Caring for Orchids Caring for Orchids

Gentle, elegant orchids are always in style. There are over 20,000 extremely diverse species of orchids found around the globe. Every county in the world has a native orchid species, making it easy to find the style and color right for you. With exotic orchids you can bring an element of richness and flare to your home.

Orchids have a reputation for being difficult to cultivate, but with a little knowledge, you'll find you can keep one alive fairly easily, as long as you give the plant what it wants and needs. Actually, some orchids are considered indestructible, and you don't need a privately-endowed trust fund for the plants, either. Today, you can buy orchids at many discount home or gardening stores for not much more than other flowering houseplants.

Not only are these flowers beautiful, coming in a great variety of colors, shapes and scents, but the plants themselves seem otherworldly.

Types of Orchids

Orchids are classified by their growth habit and divided into four main groups. The first group is the epiphytes. T hey are commonly referred to as air plants. Air plants feed off of tree bark and do not require soil to grow. Another group of orchids is called lithophytes. These orchids are also air plants but they cling to rocks. The third type of orchid, also an air plant, is the saprophytes. These beautiful plants grow on dead vegetation. The only orchid group out of the four that is not an air plant is the terrestrial group. Plants in this group grow in the ground, and require soil to thrive.

Air plants' roots are usually exposed to air and get nutrients chiefly when it rains. As a result, these varieties are not grown in soil; they should be grown in pots full of tree bark, crumbled charcoal, or even pebbles. (If you have a humid greenhouse, you can grow them attached to wood or cork plaques, but don't try this in your windowsill.)

Getting Started

There are many popular varieties of orchid, including cattleyas, dendrobiums, oncidiums and vandas. Phalaenopsis, which is popularly known as the "moth orchid," are commonly recommended for most beginners.

Currently this is the easiest one to find at the florist shop, the greenhouse, or the plant fair, and the one that most people immediately recognize as an orchid.

When choosing an individual plant, look for clean, shiny leaves, and don't worry if you see some roots out of the mix; the roots like being exposed to the air, and should look healthy, plump, and green, not broken-up and spindly. It is always best to buy a plant already in flower, so you see what you are getting--this way you'll see the color and you'll verify that you have a healthy, mature plant capable of producing flowers.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "Most store-bought orchids come in cheap pots that don't allow for adequate air circulation. Re-potting is necessary but don't repot while the orchid is in bloom. Repot the orchid in an orchid container and use orchid potting mix. Cut away any roots that are rotten or black and place the orchid in the new pot."


Once you get the plant home, you want to make sure your it is happy with the amount of light it's getting. Too much light, and the leaves will turn yellow; too little, and the leaves will turndark green, and the plant will start looking scrawny and won't flower. Phals prefer medium amounts of not-too-bright sunshine, as found in most east-facing windows.


When Europeans first began cultivating orchids, they thought that because orchids were native to hot, humid climates, they had to have round-the-clock heat and humidity. In reality, like many other popular orchids, phalaenopses are rather ideally suited to a bright window in a home in a temperate climate; they like daytime temperatures of about 80 degrees F, and nighttime temperatures of about 60 degrees. It's the change in temperature that's crucial for successfully growing most orchids; if there isn't enough of a temperature drop at night, the orchids may not bloom.


While phalaenopses don't need lots of heat, they do need a level of humidity that isn't found in most homes outside of a rainforest. To supplement the humidity in your home, you can use a room humidifier, or a smaller humidifier that will just keep the area around the plants moist. Also, many indoor growers keep their orchids above a "humidity tray" instead of using saucers under the pots. The runoff from watering your plants goes into the tray and evaporates, providing extra humidity.

TIP:'s gardening advisor, Susan Patterson suggests, "In the winter, keep orchids warm, and mist to keep them hydrated.


Don't let the potting medium dry out completely, but water the plant whenever the medium gets to the point of being only slightly damp. That said, one of the most common ways of killing an orchid is by overwatering. To prevent this, check the weight of the pot every day. Right after you water, the pot should be heavy; when dry, the pot will be light. Note how long it takes for the pot to become dry and then water every few days as necessary. Small pots will dry out faster than larger ones. Since most home windowsills are not very humid, you should use plastic pots, which help retain moisture.

TIP: Susan advises, "Watering once a week in summer and once a month in winter is generally enough."

Most commercial potting medium is made of tree bark mixed with charcoal and perlite chunks. If it turns out you suffer from the common inclination to overwater, you should use a coarser grade of mix when you repot. Overwatering will eventually kill your plant, since the roots will be robbed of the air they need.


Use houseplant food with a "balanced" ratio of 18 nitrogen, 18 phosphorous and 18 potassium, or any similar formula. Only use about 1/2 to 1/4 the amount per gallon that is recommended on the package, since orchids don't need as much of this food as other plants who are fed with this 18-18-18 mix.

Tip: Susan adds, "Feed only during the growing season, once a week. Do not feed in the winter."

Interesting Orchid Facts

Not only are orchids a lovely way to add color to your home, but they also have a fascinating history. Starting about 4,000 years ago, the Chinese word for orchids - "lan" - appeared in written texts about herbal medicine. Confucius wrote about orchids, comparing the pleasure of seeing good friends to entering a room full of fragrant orchids. Meanwhile, in Europe native terrestrial orchids were used as aphrodisiacs.

The 19th century European frenzy of exploration, combined with the growing Western interest in tropical orchids, drove orchid prices up and drove many people to explore the tropics to collect more of the exotic plants. Unfortunately, this collecting spree led to considerable orchid habitat destruction, and many species were probably lost forever as a result. Today, many orchidists, including the American Orchid Society, advocate the purchase of artificially propagated orchids, either meristem clones or seedlings, which will help discourage the collecting of orchid species at home and abroad.

The family of orchids is the largest plant family, with a great deal of variety as well, from miniatures such as Mystacidium caffrum to the 20-foot-tall Renanthera storei. Some orchids have tiny blooms smaller than a pinhead; others are bigger than an Easter lily. Some orchids bloom continuously, others bloom just once a year. Orchids are beautiful, interesting plants that are sure to enrich your life and bring a little tropical warmth into your winter home.

Thanks to Elena Andrews Gaillard, former President of the Manhattan Orchid Society and owner of for her help in preparing this article.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design.

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