Growing Orchids at Home: Advice to Beginners

I’m no expert, but I have managed to keep seven specimens of orchid alive in my house. Contrast that with a gardener in central New Jersey I visited last year who has hundreds of them --- and every one goes back into the house to overwinter. Beginners fall closer to my end of that continuum.

First, let’s get acquainted with some of the different types of orchids.

I started out completely off the spectrum, with the lifeless, leafless stalks of a Dendrobium. First mistake. Begin with a Phalaenopsis, or Moth Orchid which, unless you have a black thumb, is virtually infallible. These are available nearly everywhere, from Lowe’s to Trader Joe’s, are easy to grow, their flowers last four to five months, and they readily accommodate to household conditions --- unless you keep a very warm house. My problem with Phalaenopsis was that stores carried only white, pink, or purple and the flowers didn’t come in the wild variety of spidery and other-worldly forms of the more exotic types of orchids that fascinate me. But this year I chanced upon a chartreuse one and thought to myself, “Why cultivate an endless stream of dead Dendrobia, when I can get the color I want in a plant I already know will thrive for me?”

Paphiopedelum (shown above) is the Lady Slipper Orchid. I bought one of these, as well as a Rhynchostylis, in full bloom at a small orchid show in Florida, where orchid prices are much lower than here in New Jersey. I wet them up, wrapped them in newspaper and plastic, and stuffed them into my overfull carry-on bag. The Paphiopedelum has a great striped purple flower and spotted leaves that make it interesting to look at year round. It needs shade, however, and gets sunburned in conditions that the thicker-leaved Phalaenopsis can tolerate. This has been an easy plant to grow and the flowers last about two months. It seems to take forever for the flower stalk to unfurl, however, so patience is required.

Rhynchostylis just sat there until this winter, when it started, very, very slowly, to put out a new leaf. I think. It’s still so small, I can’t really tell what’s going on. But, it’s doing something. This plant likes lots of light, although not direct hot sun. When it blooms, which I’ve not yet gotten it to do, it puts out racemes with hundreds of flowers that exude an intoxicating fragrance, especially at night. It will be worth the wait, if I ever get any.

Last fall, I purchased two hybrid Odontoglossum/Oncidium at a Trader Joe’s store One had a purplish-black flower stalk three feet tall and the other was a vibrant magenta. Both flowers had long, recurved twisty petals. One has already grown a new something, either a new extension of itself, or another flower stalk section. Since I never had one of these before, I will just have to wait and see. These plants seem relatively easy and undemanding, so far.

Last, but not least, is a Dendrobium Nobile that blooms in a profusion of flowers, white dusted with lilac, that offer up a heady perfume. When it blooms. Which is apparently not this year. I knew this one might be difficult when I bought it, but again, the flowers and scent are worth the effort. The leafless stalks still look healthy (this orchid is deciduous) and young, new ones are growing as well.

There are thousands of other orchids. If you’ve never grown one before, start with a Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedelum, or hybrid Odontoglossum/Oncidium. Orchid specialists will have a larger selection, handouts on cultural requirements, and sometimes free talks to help you get started. Mass merchandisers will have cheaper prices.
More on orchids next time.....

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