Getting Started: Your First Orchid. LOOKING BACK, I realize that I fell into orchid- growing by accident. My first orchid was a rootless Dendrobium phalaenopsis hybrid that was on the brink Of dying in a crowded greenhouse Of a small local nursery. I bought it because I thought I could save it. But try as I might, I could not get the orchid to form any roots, and I watched helplessly as its pseudobulbs began to crease and wrinkle.
then gradually deflate as it used up the water stored inside. In desperation, I placed the plant in pail of water tor twenty-four hours, enclosed it in a plastic bag with some damp moss trick that has worked for me since), and danced around it three times waving a chicken bone and muttering “Unwitherus pseudobulbis rehydratus novum immediatum!” and other spells. All was for naugh, and the plant dropped its last remaining leaves and slowly faded to brown.
Had I known then what I know now, might have been able to save the plant, but even so starting out with a cheap weakened plant. I was hooked. Once it was obvious that my first plant was a terminal case. I bought a Phalaenopsis in spike (flowers developing) and it bloomed. I purchased some books on orchids and soon the bay window in my apartment was screened off with plastic and humming with the soft whoosh of an electric fan and a small humidifier. At that point, orchids stopped living with me and I began to live with orchids.
Their next home was an enclosed box under fluorescent lights in a spare bedroom, This setup saved the floors and satisfied me for a time until I decided that high-intensity lights—the kind you see in warehouse stores that blind you if you stare at them—would be just the thing for my burgeoning collection. So I took my orchids down to the basement. First constructing a plastic box with a single light fixture and later wrapping a corner of the basement in plastic sheets and growing the plants on benches in an artificially lit grow room. Later still I went on to manage a conservatory collection of orchids as well as thousands of other tropical.
Now a greenhouse is the holy grail of most serious orchidophiles, but in all honesty some plants did better back on the windowsill than they ever did in the greenhouse. In part it’s a question of numbers. It is easier to give plants individual attention when you have fifteen than when you have fifteen teen hundred. Furthermore, not all tropical orchids are rain forest plants.
Many grow in seasonally dry environments, and the ever present humidity of a greenhouse is just not to their liking. Bellicose when I say that you don’t need a greenhouse to grow orchids. You just need to pick plants suited to your space.
Buying Your First Orchid
Unless you are as obstinate as I am, I don’t recommend beginning with a plant that is knocking on heaven’s door even before you bring it home. Start with as healthy a specimen as you can find. My best advice to visit a nursery that specialists in orchids Ito find a nursery contact your local orchid society or search on the Internet and ask the proprietor for recommendations based on your growing space. Some orchids need a bright south-facing window; others will thrive in a shaded east or north-facing one.
Even the temperature at which you set your thermostat during the winter has a bearing on the type of orchids you should start with Of course, many people receive their first orchid as a gift or pick one up on impulse at the supermarket or home store. These inexpensive, plastic-sleeved plants may do just fine, but look up the genus in Part Four to learn about its light and temperature requirements.
There are basically two kinds of orchids—those that have a camel’s hump of sorts for storing water (either a swollen stem called a pseudobulb or fleshy, thickened leaves) and can thus withstand occasional droughts, and those without a pseudo- bulb or fleshy leaves that require more consistent moisture. If cacti thrive in your care because you are forgetful about watering or you travel quite a bit the first type is a better bet. Orchids in this category include species of Cattleya, Onei- diam. Dendrobium, Neha, Fncycha, Brassarola. Cymbidium. Coelogyne, and many other genera. If your apartment is full of ferns and African violets and you are happiest when you arc carrying a watering can, try the more water-demanding but generally easy and shade-tolerant Paphiopedilums and Phalaenopsis.
Look at the orchid you are planning to buy. Are the stems, leaves, and pseudobulbs plump and unwrinkled? Do most or all of the stems have a good complement of leaves? Examine the roots if they are visible. They should be white or pewter- colored when dry, and green or silvery green when wet. The root tips should be pointed and bright green. The longer the green tip, the faster the root is growing. Dead roots are dull tan Cultivated tropical orchids are commonly potted in several different materials but with very few exceptions they should never be potted in soil.
The reason is that most orchids are epiphytes that is, they grow naturally in trees. They are adapted for life in the branches of the rain forest or cloud forest. where air circulates around their roots all the time, Thus they need a potting mix that breathes, and they will quickly decline in soil that smothers their roots. Most likely your first orchid will be potted in a material that looks like the bark mulch used in landscaping, but it’s a screened and graded Douglas fir bark specifically manufactured for orchids. The mix may contain additional ingredients such as perlite charcoal, and lava rock and more commonly, inexpensive orchids are potted in what are called peat-lite mixes. which Contain peat moss and perlite or Other additives. What all these mixes provide is good drainage—a very critical requirement for most orchids.
