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Demystifying Orchid Care (based on their ecology)

Orchids are actually much easier to care for than you think.

About Phalaenopsis Orchids

I’m focusing on Phalaenopsis orchids (aka “moth orchids”) in this post because realistically that’s what most people are dealing with.

  • Orchids are technically succulents. Succulents are any plant that stores water in their leaves- including cacti, echeverias, etc. Storing water in their leaves allows succulents to go long periods of time without water. (That’s going to become important).
  • Moth orchids are native to South and Southeast Asia. The species which has been widely cultivated as a houseplant (Phalaneopsis amabilis) are typically found in tropical rainforests with high humidity.
  • Most Phalaenopsis species are epiphytes– meaning that they grow on surfaces like rocks or other plants (rather than the soil).
  • Orchids (and their flower spikes) do not naturally stand upright. They tend to lay on their side and hang downward.
This is the orchid my husband gave me. The left image is right after he bought it in March 2019- you can see how the leaves point upward and a stake has been used to guide the flowers to grow upwards. The right image is a year later in 2020. I did almost nothing to guide the growth of the orchid, and you can definitely tell. The leaves point sideways (which is how they would grow in nature) and one of the flower stalks hangs downward (since it doesn’t have a stake supporting it). The flower spike going upwards is supported by a bamboo stick.

Takeaways for Orchid Care

So what can we learn from understanding orchid ecology?

  • Orchids are succulents: their leaves store water and they do not need to be watered very often.
  • Orchids live in tropical rainforests: there are two takeaways from this- 1) they don’t tolerate cold temperatures well, and 2) they aren’t used to getting a lot of direct sunlight.
  • Orchids are epiphytes: they don’t grow in soil, so you don’t want to plant them in normal potting soil! Orchids are grown in a much bulkier, porous medium (termed “orchid bark”), typically composed of pieces of bark and other organic material. They also are used to lots of airflow don’t like their roots to be perpetually damp, which will cause root rot. Additionally, they grow areal roots (which are designed to grab onto things in nature)- these will often sprawl outside of their container.
  • Orchids normally lay on their side: this is important for watering. In nature, if water lands on their leaves, it will drain out the side. However, most cultivated orchids have been manipulated so that the leaves stand upright. If you get water on the leaves, it has nowhere to go. This can lead to crown rot, which is possible (but very difficult) to recover from.

How I care for my Phalaenopsis Orchid

My husband Tom gave me an orchid for our 2nd anniversary in 2019. I almost killed it (which definitely taught me a thing or two!). Here are my tips on caring for Phalaenopsis orchids:

