The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Orchids are Elegant Houseplants

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

A Mother's Day corsage or Tarzan's jungle gift to Jane most of us have limited experience with orchids. They are actually a diverse plant family growing in deserts, mountains, marshes, northern woods and even in Illinois forests. They are also exotic elegant houseplants.

Most houseplant orchids don't require special equipment and can be as easy to grow as African violets. Now if you killed off the last 5 African violets you owned, you may want to start with a couple of the easy growing orchids.

The Phalaenopsis or moth orchids have showy flowers of pink, white or yellow. Imagine a flock of fluttering moths caught on an arching stem. One more aspect of "phals" is their delightful habit of reblooming off older flowering spikes. Do not remove old flower spikes and most often, one or even two branches will appear, with the promise of more blooms in eight to 12 weeks.

No other orchid is easier to maintain and to rebloom. 'Sussex Pearl', 'Femme Fatale' or 'Southern Ruby' are just some of the 12,000 hybrid "phals" available. The flowers will last an amazing two to five months. I had one in my office that lasted so long visitors thought it was fake.

Moth orchids are native to Asian jungles where they cling with long thick roots to rocks and trees. They get their moisture from rain, dew and humidity and their nutrients from decaying leaves and other debris that accumulate among their roots. Hopefully this does not describe your living room, but the conditions are fairly easy to reproduce.

Here are a few simple criteria for growing orchids as houseplants.

1) Orchids require bright light (but no direct sun) to bloom such as an east, or shaded west or south window. Too much light will burn the foliage and too little light will result in little growth or no blooms. Orchids taken outdoors in the summer should be placed in the shade of a tree or patio and should be moved indoors before the temperature drops below 50 degrees F. Lady slipper orchids and moth orchids can also be grown under fluorescent lights.

2) Generally orchids bloom when the night temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees colder than the day temperatures; usually temperatures between 55 and 90 during the day and between 50 and 70 degrees F at night. Moth orchids prefer 70 to 80 F day and 65 to 70 F night.

3) Orchids require a high humidity of between 40 to 85% by using humidifiers or by filling a tray with pebbles, saturating the pebbles with water and placing the pot on the pebbles.

4) Orchids appreciate good air circulation from small portable fans or ceiling fans.

5) They need thorough watering and regular fertilizer during their growing season.

6) The potting mix should provide good air penetration and fast water drainage. Commercially prepared orchid mixes are available with a combination of shredded fir bark, peat moss, perlite or sand. Orchids which naturally grow in trees can be grown on slabs of wood.

Never dig orchids from the wild. Nineteen members of the orchid family are listed on the endangered and threatened species plant list in Illinois due to loss of habitat, over-grazing and plant harvesting even in protected areas.

Look for a reputable grower who sells only nursery propagated plants. With the advent of tissue culture propagation, orchids are more available and less expensive.

Check out American Orchid Society, 16700 AOS Lane, Delray Beach, FL 33446-4351 PH: 561-404-2000.

Want to know more about orchids? Join us Tuesday October 19, 2010 at 7:00 pm at U of I Extension, 801 North Country Fair Drive in Champaign when Master Gardeners Mitzi Williams and Laura Hayden share their secrets on growing orchids. No registration or fee required. 217-333-7672.

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