How to grow orchids

The beauty, complexity and incredible diversity of orchid flowers are unrivalled in the plant world. These exotic beauties comprise the largest family of flowering plants on earth, with over 30,000 different species, and at least 200,000 hybrids. Orchids can be found in the equatorial tropics, the arctic tundra, and everywhere in between. The reason for this diversity lies in the orchid’s amazing ability to adapt to its given environment. With so many different orchid varieties that thrive in so many different growing conditions, it is relatively easy to find an orchid that is well suited to the conditions that you can provide.

How orchids growOrchids are usually grouped into two broad categories that characterize their growth habits. Monopodial orchids have a single, upright stem, with leaves arranged opposite each other along the stem. The flower stem appears from the base of the uppermost leaves. Orchids with this growth habit include the phalaenopsis and vandas. The more common growth habit is sympodial. These orchids grow horizontally, sending out new shoots from the old rhizome. Leaves and flower scapes form at the top of the new shoots. Many sympodial orchids form pseudobulbs, which are swollen shoots that store water and nutrients to help the plant survive periods of prolonged drought. Sympodial orchids include cattleya, cymbidium, oncidium and dendrobium. Orchids can also be classified by their native habitat, which gives an indication of the temperature, moisture and light levels they prefer. Orchids native to the humid tropics, such as phalaenopsis and paphiopedilum, prefer daytime temperatures of 73° to 85°F, with 80 to 90 percent humidity. They are happiest in an east or southeast window where the light is not too intense.

Caring for orchidsWith 30,000 different species of orchids, it is impossible to give general care and cultivation instructions. However, how an orchid looks can provide clues to its preferences for light, water, and growing medium. If the plant has few leaves, or leathery leaves (like most cattleyas and oncidiums), it's likely the plant needs a high-light environment. If the leaves are soft and limp (like some phalaenopsis and most paphiopedilum), the plants are probably very light-sensitive, and should not be placed in a sunny south-facing window. If the orchid has fat pseudobulbs, it should be watered sparingly, and should be grown on coarse chunks of bark or lava rock. If the orchid has no pseudobulbs, it may require more frequent watering, or should be grown in a more moisture-retentive growing medium, such as sphagnum moss.

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