  • Potting Orchids:
    • Potting medium: Orchids need very airy, porous potting medium. I use Miracle-Gro Orchid Potting Mix (coarse blend)
    • Containers: you can find special pots for orchids with holes in the sides- these help mimic the conditions they would grow in in nature by increase airflow and reducing chance of root rot. You can find plastic orchid nursery pots as well as ceramic pots. I currently keep my orchid in a plastic nursery pot nested inside of a normal ceramic planter.
    • Repotting: Unlike most plants, being root-bound is not the main reason you should repot an orchid. You want to repot orchids whenever their potting medium has begun to decompose and break down. When this happens, it will hold more moisture and stay damp, which can cause root rot.
  • Watering:
    • To water my orchid, I soak its roots in a bowl of distilled water for 1 hour, then place it on a rack to drain thoroughly. I never submerge the leaves (to prevent the possibility of crown rot). I don’t water my orchid very often- maybe once or twice a month? I use distilled water because we have hard tap water (e.g. it has a lot of salts and minerals), which epiphytes may not be used to.
    • How frequently you should water an orchid will vary based on light, temperature, and humidity. You can tell an orchid really needs water if the leaves start to wrinkle (that means that it is depleting its water stores). Conversely, if the roots are a pale green, it doesn’t need any water. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of underwatering than overwatering.
    • The “ice cube trick” – some people recommend watering orchids by placing one ice cube on the roots per week. This works really well for some people. The advantage of using the ice cube trick is that you use a limited amount of water (which can minimize the chance of overwatering). However, there are a couple of disadvantages of using the ice cube trick. I mentioned that orchids don’t tolerate cold temperatures well, so putting a block of ice directly on their roots isn’t optimal. Additionally, the moisture from the ice cubes may become trapped. This is how I almost killed my orchid. Long story short: the way the orchid was potted prevented moisture from escaping- meaning that the roots of my orchid were perpetually damp. So damp, in fact, that it started growing mushrooms! Yikes!! Thankfully I was able to course correct, but that easily could have become an unsalvageable case of root rot.
  • Flowers
    • Part of what makes orchids great is that their flowers are very long-lasting (potentially lasting months!) Most people abandon their orchids once the flowers drop, but wait!! With a little bit of patience and TLC, you can get them to grow new flowers. I have had my orchid since March of 2019, and it bloomed again in January 2020 and is starting to put out a new flower spike now (November 2020).
    • There are a couple of things which help promote re-flowering:
      1. Cool nights
      2. Changing day length
    • Light is very important for re-flowering. Flowers take energy, and plants need sunlight to produce energy. My mom and I have had a lot of luck getting our orchids to re-flower when they are in a eastern facing window (e.g. get a small amount of direct sun first thing in the morning, then bright indirect light the rest of the day).
    • Resist the urge to cut off flower spikes after they drop their blooms. As long as they are still green and healthy, new spikes may grow from the old ones! (If they shrivel up, go ahead and remove them)
    • In my experience, I have found that flower spikes tend to grow towards the light (e.g. towards windows) . You may need to rotate your orchid to enjoy its blooms.
  • Fertilizer:
    • Fertilizer is important for re-flowering because making flowers takes a lot of nutrients.
    • Any time you’re dealing with fertilizer, it will have a description with 3 numbers (ex: 19-8-6). This represents the relative amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (respectively).
    • Recommendations for orchid fertilizers vary. What’s important to keep in mind is that plants need different nutrients to produce flowers than they need to produce foliage (leaves). Well-balanced fertilizers (20-20-20) are good for plant growth overall. Orchid fertilizers tend to have additional N, which is important for flower production.
    • I honestly haven’t explored different fertilizers much, but I’ve been using this 19-8-16 fertilizer, and it seems to be working out alright. I fertilize my orchid every other watering by dissolving a small amount of fertilizer into the water before I begin to soak my orchid.
    • Tip: you should never use fertilizers at their recommended full strength. It’s best to use them at a lower strength/concentration to avoid burning roots or foliage.
  • Light and Temperature:
    • Orchids do best with bright, indirect light. They can survive with lower amounts of light, but they are unlikely to thrive (or re-bloom).
    • Avoid direct sunlight for extended amounts of time (e.g. west and south-facing windows). Too much direct sun can cause orchids to become sunburned. Remember, orchids traditionally live in rainforests, where tree cover would prevent sunlight from directly reaching them. The exception I would say to this is that my orchid has done well in a northeast-facing window, where it gets a small amount (<1 hour) of sunlight first thing in the morning. I’ve tried it in a southeast facing window (where it gets a lot more light and gets much warmer), and it didn’t do very well there.
    • Orchids tend to do well at normal indoor temperatures. Avoid temperatures below 50 degrees F (remember, they’re tropical plants. They aren’t really built for cold temperatures).

Got any more tips for caring for orchids? Leave them in a comment down below!

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2 thoughts on “Demystifying Orchid Care (based on their ecology)

  1. I pretty much did everything wrong for my 8 year old orchid ( No potting medium just roots, watered with ice cubes, I never once used fertilizer and it got west sunlight). I think I had a variety that must have been very forgiving. I lost it to mealy bugs and I just wonder if that hadn’t happened if it still would be with me. ? ? ?

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    1. Orchids can be so funny sometimes. I’ve joked that they often thrive on neglect and do best when you basically completely ignore them 😂 sometimes you can do everything “wrong” and still get better results than someone that does everything “right”

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