Exploring the miscellaneous science behind things in everyday life.
Rachel is a Ph.D. candidate studying wildlife conservation in Fort Worth, Texas. She has a B.S. and M.S. in biology and 4 years of experience teaching college-level science courses. She's passionate about science communication, research, and understanding the world through science.
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If you’re like me, you’ve struggled with acne for as long as you can remember. Ever since I was a teenager, I had issues with blackheads, inflammatory acne, body acne, and especially cystic acne. I’ve tried just about everything to treat it- salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide- you name it, and I’ve probably tried it. (Until I finally reached a breaking point last year and went on Accutane- but that’s a story for another post).
Alternatively, maybe you’re someone that has been dealing with maskne (acne resulting from wearing a face mask for extended periods of time) that is struggling to find something that works.
If either of those sound familiar, I’m willing to bet you’ve tried your fair share of acne-treating products- possibly including hydrocolloid patches.
In recent years, hydrocolloid patches have become increasingly popular as a method to spot-treat acne. Products like Mighty Patch claim to “flatten pimples overnight…pulling the pus out of whiteheads and speeding up healing.” These patches typically have a single ingredient: hydrocolloid.
What is Hydrocolloid?
Hydrocolloid is a gel made of a combination of ingredients like gelatin, pectin, and polysaccharides (large sugar molecules). These compounds work together to absorb moisture from water, pus, and oil, forming a white gel.
Hydrocolloid has been around for a while, and has been used to treat a variety of skin conditions- mainly dressing and bandaging wounds. Its ability to absorb moisture can help drain wounds while also creating a sealed, sterile, and moist environment which facilitates healing. Most hydrocolloid dressings are also waterproof, which makes them more practical than some other methods of dressing wounds. Research suggests hydrocolloid dressings can be effective for treating several skin conditions including burns and skin graft donation sites.
What Causes Acne?
When we think about whether hydrocolloid gel is effective for treating acne, it’s worth discussing why we get acne in the first place.
Generally speaking, acne is a common skin condition which involves (among other things) hair follicles and their adjacent sebaceous glands, which produce oils such as sebum. Sebum is full of lipids (fats) which can serve as a good growing medium (food source) for bacteria. When hair follicles produce excess oil and/or become plugged, it can result in a buildup of sebum and dead skin cells, which creates an ideal environment for the proliferation of bacteria. In particular, the bacterial species Propionibacteria acne tends to cause inflammatory acne- the kind which is raid, painful, warm, and swollen. Research suggests that the severity of acne is in part related to sebum (oil) production. In essence, more sebum provides more food for bacteria, which makes it easier to get acne.
There are many factors which contribute to the severity of acne- including hormones, bacteria, diet, genetics, medications, stress…you get the idea. There are also a variety of different kinds of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads, cystic acne, etc. (I’ll go into more detail about the differences between them in a future post). Because acne is influenced by such a variety of things, treating it can be very complicated. Often, what works for one person may not work for you, depending on the cause and type of your acne.
Do Hydrocolloid patches work to treat acne?
In short, it depends.
Hydrocolloid patches are not a miracle product. They are not pore strips: they aren’t going to do much for your blackheads. They also won’t work well on cystic acne (as someone who has dealt a lot with cystic acne, your best option here is to see a dermatologist).
Remember that hydrocolloid gel is used to absorb moisture and facilitate wound healing. That means that the more wound-like (inflamed, pus-filled, etc.) your acne is, the more hydrocolloid patches can potentially help. Hydrocolloid patches tend to work best with inflammatory acne, especially when pus has come to a head. For these types of acne, the gel can help absorb pus and other fluids while protecting skin and facilitating the healing process.
Personally, I’ve had mixed success with hydrocolloid patches. I can confirm from experience they don’t do much for blackheads and cystic acne. When it comes to inflammatory acne, I’ve found it can be a bit hit or miss. These patches haven’t made much of a difference for my small, barely noticeable whiteheads, BUT can make a huge difference for large and extremely inflamed zits.
There is some science to back this up, too. One study in 2006 tested the effects of 3M Acne Dressing on acne. They found that using hydrocolloid patches for 7 days reduced the severity of acne (improving redness, oiliness, and pigmentation, and sebum production). They also found that the patches reduced damage from UVB light (which can help acne heal faster). In other words: science says hydrocolloid patches can potentially help treat and lessen the severity of acne.
If you’re like me and struggle with picking your acne, there is an added benefit of hydrocolloid patches: it’s hard to pick your skin when it is covered by a hydrocolloid patch. Dermatologists always discourage picking and popping zits because it can increase risk of infection and worsen scarring. In this respect, even if hydrocolloid patches don’t do much to the acne itself, they can help your skin by reducing how much you pick at your acne. If I’m honest, I use these patches more for this reason than anything else.
