Orchids are more than just a pretty face. We find them in medicines, dyes, and fragrances; as bioindicators to determine the quality of an environment; and as a flavoring in the case of vanilla orchids. The Orchidaceae family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, with 28,000 species spread over all continents except Antarctica. Hybridization and mass production have allowed orchids to become widely available and affordable, so that we can now pick one up anytime in full bloom for under $20. One of the most popular in supermarkets is the Phalaenopsis, more commonly known as the moth orchid. An air plant usually potted in moss or bark, it’s not fussy and enjoys much of the same temperatures we do—making it an ideal houseplant.
Orchids last for years and blooms can last from weeks to months. Seeking tips to get the best performance and enjoyment from an orchid, I met with Brandon Tam, orchid collection specialist at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which holds one of the largest orchid collections in the United States. Tam manages more than 10,000 orchid plants, with 1,500 unique species, and under his direction the Huntington has won more than 100 awards from the American Orchid Society.
“Growing plants is like cooking in a kitchen: No two chefs are alike,” Tam says. “It’s the end result that’s important. Be creative and explore different options that work for you.”
Selecting a Phalaenopsis
The plant should be clean with no signs of pests or disease and turgid, unblemished, medium-green leaves. The inflorescence (flowering spike) should be full of flowers and buds, and there should be plenty of roots that are firm and green. For fragrance, consider Phalaenopsis bellina (sweet) or Phalaenopsis schilleriana (rose).
Bringing your Orchid Home
Acclimate your orchid to its new surroundings. A change in environment can have an effect on the performance such as “bud blast,” when the bud shrivels up and falls off. Consider where it came from and where it’s going. Did you purchase it from a grocery store where it was grouped in the produce section, receiving blasts of cool air, and your intention is to place it in your kitchen?
Two Key Elements for Success: Water and Light
Don’t overwater. The plant should be dry but not bone dry in-between watering. The weight test is a quick indicator. Hold the pot and if you feel weight hold off watering. A potting mixture of bark will require more frequent watering than moss. These are tropical plants. Avoid using use ice cubes. In the morning, run lukewarm tap water and test for weight. This will also leach accumulated salts.
Provide a minimum of six hours of quality, bright, indirect light. To test, hold your hand 6 inches above the leaves. The edges of your shadow should be soft, not sharp. The lush, dark-green color valued in houseplants indicates not enough light for an orchid. In general, leaves should be a grassy yellow-green, indicating there is enough light for photosynthesis to produce blooms and healthy leaves.
Epiphytes, or air plants, are mobile—they can actually crawl (undetected by the human eye). The roots growing over the top of the pot indicate that your orchid could be seeking slightly larger living quarters or possibly fresh potting mix, and it’s time to repot after the flowers have dropped.
Orchid pots with openings on the sides provide needed air flow. Clay will retain less water than plastic or ceramic. Cut off the flower spike and rotted roots. Use a potting mix of 75% bark with 25% perlite. The rule of thumb is the larger the roots the larger the bark. Repot every three years.
Depending on your environment and the pot design, you can increase humidity by adding pebbles to a tray or saucer containing water to elevate the pot, so it does not sit in water. Grouping plants together will also increase the surrounding humidity.
More is not better. When you water, feed a balanced orchid food during the growing season, February–October, at one-half suggested strength to prevent leaf and root burn.
Pests and Disease
Keep the growing area clean to prevent bacteria growth and pests. Using a spray bottle with 70% isopropyl alcohol, spray pests directly, avoiding the flower.
The American Orchid Society provides specific information about each orchid culture; aos.org
Santa Barbara International Orchid Show, March 10–12, 2023; sborchidshow.com
The Huntington Orchid Database and the International Orchid Show and Sale, October 20–22, 2023; huntington.org
California Orchid Trail for visiting growers from Malibu to Santa Barbara; californiaorchidtrail.com
Norman’s Orchids in Montclair, Calif; orchids.com