My love affair with orchids began in college. It was the winter of 2007 while in Belize for a winter semester class “Tropical Agriculture, Conservation, and Ecosystems.” Sitting along the tranquil headwaters of the Bladen River, our guide detailed the dynamic relationship of the ecosystem that surrounded us.
In the heart of the rainforest, the delicate balance of our environment beats like a drum. As our guide described the four layers of the rainforest from the emergent layer, to the canopy layer, to the understory, and the forest floor, birds chirped and vivid blue morpho butterflies fluttered around. Our guide pointed above us to the most beautiful mesmerizing orchid I had ever seen; the black orchid.
The black orchid gently dangled off the leaning tree beside us, its greenish-yellow petals and sepals had the most beautiful purple blotches near the base. While the “lip” was shaped like the valve of a clamshell, it was deep purple to black and radiated with purple veins. I had never encountered such a fascinating flower.
After the class ended, I dove headfirst into all things orchids to absorb as much information as I could. The orchid family boasts some of the most extraordinary and diverse flowers in the plant kingdom, with around 30,000 species and 120,000 hybrids.
Generally, orchids are divided into two groups; epiphytic and terrestrial. Epiphytic orchids are usually the orchid we most frequently see (Phalaenopis and Cattleya). Epiphytic orchids use their tough roots to anchor themselves to trees. They receive nutrients from rainwater and leaf debris and they absorb moisture from the air. Terrestrial orchids grow with their roots in the ground. They are most commonly found in grasslands or boggy areas. Understanding the type of orchid you have, their growing conditions, light requirements and flowering season is integral in ensuring your success.
After much trial and error, I have learned a few things. With orchids, consistency is key. A majority of our orchids such as Phalaenopsis only bloom once a year in late winter through early spring (January to March). Getting them to rebloom is the ultimate prize as a gardener. The best way to encourage flowering is make sure that you have the proper lightening, ample water, and the right amount of food.
First, getting the light right is one of the most important factors. Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum like morning light from an east-facing window. This provides an orchid with a few hours of direct sunlight without hurting the plant. The sun can be very damaging to the leaves of an orchid, so the right placement is key. If you do not have an east-facing window, you can make other spots work by following these principals. North facing windows simply do not provide enough light to sustain the healthy growth of an orchid. If this is your only option, you will need a grow light to give your orchid the boost of light it needs. If your orchid is in a west-facing window put up a sheer curtain to protect it from the heat of the summer sun. Furthermore, if using a south facing window a sheer curtain is advisable year round. Unlike Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum, Cattleya like bright light from a south or west facing window.
Just as getting the right lighting is crucial so is watering. When watering your orchids, always water in the morning. This guarantees that the moisture has time to evaporate. If you water at night, it allows water to settle in the nooks of the bark, which promotes fungal growth. Avoid watering or misting the leaves. Misting tricks the guard cells on the leaves to think that the humidity is higher than it actually is. This can cause your orchid to dry out faster. Additionally it can lead to crown rot if water settles in the nooks of the leaves. Orchids love humidity. To increase humidity you can use a humidifier set at 40-50% or use a humidity tray.
All plants require nutrients to grow and thrive. Epiphytic orchids like Phalaenopsis live in trees where they receive nutrients from rainwater and leaf debris. Pot-grown orchids depend on feedings to produce healthy leaves and beautiful blooms. With proper feedings, a well-fertilized orchid will keep their leaves longer and will produce more flowers. When feeding, it’s best to use orchid-specific fertilizers. Orchids also thrive from “weakly weekly” feedings when blooming by diluting fertilizer to ¼ strength rather than a full dose once a month.
By Rachel J. Rhodes, Master Gardener Coordinator, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, University of Maryland Extension. Follow the Queen Anne’s County Master Gardeners on Facebook. Visit the UME Master Gardener webpage to find Master Gardener events and services in your county/city.