Documents: Special Interest: Orchids:

Phalaenopsis: An Elegant, Easy-Care Orchid
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

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June 10, 2007

Orchids have the reputation of being finicky to grow, and many types do require exacting conditions of moisture, growing medium, humidity and light. However, if you yearn to try an orchid, but don't feel like cosseting a cranky plant, the Phalaenopsis is the gorgeous orchid for you.

Pronounced fal-en-op-sis, it is also often called the "moth orchid", a name derived from the Greek word "phalainia" meaning moth, as its flowers resemble tropical moths. Phalaenopsis are native throughout the Asiatic tropics, from India to the Philippines, and Taiwan, where some of the most beautiful species are found. What makes these plants so appealing are their lavish and long-lasting arching sprays of flowers. Depending on the species, plants will have three to fourteen blooms, in pink, white, yellow or mauve that can last three to five months. Repeat blooming can be achieved with a simple cooling period.

In nature, orchids grow mainly in trees as epiphytes (air plants) or in the ground. Those from tree habitats, such as Phalaenopsis, tend to make easier houseplants, but because of their epiphytic nature, their needs are different from many other houseplants, but "different" doesn't have to mean complicated. Here's how to care for a Phalaenopsis orchid:

Temperature: Average household temperatures of 21 to 29ºC during the day and night 16 to 19ºC are ideal. The plants like fresh air but don't tolerate cold drafty conditions.

Light: Prefers typical low light conditions found in an east or north-facing window. Keep out of direct sunlight as too much exposure to light will create red pigmenting on the leaves. The roots - most of which grow at the base of the leaves and stick into the air - should look thick and fleshy. During the winter the plants don't grow actively, but as daytime temperatures rise and light intensity increases, you'll notice green tips growing on the roots.

Watering: Drench pot by letting water run through - you can do this at the kitchen sink or by setting the plant into a saucepan or any other container that can catch the water. (Orchid soil is very loose and airy and so most of the water will run right out the pot after wetting the soil. For more on the growing medium, see below.) Water just before pot dries out, every eight to 14 days in winter, but once a week in the summer. Most problems with these plants result from over-watering. Don't let the plant stand in water and never let water sit in the crown, as this can cause crown rot. Clay pots are ideal. Special orchid pots have have extra holes or slits up the sides.

Fertilizing: Fertilizing year around with a water-soluble 20-20-20 formulation mixed at half strength with each watering gives satisfactory results. Some growers recommend a higher nitrogen formulation of 29-14-14 at one quarter to half strength given with every watering and when a new flower stem emerges, then to encourage more and larger blooms, switching to a 10-30-20 formulation at one quarter to half strength as the buds develop.

Humidity: The plants like humidity, especially in the winter when it can get very dry indoors. An easy way to create more humid conditions is to set your plants on a tray of pebbles, partially filled with water. Always make sure the pot doesn't sit directly in water, as clay pots can easily absorb moisture. Occasional misting is a good idea and the best time to do this is in the morning, so the leaves will have dried off by evening. Grouping plants together also helps raise humidity levels.

Re-blooming: It takes about three months for a new spike to grow and develop into flowers. A cool period of temperatures between 16 to 20ºC helps encourage re-bloom. Flowering generally begins during the winter. When the plant has finished flowering, cut flowers off at the base of stem. Every year and half to two years, repot your plant using a mix of bark, coarse perlite, charcoal or peat chunks. (Look for this special growing mix wherever orchids are sold.)



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