October 11, 2010

Basic Orchid Care- Phalaenopsis 101

Phalaenopsis bellina- Borneo species

One of the most popular orchids in cultivation today is the Moth Orchid, in the genus Phalaenopsis. Millions are grown worldwide each year, and have become truly a "volksorchid", the people's orchid,  in the same vein as a Volkwagon is the people's car. You can now purchase extremely high quality Moth orchids at your local supermarket for about $ 20, costing $ 50 or more at an orchid show just a decade ago. These modern plants are extremely easy to grow, but like so many plants they have a few specialized needs. Once you know what the needs are, you can determine if the plants suit your needs. One of the most important things to consider in growing any plant is whether you and the plant can get along. I can speak from experience regarding the unusual effort needed to grow plants that either should not grow here, or that I cannot grow easily.

Growing moth orchids indoors requires a bright light area, but without direct sunlight. Most Phalaenopsis require a through watering only once a week. Such watering is best done in a bathroom shower or in a kitchen sink, pouring water through the potting medium for a minute or two to make sure the roots and medium are thoroughly wet. Adding a small squirt of Dove or Ivory soap to a gallon of water wets the potting medium faster than plain water alone. Don't let a plant sit in water. Once flowers are completely gone, cut the entire flower stem off, so the plant can redirect its growing energy into growth mode. Indoor orchid growing results in slower growing plants which need less fertilizer, so once a month fertilizing is all that is needed, at the rate of 1 teaspoon of 20-20-20 per gallon.

Greenhouse-grown plants have a lesser tolerance to standing water in the crowns than do many natural species. With this fact in mind, you can decide how you want your plants to grow; either as indoor plants or as outdoor plants in the landscape. Many Philippine species do well when mounted on trees or in baskets outdoors in South Florida. Some of the hybrids can be grown as landscape plants or can be acclimated to outdoor conditions, but  can take a year or more to acclimate them. Growing Phalaenopsis indoors requires different conditions than outdoors, primarily regarding watering and light.

Phalaenopsis gigantea- a giant species

A modern phalaenopsis hybrid

A modern Japanese hybrid

Phalaenopsis parishii- a true miniature 

Phalaenopsis Phillishill- a primary hybrid

All Phalaenopsis species come from the tropics, but from widely diverse climates within the tropics. Some species come from seasonally dry areas in Thailand or Burma, some are wet-rainforest species from the Philippines or Indonesia. The modern Phalaenopsis hybrids come from equally tropical but artificial climates, such as greenhouses China or Japan, southern Florida or coastal Hawaii. In any growing scenario, natural or artificial, Phalaenopsis need warmth, humidity, and moderate light. The differences between wild species and artificial hybrids can result in differences in growing habits.

Growing Phalaenopsis outdoors calls for more frequent watering and fertilizing, as well as extra care to make sure the plants are tilted so that water quickly runs out of the crowns. Growing plants in long fiber sphagnum moss in slat baskets is a very successful way to cultivate Phalaenopsis outdoors. For those species that want extra moisture, the roots will stay inside the moss. For those which want drier roots, the roots will head out onto the basket surfaces, sometimes into the direct sun. Some of the speckled-leaf  species and hybrids like more light and less water than some of the green-leaf  hybrid types. In all cases, Phalaenopsis like filtered light, dry leaf crowns, and good aeration at the roots. While regular watering is appreciated, wet and soggy roots systems and media are to be avoided.

Modern Phalaenopsis breeding programs have brought about enormous changes in plants for the mass market, with true miniature plants flowering in 2 inch pots, to multifloral types that flower several times a year, to enormous plants with 3 foot leafspans and yard-long flower stems. There are plants for almost any culture, space, condition and color taste. If you had trouble growing these plants in the past, try again. New hybrids are introduced every month, and with a most reasonable price tag. Keep experimenting, and you will find a plant that you like and it likes you in return.  

Phalaenopsis equestris- a miniature species

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens           

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