I’m not known for being particularly adept with plants. Flowers generally turn brown and wilt before my very eyes. Herbs dry up and perish. My efforts are futile, even with plants marked as “for beginners,” “low-maintenance,” or “idiot-proof.” I’ve even killed a few cacti.
So I was surprised when my husband gifted me with—of all things—a beautiful orchid. Orchids, despite claims that they are simple to take care of, are fussy. They are not flowers that can be set on the windowsill and forgotten about—they must be tended. They are quite particular about their light, their water, and their humidity, and they must be cared for just so, requiring a precise combination of conditions that mimic their natural habitat in tropical climates. Luckily, there’s some basic wisdom that even the brownest-thumbed among us can find useful and easy to follow. Growing orchids may not be the easiest horticultural task, but if you do it right, it can be one of the most rewarding.
Find the Right Light and Temperature
Orchids need lots of light, but direct sun is too intense. They should be placed near a northern or southern window with bright indirect light, or near an eastern or western window with blinds or drapes for protection. You can gauge the amount of light your orchid is getting by checking its leaves, which should be bright green and perky. If the leaves are yellow, brittle, or showing signs of sunburn, there’s too much light; if the leaves are a deep, dark green, there’s not enough. When you touch the leaves during the day and they are noticeably warmer than room temperature, move the plant to a cooler spot. Popular orchid cultivars like Phalaenopsis and Oncidium need less light than varieties such as Dendrobium and Cattleya, so if you’re growing one of the low-light varieties, err on the side of soft, diffuse light.
Orchids thrive in daytime temperatures of about seventy-five degrees and nighttime temps of about sixty. They should never be exposed to extremes of hot or cold for long periods of time.
Monitor Watering and Humidity
Since most varieties are from tropical or subtropical regions, orchids do best when the average humidity is between 50 and 75 percent. In the wild, many orchids grow attached to trees or on decaying logs, where their roots absorb moisture from the air around them; they don’t get water or nutrients from soil. If an orchid is growing in a house or area with low daytime humidity, try placing it in a shallow dish on top of a layer of pebbles and a small amount of water. The liquid will evaporate, creating extra humidity around the plant.
The amount of water an orchid needs depends on where it’s growing. In humid climates, the plant may need watering only once every ten days, while orchids grown in dry environments can need watering up to twice a week. Most experts advise waiting until the orchid’s potting mix is almost completely dry before watering. After watering, the mix should be mildly damp but never soggy. Its pot should provide ample drainage. Never leave an orchid sitting in standing water, because the roots could rot.
When watering an orchid, it’s important to wet only the potting mix and roots, not the leaves or flowers. If you accidentally splash water onto the leaves or in between the leaves at the stem, soak up the excess liquid with a paper towel or Q-tip to prevent rotting. It’s also a good idea to water orchids exclusively in the morning, because watering at night can prevent excess liquid from evaporating. Cold water can also encourage rotting, so it’s best to use lukewarm or room-temperature water.
Get Familiar with Your Orchid’s Blooming Cycle and Repotting Needs
If you achieve the right balance of light, temperature, water, and humidity, an orchid will produce beautiful, colorful blooms along its stem, which can last for a month before dropping off. After a spray of blooms falls off, check for new leaf growth at the plant’s base. If there are no new leaves sprouting, the orchid can usually be rebloomed. About halfway down the flower spike and about an inch above one of the stem’s easily recognized nodes, cut the stem with clippers or a sharp blade, and then press a little grated cinnamon onto the plant’s wound to help it heal. The orchid should sprout a new flower spike and, eventually, a new array of blooms.
If you see new leaf growth after blooms fall off the plant, allow it to focus on leaf and root development and wait for its next natural reblooming. Most common orchid varieties have about two natural blooming cycles per year.
Eventually an orchid’s root system will outgrow its container, or its potting mix will be depleted and decomposed. Repot Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium orchids about once per year; Cattleya and Oncidium varieties usually need repotting every two years. Orchids grow best in orchid-specific potting mixtures, which usually include sphagnum moss, bark, cork, and other materials that will allow sufficient aeration and drainage.
There are about thirty thousand species of orchids in the world, and they’re all different, with slightly different requirements for light, water, reblooming, and temperature. Although these are general guidelines, the best way to assure a healthy and happy orchid is to tailor your care to its precise species. Phalaenopses need warmer temperatures, Cattleyas need brighter light, and Cymbidiums have greater water needs than other varieties. The practice of cultivating orchids has fascinated and enthralled gardeners for centuries, because although they can be finicky, demanding, and confounding, caring for them properly means getting to enjoy one of the most serenely exotic plants in nature right before your very eyes.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons