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
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.
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”
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.
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.