiful large purple flowers.
This orchid was named Cattleya after William Cattleya, Labiata after the ruffled labellum or “lip” of the flower, Autumnalis after the season in which it bloomed.
Unfortunately, this started a mania for orchid collecting from which some tropical forested areas have never recovered. You see, the favorite method for collected these tree-dwelling plants was to cut the tree down just to pluck the plants from it.
This brings up a myth. Some people believe orchids are parasitic—like mistletoe. But the truth is orchids are NOT parasites—most are epiphytes—“epi” from the Greek word for upon and “phyton” from the Greek word for plant.
Epiphytes are plants that live on other plants but do not send roots down into the plant and take nutrients away, as does a true parasite. Instead, they let their roots “hold” onto a tree branch, like fingers, so the orchids can live up in the treetops where the light and air circulation are better.
Another myth about orchids is that some species are carnivorous. At the International Orchid Exposition in London in the 1930s, it’s said a woman marched up to an exhibitor and demanded to see the man-eating orchid. The quick-thinking exhibitor replied, “I’m sorry, Madam, he’s gone to lunch.”
And yet another myth says that orchids are hard-to-grow. Growing orchids is just like growing any other plant—it’s a matter of learning the requirements and meeting them. Some orchids may have light and/or temperature requirements that may be difficult for you to meet, but then a citrus tree or ficus tree may be difficult for you if you don’t have that sunny spot they crave.
One important thing to remember is most orchids grow IN TREES. Potting mediums for orchids are always impeccably well-draining because orchids should never sit in standing water.
When you buy one you’ll often find it in a little plastic pot sitting inside a decorative ceramic pot. To keep the plant alive and healthy, take that little plastic pot OUT of the decorative pot to water. Let it drain freely then place it back in the decorative pot. Don’t water it while it’s in the decorative pot as it’s too easy to walk away leaving it sitting in water.
By the way, they sometimes come with directions that tell you to water with three ice cubes. Orchids are native to the tropical rainforest. How often do you think they come in contact with melting frozen water? How about NEVER!
Here are some quick tips about caring for these tropical beauties:
Phalaenopsis—they have low broad leaves and are the most common. They need about the same kind of light as does an African violet—about two hours of direct sun BEFORE 10:30 a.m. or AFTER 2:30 p.m.
Cattleyas, Oncidiums, Dendrobiums, etc. need more sun than the phals especially in the winter when the days are short and the sunlight is weak. Three or four hours—before 11:30 a.m. or after 1:30 p.m. is fine. They also need a drop in night temperature of around 10 to 15 degrees to initiate bud formation. During the winter, placing the plant on a sunny windowsill, next to the window will work. When the sun goes down, it gets cooler at night. During the summer, place the orchid outside—under a tree where it gets good dappled sun but no strong beating sun.
There are many other species of orchids with slightly different requirements. If you buy your orchids from an actual garden center, they can give you specific care instructions. Or, at least, buy an orchid with a name tag so you can look it up. I recommend www.aos.org (the American Orchid Society).
Because orchids are native to the tropical rainforest where the humidity is 80% and our houses average about 10%, humidity is something we all need to work on. If you have a number of plants, running a cool-mist humidifier is great. If that’s not feasible, then mist lightly two to three times a day. Remember, misting is “fogging.” Put your mister on a fine spray and spray the air over and around the plant. Don’t spray directly on the foliage.
Orchids do need to be fed but, because they leave in trees and never ever live in nutrient-rich soil, feed LIGHTLY. The American Orchid Society recommends 20-20-20 HALF-strength, HALF as often as the label says.
Stop by the Great Big Greenhouse and let us help you choose the very best orchids for your home. If you have any questions about growing your orchids, that’s what we’re here for!