Phalaenopsis psychosis: Orchids
Twice as many species as birds; four times as many species as mammals; and representing up to 11 per cent of all seed plants, the family Orchidaceae is one of the two largest families of plant species, says Wikipedia. Orchids also produce the tiniest seeds and can grow on land, on air and or on rock. They can self pollinate or be selectively receptive to a host of specialized pollinators: it’s all a matter of adaptation and survival.
We think of orchids as tropical species, but many of their number grow in temperate zones – think of the lovely lady’s slipper of our own fields and forests. Earth bound, the native orchids of Canada are surprisingly diverse in form and habitat – they rate a whole story of their own, but today we are dealing with the exotica, the beauties you find in grocery stores and garden centres and flower shops, blooming for weeks and sometimes months and looking like plastic imitations of themselves.
This, the most commonly-sold species, is the trusty Phalaenopsis or moth orchid. The flower can occur in many shapes and colours although the ones we see most often have that lovely rounded moth-winged shape with five petals and a coloured labellum or throat to attract pollinators. They often occur in pure white (P. Aphrodite) or pale yellow. Less common are those with speckled, mottled, pointed or striped petals. The leaves are big and leathery and grow opposite one another, one or a pair emerging each year, often followed by the dropping of the oldest pair.
A very healthy orchid can have ten or more leaves and it can be totally healthy even though it hasn’t re-bloomed. And even though phals (as they are nicknamed by growers and fans) are among the easiest tropical orchids to grow, there is always the odd one that sulks and refuses to come back into bloom.
Phals are native to Asia, South East Asia and Australia. This means, among other things, that they are used to 12 to 14 hours of sunlight a day, year round, a condition hard to meet without some artificial help here during the short days of Canadian winters. Such assistance does not have to come from a major investment if you know a little about light and its impact on plant growth. Since incandescent bulbs emit mostly red light, needed by plants for stimulating flower growth, your light source can be a simple lamp,
strategically placed at least two feet away from the plant because incandescent light bulbs burn very hot. Fluorescents generally emit blue wave length light, good for growing leaves, but you can get red/warm spectrum fluorescents or even full spectrum bulbs, both in the traditional tubes or the newer compact spirals.
There are more sophisticated lights, of course, but the home grower may want to keep it simple. Don’t overdo it, especially in winter. Keep your additional lighting to no more that 14 hours a day, increasing the light as spring approaches. Like most plants, orchids require the restfulness of darkness just as much as they need the extra hours of light.
While strong light is necessary, direct sunlight may burn leaves. Remember that where these plants grow wild, there is a lot of moisture and haze in the air, filtering the burning rays. Your phal will do best in filtered light, say behind gauzy curtains in a south facing window.
By the way, the old advice that turning down the thermostat at night will stimulate bloom has been shown to be false (Blanchard and Runckle 2006). It turns out that day time reductions in temperature is what counts and that this may only need to be one or two degrees Celsius.
Orchids need a light, well balanced (all the numbers the same) fertilizer, one-quarter the usual strength, weekly, especially in summer. Winter fertilization will depend on the amount of light available; remember that light is needed to initiate photosynthesis. A supplement of seaweed provides missing micronutrients that your orchid will appreciate.
Let the potting medium dry out, but not the roots, between waterings. Too much water can promote root rot and will reduce the amount of air needed by the roots. More phals die from over watering than under watering. Do not let the roots rest in water – be sure the pot is fully drained after each water application. Water when you finger poked into the potting medium can just detect the slightest moisture.
Speaking of roots, phals are epiphytes with roots that grow in air. In the wild, these plants grow with their roots at the top, seeking air, while the flowers shoot out below. Phals are also monopodial, meaning the leaf stem grows from a single bud, sending up flower shoots
from between the leaves. The roots are fleshy and covered in a shiny, silvery coating called velamen, a spongy substance that absorbs nutrient-rich water. These roots will often reach beyond the pot, looking for air and moisture while interior roots find purchase in the potting medium to anchor the plant
When healthy, the roots will be silvery and fleshy and fat. If over watered or otherwise badly treated, roots shrivel and may turn dark.
As mentioned, flower spikes emerge between the leaves, not at the base of the plant. They look like little fingers – some people say mittens – and it takes up to three months for a stem to fully emerge and begin to send out chubby buds that will eventually open into the beautiful flowers that reward us for all our hard work.
Flower spikes in the wild can be several meters long, with flowers emerging all along the spike. One variety has the parsimonious habit of clinging to its blossoms once they have been pollinated. Then they turn green and help the rest of the plant with photosynthesis.
In our homes, of course, there are no pollinators, one reason the flowers last so long – six to 10 weeks and in some species, even months.
Pruning flower spikes
When the blooms finally expire you are faced with a number of choices: one, do nothing. The plant may re-bloom from the same stem or the stem might turn brown and dry out in which case cut it back to the base. Two: cut the stem back to just below the first bloom but above a node. The plant may send out a blooming branch from this spot. Three: Cut the stem all the way back.
Now its resting time and most phals will bloom again, all conditions being right, months later. Expect blooms at least once a year and if you are lucky, maybe twice.
Where phals grow wild it is generally much more humid than our houses where the humidity hovers around 30 per cent in winter compared to the natural habitat where the humidity is generally in the 40 to 70 per cent range. You can help by growing them in the kitchen, or on a water filled tray of pebbles. One successful grower keeps her plant in an old fishbowl with a layer of pebbles and water on the bottom, creating a terrarium effect.
Phals resent being repotted and may sulk for a few years after you give them a new home. So re-pot every seven years or so or when the roots are wildly overflowing the pot or when the potting medium breaks down. Most commercial growers sell phals in sphagnum moss, but they do better in coarse fir bark which lets in lots of air and provides good purchase.
If you have other questions or need more help go to everythingorchids.com or orchidsmadeeasy.com, which also produces a free newsletter you can sign up for.
Just one word of caution: phals can become addictive and worse can be the gateway flower to even greater orchid addictions. Grow at you own risk!
Moth orchids have lovely, rounded, moth-wing shaped petals and a coloured throat to attract pollinators.
Leaves grow opposite each other at the base.
Flowers can last for months because their are no pollinators.
Phalaenopsis Ching Hua.
It can take up to three months for a stem to fully emerge and send out buds that will open into flowers.
Flowers with speckled, mottled, pointed or striped petals are more rare.