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Moth Orchids Make a Good First Orchid
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill


Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.

January 23, 2011

I have a small collection of orchids, which are a delight to me. A common misconception is that orchids are difficult to grow. In fact, orchids are tough, resilient plants, and most are not that challenging if you just learn what growing conditions they prefer.

Growing orchids comes to my mind now because they are sometimes given as gifts during the holidays, and one of my favorite orchids, the moth orchid, is a readily available and popular choice for gift-giving.

Moth orchid is the name given to plants that belong to the genus Phalaenopsis. As a group, they are relatively easy to grow and are a good choice for a beginner’s first orchid. The genus name is from the Greek for “moth appearance.” The first species discovered produced beautiful sprays of white blooms that resembled big moths in wide-winged flight. With the discovery of new species and the development of hybrids, the color range goes well beyond white and includes white with a colored lip, pink, yellow, green and red, with spots, stripes or bars in many different combinations.

Around 40 to 50 species are found from the eastern Himalayan Mountains to Australia, with most native to the warm Philippine lowlands. They typically grow epiphytically – getting moisture and nutrients from the air – with their roots attached to trees or on rocks, in warm, humid, shady locations.

The plant’s growth habit is attractive, with low-growing, elongated leaves rising in opposite directions from a central crown. Plants send up leaves individually during periods of active growth. And as they do, older leaves will tend to yellow and should be removed. Usually, not more than three to five leaves are on a plant at one time. In some varieties, the leaves are attractively marked with silver, but for most, the leaves are mid- to dark green and leathery.

The classic phalaenopsis has long, pendulum-like flower stalks bearing a number of large, rounded, white or pink flowers. But many species and hybrids produce flowers in a wide variety of colors and forms, including small flowers in large, branching clusters and short, upright spikes. A well-grown plant can send up multiple flower spikes. Each bloom can last a month or more, and a plant can flower for months at a time.

Indoors, they will thrive in a brightly lit window facing east, south or west. A shady north-facing window may not provide enough light to encourage blooming.

You can place your plants outside during warmer times of the year. After nighttime temperatures reliably stay above 55 degrees, move them to a shady spot that receives no more than a couple of hours of morning sun or dappled light. (Too much direct sun will burn the foliage.) Putting them outside also provides a temperature drop between day and night of at least 10 degrees, which these orchids prefer.

Because phalaenopsis are epiphytes like our own resurrection fern and Spanish moss, they must be grown in containers with a special orchid mix. Orchid mixes are generally based on chopped fir bark. Phalaenopsis should be potted in a medium-grade bark or medium-fine bark mix (medium bark with perlite and chopped sphagnum moss added).

These special mixes greatly influence how we water orchids. To water orchids, you must run water through the mix until it is properly moistened. This cannot be done with the plant sitting on the windowsill, because water would go all over the place. This is best done indoors at the sink, allowing warm water to flow through the mix until it is thoroughly moistened. Outside, just use a hose. Unlike some orchids, phalaenopsis do not have water storage organs and should be kept moist. Let them dry only slightly between watering.

These orchid mixes also contain very little in the way of nutrients. To keep your phalaenopsis growing vigorously, fertilize them monthly from spring to early fall using a soluble fertilizer, such as 20-20-20, according to label directions.

It is important to remember that there are many different kinds of orchids, and each type has its own preferred growing conditions. It’s really not all that complicated. But it is important to know what type of orchid you have when you’re trying to learn how to grow it.

If you should receive one of these wonderful plants as a gift this year, make sure you save the label with the name of the plant on it. It will help considerably when you start researching how to care for your new orchid.

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