Despite their exotic looks and unfair reputation for being difficult and temperamental, Phalaenopsis, or moth, orchids are actually very easy to grow in the average home. Almost everyone has a place where a few orchid plants can be made happy, without a major refit of existing facilities. Something to keep in mind is that the more you have the easier it is to maintain their requirements
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THE THREE BASIC REQUIREMENTS
Orchids have three requirements to thrive and bloom in your home. If you can meet at least two of these requirements perfectly the third can fall a bit short and your plants will still flourish. All orchids have very specific ranges of temperature, humidity, and light, within which they survive. If you carefully select your plants with this in mind you should be easily able to find ones appropriate for growing in the conditions you can provide. It is not enough to just keep them alive, the plants have to be happy enough to keep growing and re-blooming.
When I was an orchid novice and new resident of Florida, I used to go to local orchid growers and go nuts. I would buy everything I liked the looks of, an easy task, with little thought to the vastly different growing conditions some of my choices required. Finally, with the help of some of the great old gals in my garden club circle and a grower more interested in repeat business than unhappy customers, I learned the tricks of easy orchid culture.
If you live in Florida, southern California, or parts of the Deep South, growing most species of orchids is relatively easy in an outdoor shade house. The challenge is getting them to do well in your home. By doing well I mean they must re-bloom and continue to grow larger from year to year. Just keeping a gift plant limping along on a windowsill is not enough.
FINDING PHALS FOR THE HOME
It used to be both expensive and difficult to find good Phal hybrids away from professional growers. Now you can pick them up at Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot for as little as $5.00 up to $30.00 for really large specimens. I have found some very unusual hybrids in the Naples, Florida, Home Depots and always try to bring a few home with me from family visits. However, even the Lowes in Lynchburg has surprised me with some very desirable plants. Wal-Mart, too, occasionally has good ones for sale. The trick at Wal-Mart is to get there when they are unpacking the plants and before the Wally World morons have had a chance to kill them.
This abundance of easily-accessible Phalaenopsis plants seems to be directly related to the large number of Baby-Boomers who want them. Once restricted to the wealthy with greenhouses, Phals (and other orchids) can be had from florists and even in some supermarkets. Growers have been responding to this incredibly expanding market by producing ever more plants at affordable prices. I do think this has been a good thing for orchids in general and has certainly given us lots of affordable choices to admire and carry home.
HOW MUCH TO PAY
This is one of those times when you really need to set yourself a budget and stick to it because you need more than one and cant buy the cheapest plants until you have more experience.
If you dont have any orchids in your home, be prepared to buy at least three at the same time. Dont get the smallest ones offered, either. Your new plants stand a much better chance of survival if you get three or more of the large plants in six-inch pots. These will cost anywhere from $15 to $30 each. Do not buy the small bargain plants with a single bloom spike and only two leaves. These are seedlings, just out of the community trays, and may not do well after expending most of their energy on that first bloom. Bite the bullet and spend a few dollars, after you become a Phal expert you will be able to take care of the babies properly and can take full advantage of some of the wonderful bargains. Sometimes it is possible to pick up brand new un-named hybrids like this for $4-5 each. For now, however stick to the larger, mature, more expensive plants.
On the bright side, plants in this price range will be large and healthy and will have at least one strong bloom spike. If there are plants with multiple spikes, always select them over the single-spikers as this is an indication of maturity and good health. Also, favor the plants that are not all bloomed out unless you really, really want that particular color or flower form. As a novice you should be selecting multiple-spike plants with only a few open blooms. The time to get choosey about color and form is when you know you can keep them alive.
Another option is to order your Phals from professional growers. The Internet gives us access to orchids from all over the world and some can be had for incredibly low prices. However, buying orchids from afar is not for the novice. These plants are often shipped bare-root and semi-dormant. The will not be in bloom or, if they are, could arrive with damaged spikes. Make sure you can keep Phals alive before you invest in mail-order orchids. This way you will start out with the healthiest plants possible and will have the option of returning them to the store if they succumb to your tender ministrations within the warranty period.