Figure on watering your plant thoroughly once or twice a week—basically once the surface of the growing mix has dried out and turned a lighter color. The best way to water is to take it to the kitchen sink and douse it with the spray hose making sure a torrent of water flows out of the drain holes. Check the pseudobulbs and or leaves which should remain stiff and unwrinkled. About once a month, mix a teaspoon of a good liquid fertilizer into the water. Most orchids grow in places where the humidity remains fairly high, at least during the growing season. Therefore in the very dry atmosphere of a heated house in winter, they will benefit from a daily misting and will need more water than they do during the summer. when humidity is higher, though air conditioning also dries out the air. In Part Four I indicate orchids that are more tolerant of lower humidity and thus good candidates for windowsill culture.
When the orchid is in bloom. it is okay to display it on an end table for a week or two, but for its permanent home, choose a sunny window. I shouldn’t say permanent for the best way to assure that the orchid has a long and happy life is to put it outdoors in light shade during the summer. A few rainstorms will wash away all the dust and salts accumulated indoors. Even if you cannot put it outdoors, the stronger sun and warmer temperatures of the summer months will trigger the plant to grow. Those with pseudo-bulbs will send up a new set of leaves from the base of one pseudobulb, which should continue to grow and then bloom in season. A Phalaenopsis will simply produce a new leaf or two. If the new growth or leaf is markedly smaller than the previous one but overall the plant looks plump, take it as a sign that it needs more light or fertilizer. A new crop of roots should sprout from the developing pseudobulb as well. Actively growing roots have a green tip and a silvery or bright white velamen (jacket) that helps them sop up water.
Orchids have two distinct patterns of growth—sympodial and monopodial. All orchids with pseudobulbs and some without are sympodial growers sending up successive leafy growths or vertical stems along a creeping horizontal stem called a rhizome. Roots also emanate from the rhizome. especially at the juncture with a vertical stem. You can tell quite a bit about a particular plant from the relative sizes of the various growths along the rhizome. Ideally starting when the orchid is a seedling or tissue-cultured plant let each new growth produced by the rhizome should be larger than the last until the plant reaches its genetically determined maximum size.
If you examine a sympodial species such as a Cattleyo. Oncidium, Oendrobium, Cymbidium or even Paphiopeddum the newest stem pseudobulb and leaf—that is, the one at the growing tip of the rhizome— should be at least as large as those trailing it. The rhizomes of most orchids creep along on top of or out of the potting mix so they are easy to spot and trace. If the newest growth is actively developing—that is, if the leaves are still expanding and the pseudobulb (if present) is still growing—look at the one directly behind or below it on the rhizome for comparison. The successive increase in size is your best indication that the plant is healthy and vigorous and, if it is Of blooming size, that it will bloom in season. If the newest growth is smaller than the preceding one, it means the plant has recently suffered a setback caused by some trauma, such as division root loss, or a major change in growing environment. I would avoid buying that plant for it is already weak and may not bloom for a few years. If the newest growths are smaller than the oldest but show a Sensitive increase in size. The plant is recovering and though it may take a year to bloom, should be adequately healthy. Buy it if the price is right.
Monopodial orchids lack pseudobulbs and rhizomes. Instead, they have a vertical stem lined with alternating leaves and, lower down, roots. Phalaenopsis and Vanda are common monopodials. You can look at the relative length of newer versus older leaves the same way you examine the growths of sympodial orchids to judge the plant’s health, but ignore the newest •growing leaf or leaves. Expanding leaves should have a zone of lighter green at their base. Monopodial orchids produce new leaves continually, so if the highest or youngest leaf lacks this light green zone, it could mean the plant has been shocked into dormancy. Don’t select it.
sphacelatum has a clearly sympodial growth habit. The long rhizome allows the plant to climb a tree but makes it difficult to contain in a pot. This one is mount- ed on a piece of cork.
Though they lack pseudobulbs, Paphiopedilums are sympodia orchids, with a short, creeping rhizome hidden down in the pot. Each fan of leaves grows from the previous fan. The old flower stem just to the right of center arose from the center of the older fan after all the leaves had expanded.
The fantastic pseudobulbs of lonobulbum munificum are ringed with bristly hairs instead of papery sheaths. The purpose of the hairs is a mystery.
Aerial roots are physiologically different from roots that develop inside a pot. Their thick white velamen protects them and sponges up water or mist in the air.
Leaf loss is often a natural part of an orchid’s growth cycle. This Dendrobium cruentum hybrid had shed the leaves on its oldest canes to reduce water loss during winter dormancy. The old canes still green are alive and photosyn the sizing and should not be removed.
A Brassia pseudobulb cut open to show the succulent water-filled cells inside. Vertical fibers give rigidity to the structure. which expands when water is plentiful and con- tracts when it is scarce