There are a lot of gimmicky skin care items on the market, but hydrocolloid patches are not one of them in my opinion. There is some solid science suggesting hydrocolloid facilitates wound healing. Although they cannot be used to prevent acne, “zit dots” can potentially help spot-treat inflammatory acne. If you’re struggling with inflammatory maskne, hydrocolloid patches could be something worth trying as a backup to your normal skincare regimen.
Although hydrocolloid patches carry minimal risk of skin irritation, be sure to use as directed and check any allergy warnings.
Have you tried hydrocolloid patches? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!
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Personally, I love having bird feeders- especially during the pandemic. Although my husband and I have been spending most of our time in our small 800 square foot apartment over the last 8 months, our bird feeders have helped us feel connected to nature and the outdoors. Whether it’s because of the pandemic or simply because of colder winter temperatures, I’ve found that bird feeders can help make being stuck inside a little more bearable. Strategically placing our bird feeders so they are visible from our desks has honestly been great for our mental health.
The information and recommendations in this post are based on a combination of scientific research and our own personal experiences. To be clear, I am not a bird biologist (aka an ornithologist)- but my husband is. He has over 5 years of experience working with and studying birds, so he knows a thing or two about attracting them to your feeders. Over the last year, we documented almost 30 species of birds at our feeders on our small apartment patio.
Some people have concerns that bird feeders are detrimental to birds. For the most part, feeders provide birds with supplemental food. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that these supplemental foods are detrimental to birds. In general, bird species that commonly visit feeders tend to be doing better than species that do not. As long as you appropriate action to minimize disease transmission, window collisions, and predation risks (especially from cats), setting up bird feeders can be a good way to help support local birds.
Keeping Birds Safe
If you’re genuinely interested in setting up your own feeders, there are a few things that you’ll want to think about to make sure you’re keeping birds safe.
Cats: Do you live on the first floor? This may seem arbitrary, but it’s important. Feral and outdoor cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. alone every year. If you live on the ground floor, birds may be more vulnerable to getting attacked by cats while visiting your feeders. For this reason (and many others we will discuss in another post), if you own a cat, it is best to keep it indoors. When my husband first moved to Ft. Worth, he refrained from putting up feeders because he lived on the first floor in an apartment complex with an ample number of outdoor cats.
Hawks: Inevitably, lots of bird activity at your feeders will attract bird-eating hawks such as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks- something my husband and I can personally attest to. If you start to have issues with hawks, take the feeders down for a few days and the hawks should move on.
Windows: It is estimated that millions of birds die every year from window collisions. During the day, this typically happens because windows can reflect vegetation or the sky. The best way to minimize window collisions are to break up the reflections on the window. This can be achieved in many ways, including the addition of streamers, suction cups, or decals. One product recommended by the ABC are Feather Friendly Window Markers (pictured below)- adhesive dots which break up the reflection of the window. The American Bird Conservancy has compiled a list of resources and products which help make glass safe for birds. Alternatively, you can reduce mortality from window collisions by moving your feeder within 3 feet of the window, which is a great practical option when you live in an apartment. When feeders are placed close to a window, it is difficult for birds to gain enough momentum to get seriously injured when leaving the feeder. My husband and I can attest to this. Our platform and small tube feeder are a couple of feet outside of our dining room window, and although birds occasionally collide with the window, it is always at a much lower speed than our living room window (which is about 6 feet away from the closest feeder).
Squirrels: If you set up bird feeders, there is a VERY strong chance that you will attract squirrels. My husband can attest to the fact that keeping squirrels away from your feeders is an uphill battle. This video does a really great (and hilarious) job highlighting why squirrels are such formidable opponents. At my last apartment, a squirrel figured out how to scale the wall of my apartment building (like Spiderman) to reach the feeder. You can buy feeders which are designed to prevent squirrels from accessing the bird seed, mount feeders on a pole in an open area (at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub or tree), or create a dedicated squirrel feeder. If you live in an apartment, you may have to accept that it will be very difficult to prevent squirrels from accessing your feeders.
Feeder Cam Livestreams
Setting up bird feeders may not be a practical option for everyone. Depending on your finances, location, willingness to maintain feeders, or the layout of your home, setting up a bird feeder may not be realistic for you. If you have concerns or hesitations about setting up your own feeders, that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy them!
There are quite a handful of bird feeder live streams from around the globe. Throwing up a live stream on your computer or TV can be a great way to connect to birds and nature without needing your own feeders. Plus, it can be a lot of fun trying to identify birds that you may not be familiar with. My husband and I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of this Allen bird cam live stream from Pretoria, South Africa. Since we have a field guide for South African birds, we have a lot of fun trying to identify the different birds on the live stream.
If you have kids, trying to identify birds on live streams can be a great way to introduce them to naturalism. I could also see this being a great option for individuals living in assisted living facilities, dorms, or apartments where setting up bird feeders may not be possible. These live streams are a great way of bringing the outdoors in.
