Orchid 101: Caring for the Divas of the Plant World

Jan 12, 2022

Whether it's a massive display or a tiny desktop bloom, there's nothing like an orchid for adding beauty and a sense of serenity to any decor. No surprise: these exotic divas of the plant world are more popular than ever, but caring for them can be intimidating. The good news is that you don't have to be a plant whisperer to have success with orchids. Just like human divas, they are temperamental, but if you give them what they need, they will perform for you. There are a
number of different commonly available orchids with both indoor and outdoor varieties to choose from. The information provided here applies generally to indoor orchids, particularly the widely popular Phalaenopsis.

Orchid's Origins:

Most commercially grown orchids are derived from plants originating in the tropics. Imagine for a moment that you are an orchid: you are growing in a sheltered spot probably up in a tree with your roots getting nutrients from crumbled bark that is moist but not soggy. Filtered sunlight streams in for most of the day. The air is comfortably warm and humid. The temperature is fairly constant for most of the year. Although we don't live in that idyllic setting, the orchid in your home needs similar conditions. Does this mean you have to create a tropical orchid spa? No, but it does mean paying attention to water, light and temperature. 

Know Your Pot:

Orchids purchased at retail usually come in plastic pots which are often set into decorative containers. The advantage to plastic is that it retains moisture longer than porous materials like unglazed terra cotta. The downside is that it becomes easy to overwater your orchid. This is especially true if the pot is topped with decorative materials or set in an arrangement with other orchids. If you can't easily determine if there is adequate drainage, there will be trouble ahead. It's a hassle, but it's best to remove the orchid from the outer pot or arrangement to water it. (More on this to follow.) Failing that, test the moisture in the potting medium by carefully inserting a bamboo skewer all the way to the bottom of the pot. If it's evenly moist, don't add water and test again in a few days.

No ice, please!

We've all heard, “Just drop in an ice cube once a week.” Convenient? Yes. Good for the orchid? NO. Ice actually damages the tender tropical plant tissue where it is placed. This makes sense. (Except for rum drinks, there's not much ice in the tropics, right?) Similarly, orchids don't like cold water and won't absorb the moisture properly, and orchids usually need a lot more water than one ice cube provides. 

The Right Way to Water:

Remove the orchid from the display pot and place it in a deep sink or dishpan. Using room temperature water from a pitcher or gentle spray nozzle (flexible shampoo attachments are great for this) drench your orchid from top to bottom. Be careful to avoid the flowers and wet the tops and undersides of the leaves as well as the pot. Set the orchid aside to drain thoroughly and wipe off any remaining drops of water on the leaves. Remember that your orchid's need for moisture changes according to ambient temperature and humidity. Although about once a week is a good rule of thumb, it might need to be watered much more often during the warmest part of the year. Watering in this way will also maintain moisture in the leaves and help prevent pest infestations.

Feeding Your Diva: How to Fertilize

Your orchid has a good appetite and needs to be fed about every two weeks with a good, preferably organic, fertilizer. You will need two kinds: one for growth, which contains nitrogen and one for blooming which does not contain nitrogen. The numbers on the label represent levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and will tell you which is which. Fertilizers with nitrogen will look something like this: 12-10-10. Fertilizers for blooming will look like this: 0-10-10; i.e., no nitrogen. While your orchid is flowering, feed with the latter kind. Once all the blooms are gone, look for new growth and switch to a fertilizer containing nitrogen.

Good Lighting is a Must:

Insufficient light is a key reason that orchids fail to re-bloom. Although different types of orchids have varying light requirements, a good rule of thumb is to provide at least 6 hours of light from a window every day. Start by observing the light in several places in your home at different times of the day. Then, to be sure the light is sufficient but not too strong, test by holding your hand between the plant and the window, about a foot away from the orchid. If your hand casts a faint shadow on the leaves you have enough light for most orchids such as Phalaenopsis. If it casts a sharp shadow, it may be too strong or better for other types such as Cattleyas. If the light is too strong, you can also add a sheer curtain to provide a filter.

Grooming your diva:

Remove wilting blooms right away to prolong the life of the remaining flowers. When blossoms start to droop and fade, they emit ethylene gas which hastens the demise of the other flowers. Once all the blossoms are gone, cut the spike (flower stem) back either partway down (between nodes) or at the base. Make sure whatever you use to cut, is sharp and sanitized first by holding over a flame or spraying with 70% alcohol (hand sanitizer.)

Additional resources:

The American Orchid Society: https://www.aos.org
The Orchid Whisperer, by Bruce Rogers published by Chronicle Books, 2012

By Maggie Mah
By Cynthia Nations

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