Phalaenopsis orchids: tips for growing these gorgeous plants
It's typical to see blooming specimens of this beautiful orchid for sale at this time of the year.
It's a common misconception that orchids are difficult to grow. In fact, orchids are tough, resilient plants, and most are not that challenging if you learn what growing conditions they prefer.
People often think orchids are expensive, but these days prices are quite reasonable.
Moth orchid is the name given to plants that belong to the genus Phalaenopsis (pronounced: fail-en-OP-sis). The genus name is from the Greek for "moth appearance." The first species discovered produced beautiful sprays of typically white blooms that resemble big moths in wide-winged flight.
With the discovery of new species and the development of hybrids, the color range now goes well beyond white to include white with a colored lip; pink; yellow; green and red; and those with spots, veins or stripes in many different combinations. I am amazed at the flower colors available these days.
Breeders also have produced plants that vary tremendously in size, from small ones just a few inches across that produce flower spikes only 8 inches long, to large plants 12 inches across that produce spectacular flower spikes 24 inches long.
The small plants are perfect to grow on a windowsill.
There are 40 to 50 species found from the eastern Himalayan mountains to Australia, with most native to the warm Philippine lowlands. They typically grow epiphytically on trees or on rocks in warm, humid, shady locations.
Epiphytic plants grow attached by their roots to the trunk or branches of a tree. However, they are not parasites and do not take anything from the tree.
Many orchid plants are not all that attractive when not in bloom. But the growth habit of phalaenopsis orchids is quite attractive, with low-growing, elongated leaves arising in opposite directions from a central crown.
Plants send up leaves individually during periods of active growth. As they do, the older leaves will tend to yellow and should be removed.
Usually, there are not more than three to five leaves on a plant at one time. In some varieties, the leaves are attractively marked with silver, but for most, the leaves are mid to dark green and leathery.
The classic phalaenopsis has long, arching, pendulous flower stalks producing large, rounded flowers. But many species and hybrids produce flowers in a wide variety of forms, including small flowers in large branching clusters and short upright spikes.
A well-grown plant can send up multiple inflorescences, and the individual flowers are very long lasting -- staying attractive for weeks before fading. So a phalaenopsis orchid may stay in bloom for months.
Like most orchids, they don't bloom continuously, however. After flowering is finished, don't expect the plant to bloom again until about the same time the next year.
Phalaenopsis orchids are relatively easy to grow. Indoors they will thrive in a brightly lit window that gets some direct sun during the day.
Make sure you choose a bright window; a shady, north-facing window or a window blocked by trees or shrubs may not provide enough light to encourage blooming.
Phalaenopsis orchids love to spend the summer outside during warmer times of the year. After nighttime temperatures reliably stay above 55 degrees, move them to a shady spot that receives no more than a couple of hours of morning sun or dappled light through the day. (Too much direct sun will burn the foliage.)
Phalaenopsis orchids enjoy the higher humidity and air movement outside. Spending time outdoors also provides a temperature drop between day and night of at least 10 degrees, which these orchids prefer.
Because phalaenopsis are epiphytes that grow on the branches of other plants (like our own resurrection fern and Spanish moss), they are not grown in typical potting soil.
When grown in containers, these plants are potted in a special orchid mix. Orchid mixes are generally based on chopped fir bark these days.
Phalaenopsis should be potted in a medium-grade bark or medium-fine bark mix (medium bark with perlite and chopped sphagnum moss added).
These special mixes greatly influence how we water orchids. To properly water them, you must run water through the mix until it is fully moistened. This cannot be done with the plant sitting on the windowsill. Water runs rapidly through bark mixes, and it would go all over the place.
This is best done indoors at the sink, allowing tepid water to flow through the mix until it is thoroughly moistened. Outside, just use a hose to thoroughly water the plants.
Unlike some orchids, phalaenopsis do not have water storage organs and should be kept moist. Let them dry only briefly between waterings.
These orchid mixes also contain very little in the way of nutrients. Fertilize your phalaenopsis orchids from spring to early fall using a soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20 to keep your plants growing vigorously. Follow label directions for mixing and apply about twice a month.
Should you decide to give a phalaenopsis orchid as a gift -- or if you should receive one -- the information in this column should get the plant off to a good start. But there are many different kinds of orchids, and each type has its own preferred growing conditions.
Make sure the orchid has a identification tag. It is essential to know what type of orchid you have when you start researching how to care for it.
on December 18, 2014 at 1:21 PM, updated December 18, 2014 at 1:36 PM