Landscape (UK)

Elegant blooms for the home

With its exquisite beauty and graceful form, the moth orchid makes a perfect pot plant, bringing colour into the home in the winter months

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THE FEBRUARY GARDEN is awaiting the arrival of spring. Early harbingers are the buds appearing on the dark, skeletal branches of trees; the tiny green shoots breaking through the soil; and a drift of delicate white snowdrops. But, for the most part, the garden is still lacking in colour. On a windowsill inside the house, however, life is blooming in the shape of an orchid; its tumbling yellow blossoms so fresh and bright that they appear to tremble. The petals resemble shimmering velvet, and the leaves are lush and thick. When there are few flowers to enjoy outside, this vivid, bold specimen, bringing its splash of colour into the home, is a delight.

Orchids were first introduced to Europe in Victorian times, when plant collectors risked life and limb to bring them back from tropical climes. But it was largely in vain: most plants died on the voyage home, and plenty more perished in the dry heat of Britain’s orangeries. The plants’ fickle natures turned them into the coddled specimens of flower fanciers and expensive indulgence­s for the wealthy.

Today, orchids are a popular houseplant, thanks to increased availabili­ty and affordabil­ity. Now, it is possible to acquire an orchid at a very reasonable price because modern cloning techniques allow for mass production of plants, and cultivatio­n is no longer the lengthy process that it was. Orchids pop up everywhere, from supermarke­ts to garage forecourts. They may have developed a reputation for being difficult, but given the right growing conditions, many orchids are actually very easy and are hardy, robust perennials that soon dispel the legacy of delicacy attributed to them.

Huge family

The orchid family, Orchidacea­e, is one of the largest, most diverse families of flowering plants, containing approximat­ely 738 genera and thousands of species. However, most people are introduced to them through the moth orchid, or

“Lord Illingwort­h told me this morning that there was an orchid there as beautiful as the seven deadly sins”

Oscar Wilde

phalaenops­is, which are particular­ly good orchids for beginners. These thick-leaved plants, with elegant, arching, flowering stems, cope extremely well indoors and display showy blooms for months.

The genus phalaenops­is was first formally described in 1825 by German-Dutch botanist Carl Ludwig Blume. The flower’s shape resembles a moth in flight, hence the name, which is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘phalaina’, meaning ‘a kind of moth’, with the suffix ‘opsis’, meaning ‘likeness’. There are approximat­ely 80 species in the genus, which is divided into five subgenera: proboscidi­oides, aphyllae, parishiana­e, polychilos and phalaenops­is. In nature, phalaenops­is are predominan­tly found in three distinct habitats, with the majority living in moist or humid areas. The species native to warm and humid habitats from the subgenus phalaenops­is are most commonly found in cultivatio­n. These plants are also the basis for the majority of hybrids available today.

“There are some species, such as Phalaenops­is schilleria­na, P. amabilis, P. cornu-cervi and P. stuartiana, which are more readily available, but most phalaenops­is on sale will be unnamed hybrids,” says Sara Rittershau­sen, proprietor of specialist orchid nursery Burnham Nurseries in Devon and author of Happy Orchid.

In the wild

Phalaenops­is species are native to the tropical regions of Asia and Australia, with the greatest diversity occurring in Indonesia and the Philippine­s. In the wild, they tend to grow high up on trees, in the canopy, as epiphytes. The word epiphyte means ‘air plant’, or, literally, ‘to grow upon a plant’. “Epiphytes are not parasites,” explains Sara. “They do not take nutrients from the host plant. Instead, they simply use the tree to anchor onto with their thick aerial roots and draw moisture and nutrients from the rain and mist.”

Phalaenops­is shows a monopodial growth habit: a single growing stem adds one or two alternate, thick, fleshy, elliptical leaves a year to the apex, while the older, basal leaves drop off at the same rate. In this way, the plant retains, on average, four to five leaves. It has neither rhizomes nor water-storing pseudobulb­s. It grows upwards from the tip and produces roots and flowers at intervals from the vertical stem.

Orchid care

In the wild, moth orchids grow like weeds, but they can be inclined to homesickne­ss as houseplant­s, which is why, for best results, it is important to provide them with conditions that approximat­e their native habitats. “Their natural environmen­t is warm, shady and humid, so that is what we need to provide for them in our homes,” says Sara. It is important to remember that they get their nutrients from the air and water, not from the soil. In cultivatio­n, they like good drainage and need a lot of air around the roots.

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 ??  ?? The moth orchid’s thick leaves grow directly out of the single vertical stem. Its unruly air roots grow above the compost and over the pot edges (top). Using a spray to mist is the best way to provide humidity for these plants, and dust can be removed from the leaves by wiping gently with a cotton pad (above).
The moth orchid’s thick leaves grow directly out of the single vertical stem. Its unruly air roots grow above the compost and over the pot edges (top). Using a spray to mist is the best way to provide humidity for these plants, and dust can be removed from the leaves by wiping gently with a cotton pad (above).
 ??  ?? Firm, thick, healthy roots. Phalaenops­is roots are coated with a spongy epidural tissue called velamen, which helps them absorb water and nitrogen from the air.
Firm, thick, healthy roots. Phalaenops­is roots are coated with a spongy epidural tissue called velamen, which helps them absorb water and nitrogen from the air.
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 ??  ?? Despite the delicate appearance of this pure white moth orchid, with proper care and attention, it can endure for years, so should not be forgotten after the first of its flowering periods, which last several months.
Despite the delicate appearance of this pure white moth orchid, with proper care and attention, it can endure for years, so should not be forgotten after the first of its flowering periods, which last several months.

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