Dendros and paphs and cattleyas, oh, my! It’s easy to see how orchid fans get hooked on these fanciful and long-flowering plants. With 150,000 varieties in the orchid family, there’s a dizzying array to build a collection either by size, type, color or back-to-back blooms. Just ask Jared who first learned about the plants as a teen while taking classes at Franklin Park Conservatory. He’s been mesmerized ever since.
So, plant friends, beware! You, too, may get hooked once you get started. Read on for our team’s tips on collecting these beauties.
Learn the Basics
In the wild, the greatest number of orchids grow as epiphytes (air plants) on trees in tropical habitats where they gather moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris that accumulates around their root zones. As houseplants, these tropical plants need bright light, humidity, ventilation, water and fertilizer to thrive and flower. Most orchids are purchased in bloom or in bud and come potted in a bark mix in a clear pot with drainage holes. We recommend keeping the orchid in this clear pot, so you can easily monitor the roots’ health and watering needs.
To water, plan on weekly or when the bark mix dries out. Take the potted orchid to a sink and immerse it in a bowl of lukewarm water (not softened or distilled) that has orchid fertilizer at ¼ strength. Soak for 10-15 minutes then fully drain the water and return the plant to its place. If any water lingers in the crown of the plant, be sure to blot it dry with a paper towel to prevent rot. Once a month, skip the fertilizer and use clear water to flush out any accumulated salts from the bark mix. Try boosting humidity by misting plants daily or setting pots on a pebble tray filled with water. (Be sure the pot does not sit in water which rots roots.) For summer, experiment with moving orchids outdoors to thrive under a tree.
Discover the Variety
Many orchid fans build collections around size (all minis), species (all lady slippers), successive blooms or simply personal appeal. The key is to find one you like and one that fits the growing conditions for your home. For example, Cattleyas like lots of direct bright light, while Paphiopedilums prefer lower light. If you’re trying to build a collection with year-round bloom times, start buying one in bloom every month or two. Since most popular orchids bloom once a year, it’s safe to assume the flowering orchid you bought in March will likely flower again the same time the following year. For more specifics, check out the American Orchid Society’s Culture Sheets. Here are six favorites to stretch your collection beyond the common moth orchid or Phalaenopsis.
1. Oncidiums (on-SID-ee-um) -- This big genus and allied genera are best known for its flower varieties that resemble dancing ladies. Many have complex multi-crossed backgrounds and a wide range of flower colors and shapes. Try ‘Gold Dust’ in bright yellow, Sweet Sixteen ‘Prepossessing’ in maroon with a chocolate scent, ‘Volcano Splendor’ in red and white or ‘Lucky Strike’ in gold, white and yellow. Oncidiums prefer medium to high light and medium to warm temperatures (55 to 60 F at night, and 80 to 85 F during the day).
3. Dendrobiums (den-DROH-bee-um) – This large orchid genus has some of the easiest ones to grow. They’re highly popular since they are very floriferous. Their flowers can last up to 10 weeks. Most thrive in medium light and warm temperatures (60 to 65 F nights, 75 to 90 F days). Try ‘Pumpkin Patch’ in red and yellow, ‘Purple Splash’, ‘Pixie Charm’ in peach, ‘Mini Snowflake’ with dainty white blooms or ‘Cherry Dance’ in purple pink.
4. Miltonia (mil-TOH-nee-a) and Miltoniopsis – These striking orchids are known as pansy orchids for their resemblance to garden pansies. They prefer medium to low light and cooler temperatures. They will not flower if temperatures climb over 80 F. Also, cut back on fertilizer or roots will burn. Check out ‘Golden Gate’ in burgundy with waterfall patterns, ‘Red Flare’ in pale yellow with a fire red center, or ‘Heart of Gold’ in maroon with a gold center.
5. Paphiopedilum (paff-ee-oh-PED-ih-lum) – These lady slipper orchids are beloved for their unique, long-lived flowers. Luckily, they generally enjoy the same temperatures as our homes (60-65º F at night and 75-85º F during the day). Check out Paphiopedilum Hsinying Rubyweb x King Charles 'Little Giant'
6. Cattleya (CAT-lee-ah) – Cattleyas are known for their large, showy and fragrant blooms. They come in many sizes, shapes and colors on both big and small plants but can be recognized by their generally symmetrical flowers. Keep them in high light and warm temperatures.
Find the Right Pot
Orchid pots can be just as addicting as orchids. At the Ranch, we recommend clear plastic, terra cotta or ceramic pots with bottom holes and sidewall holes to allow for drainage and air circulation for roots. To get started, many new growers try a double-pot approach, keeping the orchid in the clear pot it was purchased in then placing it in a more decorative pot, ideally one with holes. Once the orchid is done flowering, the plant can be transferred from the clear plastic container to a more decorative one if preferred. Orchids typically grow out of their pots every two years and need to be repotted. To learn the steps in repotting, check out this video by the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Kick Start Re-Blooms
While orchids are treasured for their enduring blooms that last from a few weeks to a few months, novice growers can be challenged to coax orchids to rebloom. First off, be patient since most orchids only bloom 1 to 2 times annually. For the best results, remove the spent flowering spike and give orchids a month of rest after blooming. During this time, hold off on fertilizing then resume once new buds appear on roots. You can move the flowerless orchid to a less prominent location just make sure it continues to receive the appropriate water and light conditions. If the orchid doesn’t rebloom within a year, try moving the plant to a brighter spot. Lack of light is the primary cause for not reblooming.
The American Orchid Society is a great resource to learn more. Check out the society’s online Beginner’s Newsletters, Orchid Care, Culture Sheets and Video Library. Also, find a local orchid chapter to join or local orchid events to attend. The clubs’ orchid pros welcome new growers and are happy to share their knowledge.
Still thirsty for more orchid lore? Read the Orchid Thief book or watch the Adaptation movie about the true story of renegade plant dealer John Laroche who poached rare orchids from a South Florida swamp.
Find Orchids in Real Time
To see a variety of orchids up close, visit orchid collections at local botanic gardens and conservatories. A few of our must-sees include Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Atlanta Botanical Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Chicago Botanic Garden, Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia, Smithsonian Gardens in Washington DC, United States Botanic Garden in Washington DC and New York Botanical Garden. Many host special orchid shows and exhibits like this behind-the-scenes exhibit tour at NYBG.