The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Orchids are elegant houseplants

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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. Orchids are an amazingly diverse plant family growing in deserts, mountains, marshes, northern woods, Illinois forests and even your home as exotic, elegant houseplants.

Many orchids don't require special indoor equipment. Mine grow just fine in the east window of my office. Now if you killed off the last five houseplants, your best bet is the easy growing (more forgiving) moth orchid.

The Phalaenopsis or moth orchids have dark shiny green leaves adorned with showy flowers of pink, white or yellow. Imagine a flock of fluttering moths dancing on an arching high wire. Moth orchids are native to Asian jungles but in the U.S. we find them in stores fluttering next to the apples and lettuce or lumber and nails. Intensely blue colored moth orchids also greet us as we enter many stores, but sorry these flowers have been dyed and will flower white in future years.

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 flowering in my office for so long visitors thought it was made of wax.

Moth orchids don't live in soil but are epiphytes, so-called air plants. As Asian jungle natives they cling with long thick roots to rocks and trees. Their moisture is gathered from rain, dew and humidity and their nutrients from decaying leaves and other debris that accumulates 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 and happily rebloom in my office.

3) Orchids appreciate high humidity between 40 to 85%. Use humidifiers or fill a tray with pebbles, saturate the pebbles with water and place 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. Think "weekly weakly". In other words fertilize in water every week with a weak (low) rate of orchid fertilizer.

6) Don't overwater. Some orchid labels recommend watering with ice cubes. This works if you repetitively overwater plants; however does ice cold water sound like something a jungle plant would want on its roots?

7) 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.

Discover more about orchids with The Central Illinois Orchid Society. Meetings are typically held on the 2nd Monday of the month at Hessel Park Christian Reformed Church, 700 W. Kirby Ave., Champaign, IL. Next meeting is January 11, 2016 at 6:30pm. March 5, Saturday @10:00 a.m. - 4 p.m. is their Annual Orchid Show and Sale. Check out their website

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