A HOME IN YOUR HOME FOR PHALS
Before you bring any plants home, decide where they will live. Phals are happy in medium light and thrive at human-comfort temperatures. Phals can go as cool as 55 F (13 C) with no ill effects and most of you keep your home much warmer than this at night, I daresay. Most bathrooms with a window can supply both light and heat requirements for these plants. Humidity is actually easier than you might think. Bathrooms tend to be humid places anyway, but by keeping your plants in a deep tray full of wet gravel you will ensure a mini-environment for their special enjoyment. Most homes are too dry in winter, anyway, so if you want to go to the added trouble of getting a humidifier, your plants and sinuses will thank you many times over.
This is where having several plants instead of only one pays big dividends. Several plants will work together to help stabilize their environment, especially if they are in a small room. Your gravel-filled tray should be at least two inches deep and large enough so that all the plants have ample room without crowding. Over-crowding under humid conditions can cause leaf rot.
Do not place Phals in a sunny window unless you want to cook them.
Do not let them sit in water. The purpose of the wet, gravel-filled tray is to allow the water to evaporate from as many surfaces as possible while keeping the pot bottoms raised above the water.
WATERING AND FERTILIZING
Keep your Phalaenopsis orchids moist but not sopping wet. They have large attractive leaves, usually dark green with some purple tinges or bright dark green and leaf color is often indicative of bloom color. If the leaves start to wrinkle your plants are way too dry. If all the leaves fall off then the plants are too wet and now dead. Misting daily during the winter and occasionally during the summer will make your plants happy. Use warm water, not icy-cold. Dont allow water to collect and stay in the center of the leaf cluster. This can lead to crown rot and a dead plant.
It is much safer to err on the side of too dry than too wet. Once the roots rot and it enters the crown, the plant is dead and no amount of nursing will bring it back. A plant that has been allowed to dry out too much will sometimes begin to sprout new roots at the base of the crown. If you see this on a plant, immediately turn it out and examine the roots. If the potting medium is rotted and the root ball looks dried out, re-pot in new medium and keep a bit moister.
The surface of the potting medium should feel damp but you should not be able to squeeze drops of water from a small pinch of it.
Fertilize with water-soluble 20-20-20 or special orchid fertilizer. Peters makes a fine orchid fertilizer but their 20-20-20 is equally good. If you mix up a weak solution, about half-strength, you can feed every time you water. Orchids prefer an acidic environment. Miracle Grow makes a special water-soluble fertilizer for acid loving plants. Look for it in the blue box and use it the same way as other blue water fertilizers. This one is also good for ferns and gesneriads (the African violet clan) and seems to be more readily available all around the country than special orchid fertilizers. I have seen it at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes.
BLOOMS AND BLOOM SPIKES
Your plants will come home in full bloom. Phal flowers last for months. When the last bloom finally fades and falls off, DO NOT cut off that long bloom spike. These plants frequently will send up more bloom from nodes along the spike. Only remove the spike when it turns brown and woody. New spikes will arise from the base of the plant and will sometimes look like new roots at first. Unless you have lots of space for the spikes to droop naturally, be sure to keep them securely staked. It is heartbreaking to have a bloom-laden spike accidentally broken by careless watering or playful pets.
Phals will also produce new plants at the end of spent bloom spikes. These are called kikies and start out looking like tiny buds at first. Soon a leaf will form and then another. Do not remove this new plant until it has lots of healthy roots and is capable of living on its own. Then it can be gently teased away from the spike and potted up in its own pot. Be careful not to break the tender and very brittle roots when removing a kiki from the mother plant.
I have noticed that many of the newer hybrid Phals kiki freely, so this is a nice way to increase your numbers. It is especially gratifying when an expensive and unusual plant kikies.
