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The Why of Orchids

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The east window, where orchids get just the right amount of sun, year-round.

I often hear from people who say that they can keep orchids alive, but the plants won't rebloom.
Maybe it's true--you haven't got the touch, or you haven't got the accommodations orchids most prefer. But maybe not. I think it's important to keep in mind that orchid time is a very slow time. You can expect one flush of bloom each year. And sometimes it takes two or three years for a plant to rest and recuperate, until it decides it's happy and it takes off.
Note the humidity trays, always kept filled. But the orchids never sit in water; they're elevated on tiles so their roots don't get soggy and rot. When the trays evaporate dry, I refill them with really hot water. That keeps the algae and insects in check.

About reblooming: Most orchids sold in grocery stores and warehouses have been fertilized like crazy and pushed to bloom hard at a very young age. Maybe after that flush of bloom finishes, they need to catch their breath for a year or two. An older plant simply has more reserves, more leaves or more pseudobulbs (the swellings at the base of leaves in cattleya and oncidium types) to make more food. And it's so worth it to wait out that youthful period and let your plants mature and really show what they can do. That's when it gets fun, and addictive.

You grow together, like compatible partners. You find out what each plant likes, developing an empathy over the years.

The most basic requirement of orchids is sufficient light. I suspect that 90% of the problems people report with orchids failing to rebloom revolve around insufficient light. Many folks keep them on mantels or end tables because they look so pretty there, and forget that this is a plant with a need for strong light--yes, even direct sunlight! You wouldn't expect a gardenia to bloom and thrive on a coffee table, so why should an orchid? East window, a few hours of sun each day--that's ideal for most orchids.

Speaking of empathy, I get a lot of orchids as waifs. People buy them in bloom and then enjoy them while they're blooming, but forget to water them or maybe put them on an end table or in a sunny hot west window or cook them over a radiator. By the time they get to me the leaves are limp and hanging over the pot and the roots are rotted and the plant is gasping its last. I knock the plant out of the pot and trim off all the dead roots and put it in fresh medium and mist it every day. And it's amazing how it will spring back and say thank you thank you thank you. It's gratifying.

This was a very fine Doritaenopsis that was badly handled at our local Kroger's. It had been left out in 20-degree weather on a rack and all but two of its leaves froze off. I brought this beautiful plant home only to see its leaves turn to yellow mush and fall off within two days. That was two years ago. I coddled it and loved it and now it's springing back so beautifully, making new leaves and even sending up a marvelous, branched flower spike this spring. See how those leaves stand straight out? They're full of turgor pressure--they don't droop flaccidly over the sides of the pot. That's the sign of a very happy orchid. It's going to be a magnificent plant in another two years. Orchids are very forgiving, very long-lived, and so much tougher than people realize. It literally takes years to kill one.

I started this little Iwangara "Appleblossom" from one little pseudobulb from a plant of mine that had become infested with mealybugs. Unable to rid it of mealybugs, I threw the mother plant out and put all my faith in this offshoot. And oh, how it has rewarded that faith.

Such an elegant, fragrant flower it has--almost like a corsage.
Laeliocattleya x Encyclia cordigera "Pixie" sat around thinking for three years after I bought it in bloom. No buds. Nothin' doin'. And then, this spring, this:

I think it wanted to be misted, that's what I think. In fact, all my plants wanted to be misted. So now I mist them a couple of times a day. We all enjoy it. It's such a simple thing to do, and once I saw the jaw-dropping results, I really began to enjoy spritzing them.

Phalaenopsis "Lava Glow" is such a great little plant. Red is a rare color. And the magenta lip kills me.

You can sometimes find Lava Glow in Loew's. Although Loew's is an awful place for a great orchid, or any orchid. I've never been able to figure out what our local Loew's gains by never watering its orchid stock. The honor of having them drop all their buds and die? The thrill of throwing them out?

I know where the taps are at our Loew's. I go get a new watering can off the shelf and fill it up and water their damn orchids, that's what I do. And I don't buy them there. I buy orchids at orchid shows. Half the price and twice the quality. And should I ever see a red-vested employee lurking around the orchids, I ask them why no one cares for their inventory. Invariably I get: It isn't my job. It's so-and-so's job, and she's out sick/elsewhere. Oh, well, of course. Why should anyone else care? How can anyone walk by a plant that's screaming for water, dying right before their eyes?

With orchids, I grow what I can. There are some orchids I know better than to try: Miltonia, Zygopetalum, Phragmipedium, Cymbidium; the really big cattleyas. I stick to what I can grow well, and what's small enough to fit into a bursting collection.

I branched out a bit for this Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos." I bought it for $25. It had one 3" long leaf. The grower, Kim Stehli of Windswept in Time Orchids, who I trust implicitly, assured me it'd be worth it. "Just wait!" she said. "This is my favorite orchid."
So I waited. Here's the tag, with my notes:

Bought in April '07 with one leaf. It sent up a spike and by June '08 it was blooming. By October '09 it had made 13 blossoms and was adding a fifth leaf. That leaf threw out a second flower spike in April '10. And here's that new spike. It really wouldn't have had to do that. I was delighted with it as it was.

But wait! The old spike is still blooming away.

With this.
Hold your hand up, fingers spread. That's how big that flower is. It waves, chest high to me, on its wiry, yard-long stem. Kim told me that she's known a single Psychopsis spike to keep blooming for seven years. So we never cut off Psychopsis flower spikes until they wither away on their own. They always have a bud up their sleeve.

It is over the top, ridiculous, dearly loved. With two spikes throwing out flower after flower, it has the potential of being everblooming. Yes, just wait. It'll be worth it. Everything good is worth waiting for. Orchids illustrate that, magnificently.


Help - I thought the leaves weren't supposed to get wet, yet you MIST them? And one of mine has roots growing out in the air on top - can I cut them off and pot them? Is this a baby being born?

I have a grocery store orchid that was amazing..16 flowers over a year...but now down to one lone flower, several root like things dangling over the side, and what looks like a new baby maybe on the original flower stem. What to do, what to do. ..oh...and shiny green happy leaves

Julie, after seeing your post on the "Psycho giraffe*" last year, we found and bought one at one of our local orchid shows.It bloomed well but unfortunately one of our winter freezes (in So Fla!)caused it to finally succumb.
So yesterday I ventured out to the same orchid show and replaced it with another-this one has 2 spikes!
We really must thank you for introducing us to such a cool orchid!
( *as I was walking out yesterday with treasure in hand, I heard another patron telling someone "there goes a psycho giraffe" .I think the name has stuck)

Posted by myamuhnative May 16, 2010 at 3:33 PM

It's all your fault that I fell in love with orchids. Thank you.
I only have one, but that will soon change. This one, a Phalaenopsis of some sort, a purplish-pink one, was a Kroger buy. I listened to what you said, treated it with the love it deserves, placed it in a southern facing window (didn't have any other choice)and it has rewarded me with blooms that increase every year. First year, just a few. Next year, a dozen. This year, TWENTY FIVE. And those blooms have been there since early April, with no signs yet of withering. I marvel at it every time I walk past it.
So my "Why"? Because it is a source of beauty that I can marvel at, in my very own kitchen.

Sister, you be doin' something RIGHT! What a thrill to have 25 blooms on a single orchid! That's exactly it--it just gets better and better. Let me know if you have any repotting questions or problems, OK?

Woo hoo!

Oooh. I look forward to your flamenco lobsters!

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