Exotic Orchids

Article originally published in the San Francisco Nob Hill Gazette

Exotic Orchids

“They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominion of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly” -British herbal guide, 1653

The above quote refers to orchids, the passion of aficionados for centuries. If you’ve ever throbbed over the world’s sexiest flowers, but have been flustered about caring for them, don’t be discouraged. Mastering the art of orchid growing is not difficult. These exotics are found on every continent except Antarctica. Surprisingly, they even grow as far as the Arctic Circle. The orchid family is the largest in the plant kingdom, has survived millions of years, and consists of around 30,000 species. Most are happiest with benign neglect.

Orchids have made their way into botanicals, food, folklore, industry and fiction. H.G. Wells couldn’t resist creating an intoxicating tendrilled monster in The Flowering of the Strange Orchid, a story he penned for the April 1905 issue of Pearson’s Magazine. The addiction of the orchid among the ultra-rich was similar to their passion for baccarat. Early in Well’s story, a character muses: “The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour. You have before you the brown shriveled lump of tissue, and for the rest you must trust your judgement, or the auctioneer, or your good-luck, as your taste may incline.”

Priceless orchids alive today include some which were brought by England in the early 1800s (yes, the very same plants, not descendants). Their actual life span is still unknown. Astonishing plants, such as the outrageous Bulbo medusae, the black veined Coelogyne – a year long flowering species, and the once-in-four-year flowering Grammatophyllum speciosum – the world’s largest orchid; all which incite quest and expedition. New Yorker essayist Susan Orlean wrote about a personal adventure through the Florida swamps. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession is a tale of entanglement and treachery in search of the elusive Ghost Orchid, the object of one man’s desire to amass a fortune.

The feverish world of orchid collecting has made the blooms more attainable. They charm and adorn as living centerpieces and as artworks. Ensconced in Mitch Menaged’s Russian Hill home, orchids alluringly line the entry hallway.

You may be wondering if orchids are difficult to grow. No, not really. Although they continue to intrigue and intimidate, with good observation, a little patience (orchids are slow), and adherence to a few rules, it’s possible to feel brilliant when that first spike emerges.

Like most plants orchids abhor wet feet. Over watering, over fertilizing, and low light will bring an orchid to dismay and possibly death. They do want water, but then let it drain. Don’t water again until the medium (for example, bark, soil, or lava rock) is thoroughly dry. Their creeping roots like to be exposed to air. As even deft fingers don’t fit easily into bark, lift the pot when wet and develop a sense for what it feels like when it’s completely dry (can’t tell with lava rock though). If you’ve a heavy hand at watering, try placing several ice cubes on the medium’s surface twice a week. To help avoid disease, place orchids where the foliage will dry from any water spots in a few hours.

More available light means more frequent feedings. Usually, once per week (or two) during active growth. In general, use orchid fertilizer with a 20-20-20 ratio if the plant is growing in tree fern, charcoal, or inorganic aggregates. Use 30-10-10 with fir bark. A formula containing micronutrients is a good idea. Fertilize at half strength.

Yellow foliage is “hungry” or indicates the orchid may be getting too much light. Lush dark green leaves can mean more light is needed. The balance for most orchids is a medium grass-green color. The best flowering comes with as much light as possible without burning the leaves.

Depending on the family, blooms can last one week to several months. Some plants bloom once a year, others several times, such as Phalaenopsis, which can be induced to re-bloom from it’s old spike. (Cut it below the old flowers and above the last node. Clip with a very hot instrument to seal the cut.)

Keep orchids in the ideal range of 60-85 degrees F. If needed, repot during the dormant cycle after flowering, and before new growth. Disturb roots as little as possible, but discard dead leaves and replace deteriorated mix.

More Tips

To control pesky creatures try Safer’s Insecticidal Soap once a week for three to four weeks or Orthene 75%. Orthene won’t damage the flowers. If rot appears on the plant (brown or yellow intrusions), cut it out with a sterile knife.

Phalaenopsis or Moth orchid needs less light. Place your hand between the source and the plant. If the shadow of your hand is fuzzy or indistinct, the light is sufficient. If the outline is sharp, then it’s too bright. Morning sun is best. In Phalaenopsis’ case dark green foliage means perfect light.

There are four distinct types of orchids: epiphytes (air plants), lithophytes (rock grower), saprophytes (leaf litter lovers) and the terrestrials (soil supported). Of these, only the terrestrials require soil.

The epiphytes or air plants are found in trees. They thrive on less than ideal conditions, relying on gifts from the perfectly timed generosity of flighty strangers (well okay, bird droppings), in addition to rainwater or dew mist.

The terrestrials, like Paphiopedilum, are a bit trickier, liking finer bark mixes such as redwood fiber and peat moss. To avoid root rot, water heavily the first time, but when the soil become dry a considerable distance down, water only enough to moisten. Avoid a soggy wet state at the bottom.

Paphiopedilums, (“Sandals of Aphrodite”), also known as Spider Orchids, like high humidity (50-60 percent), but avoid excess moisture in the crowns. A humidifier or a pebble tray keeping the water below the pots will help. Don’t be tempted to move the plant after a flower stem and bud have appeared, or a twisted and crooked inflorescence will result.

The Vanda alliance is generally tropical in nature and grows best in high intensity – meaning full eastern sun until noon. If in low light reduce water and fertilizer frequency. Otherwise, they are heavy feeders. Make sure their roots dry within a few hours. These plants can actually thrive with no medium, but increase your watering schedule.

The popular Oncidium (warty callus of the lip) alliance includes many genera. You may have heard of Brassia, Miltonia, Zygopetalum. This group includes the Cattleya ( the typical corsage orchid) and likes moderate light. You can’t go wrong with early morning sun. The “rat tail” or “mule ears” species will tolerate a lot more sun. Roots of this alliance are sensitive to fertilizer salt build up. They like organic fertilizers, such as fish emulsion and manure teas. Unlike most orchids, they don’t resent the disturbance of repotting. It can be done at any time. A warm water soak for 10 minutes will help roots become more pliable and easier to remove.

Thus, when tempted by the lure of exotic beauty, know that a solitary orchid can drive souls to madness, as in the case of the H.G. Wells story. It can also cause overindulgent care from smitten fanciers, so remember that this sorceress of the plant kingdom will thrive best in the wake of self control, careful observation, and benign neglect.

Nurseries and retail establishments are not the only pathway for obtaining orchids. For lots of advice, join a local orchid society. Be prepared to be introduced to rare and coveted species.