Pha­laenop­sis psy­chosis: Or­chids

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Dorothy Dob­bie

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.

Flower spikes

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.

More help

If you have other ques­tions or need more help go to ev­ery­thin­ or or­chids­, 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.

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