REPOTTING, VITAL TO PHAL HEALTH
Phals get bigger and bigger over time but dont increase at the base like some other orchid species. These plants are long-lived and the larger they get the more bloom spikes they will send up. When your plants out-grow their pots, gently remove them and pick away as much of the old potting medium as possible (only repot when not in bloom) and, working carefully, place the plant in a larger pot, inserting new potting medium in and around the roots. If you find any dead or broken roots, snip them off. Very occasionally Phals will send up a new plant at the base. It is better to leave these babies until they are large enough to have good roots of their own. Then they can be gently separated from the mother and potted up on their own.
Orchid potting medium is sold in better garden centers. Select small-sized material for Phals; fir bark the size of small lima beans is good. A product called Servo is wonderful for potting most types of orchids. It is very easy to work with, much like soil. If you see it offered for sale, by all means buy some. I used to use Servo for all my orchids when I lived in Ft. Lauderdale. Even after moving north I was still able to get it UPS. However, recent Google searchs have only brought up my own references to this fine product and I suspect it may no longer be available.
A very fine alternative to Servo is sphagnum moss. This product is sold in small bricks in Florida Home Depots and lots of other places as well. Sphagnum moss can often be found in craft supply stores in the silk flower department. It is useful for all sorts of projects and is perfect for Phals. I now only use sphagnum moss for my orchids, especially Phals, because it holds moisture evenly and does not break down as fast as bark.
Phals that come to you potted in bark should be repotted into sphagnum moss or Servo as soon as they finish blooming. Sometimes they are in potting medium that is old and already broken down into compost. Phals hate being in old potting medium and will frequently die this way. The composted fir bark holds too much moisture around the roots and crown and the plant simply rots to death.
No matter which potting medium you decide to use, remember to soak it thoroughly in water before re-potting. Sphagnum and Servo will re-hydrate quickly and be ready to use in a few minutes. Fir bark needs a much longer period of soaking, over night is preferable.
Nothing is perfect, and orchids do get pests. If your house is too dry you might find spider mites infesting not only your orchids but other houseplants, as well. Mealy bugs are always a potential threat to houseplants. They usually come home from the garden center with you. Scale insects are especially insidious. They look like tiny bumps on the leaves and canes of your orchids and you might notice stickiness on the leaves and pot edges. All of these pests suck the life out of your plants, like wee vampires, feeding on the plants juices. The easiest way to rid your home and plants of pests is to spray they with lightweight horticultural oil mixed with water. This stuff is non-poisonous and kills by smothering the bugs. Eco-oil and Sunoil are brand names you can look for. However you should not have any trouble finding a light oil in your garden center. CAUTION, do not use dormant oil spray. Dormant oil spray is very heavy and is intended for use on dormant fruit and nut trees. It can kill your houseplants.
THE DRAGON HUMBLY SUGGESTS
If you lust after a stunning Phal for your home, go get one! Dont let their exotic appearance scare you off because they really are tough and easy to grow. However, do get at least three to start with and follow my directions for keeping them happy.
Once you have managed to keep your first three babies alive and healthy for at least six months then it is time to get bold and go for unusual color and flower form. The orchid hybridizers have been ever so busy producing thousands of new and delightful Phals and now you can even get fragrant ones! Yep, thats right, beautiful Phals that smell good too. And the best part is that they dont usually cost any more than the unscented ones. I found a beautiful yellow with deep bronze colored leaves and a lovely sweet scent at a Home Depot and it only cost $19.99 with two bloom spikes. This one likes to kiki too, so now I have three.
Phals come in every shade from pure white to deep magenta, peach, orange, and pure yellow. Some are stripped or spotted and I even have one that is magenta with orange stripes. Some have delicate petals and others seem to be made of wax and have a high sheen. As for bloom shape, some look like giant moths with wide petals while others are very tiny with spidery petals and some are nearly star-shaped. It is possible to specialize in Phals and never be bored with either flower shape or color.
Copyright 2003 Pamela Matlack Klein
N.B. Approximately 10% of this article appeared as part of a paid article I wrote on Phals and Dendrobiums and is still available online. Performing a Google search for Servo will bring it up
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