Here are some links to some other livestreams by Cornell:
You can find bird seed and feeders from a wide array of vendors from Walmart and Amazon to Home Depot and other hardware stores.
Personally, I would do some research to see if you have a local specialty bird shop. These businesses tend to be much smaller, but have a much wider selection of feeders and bird food. We’ve also found them to be extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful (which is really great when you’re first getting started or adjusting your setup). Personally, we like to shop at Wild Bird Center, which has a variety of locations around the country. Wild Birds Unlimited is another option that is a little more widely distributed.
Sunflower seed: this is the most common type of bird food in North America. Its thin shells and high energy make it a favorite food of many common birds (such as cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, etc.)
Hulled sunflower seeds: these are sunflower seeds with the shells removed. This tends to be more accessible to a wider variety of birds, and makes less of a mess than traditional sunflower seeds.
Fruit: different fruits can be used to attract birds like orioles, mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and more.
Mealworms: Mealworms are the commercially available larvae of the mealworm beetle. Whether live or dried, this is a favorite of many insect-eating birds like chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds.
Millet: typically found in seed mixes, millet is a favorite food of many ground foraging birds, like juncos and sparrows.
Milo: this seed tends to be found in inexpensive seed mixes, and is not a favorite of most birds.
Nyjer: nyjer seeds are very small seeds which attract finches, such as American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. Because of their small size, nyjer seeds require a special feeder.
Oats: although not normally found in seed mixes, you can attract birds such as doves and quail by adding oats to a platform feeder.
Peanuts: we can personally attest that peanuts are a favorite of many birds including doves, chickadees, Blue Jays, titmice, woodpeckers, and more. Pre-shelled peanuts are best for smaller birds like chickadees. Avoid using salted or flavored peanuts.
Suet: in essence, suet is a chunk of beef fat which is highly appealing to many insect-eating birds. You can often find cakes, which are also made with seeds or fruits.
One of the biggest recommendations my husband has is using a pre-hulled seed, like Wild Bird Center’s Patiowise bird seed, which includes hulled sunflower seeds, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) without seed casings, it makes less of a mess (which is nice when have a patio or have downstairs neighbors that may not appreciate shells from sunflower seeds peppering the floor of their patio. 2) Not all birds can shell seeds like sunflowers. Cardinals, for example, have a large beak which is built to easily remove the shells from seeds. Birds like wrens however, have much smaller beaks that aren’t necessarily designed to remove seed casings. If you buy pre-hulled seeds, even birds with slender bills can enjoy sunflower seeds.
Choosing the Right Bird Feeder
There are many different types and styles of bird feeders, which are designed for different foods and attract different kinds of birds.
Many species of birds prefer to feed on large, flat surfaces and may be hesitant to visit feeders. In our experience, Dark-eyed Juncos have never eaten from our feeders, but will readily eat seed if we scatter it on the ground. It’s a little bit of a mess, but we enjoy seeing the birds hopping around the patio.
Platform feeders are essentially a flat, raised or hanging surface onto which bird food is spread. It should have drain holes to prevent the accumulation of water. Some are made with covers to help keep seed dry, but ours is uncovered since the overhang on our patio usually shelters the feeder from rain. Platform feeders are well-suited for a wide variety of bird species, especially ground-foraging birds (like doves and sparrows). They are also compatible with a many food types, including most seeds, oats, mealworms, and fruit.
If you’re going to pick one type of bird feeder, I would recommend a platform feeder, like this cedar platform feeder or this recycled plastic platform feeder. Many birds like doves, juncos, etc. are used to foraging on the ground, so eating off of a platform feeder comes naturally to them. Platform feeders attract a wide diversity of birds and may come more naturally to birds than traditional bird feeders.
Tube feeders are probably what most people think of when they picture a bird feeder. These are typically a hollow cylinder made of glass or plastic with ports that allow birds to access seeds from perches.
The types of birds your tube feeder will attract can vary based on the size of the perches. Smaller feeders and perches tend to be best suited for small birds like chickadees, sparrows, and titmice. Larger perches tend to be more accessible to larger birds like large woodpeckers and Blue Jays. However, some determined and clever larger birds may surprise you with their dexterity. It’s not uncommon for Blue Jays and woodpeckers to visit our smaller tube feeder.
You may also want to consider attaching a tray to the bottom of a tube feeder, effectively creating a hybrid tube/platform feeder. This helps make your tube feeders more accessible to birds that may not be comfortable with perches or physically cannot use them. I’ve seen many doves try to use the perches on the tube feeder, but it’s definitely a struggle for them. We have found a tray to be especially helpful whenever you’re dealing with birds that are unfamiliar with feeders. It’s also a nice way to start off your bird feeder setup because it gives you the benefits of both a platform and tube feeder without needing two separate feeders. At our current apartment, we eventually decided to remove the tray because we found it made our tube feeder a little *too* accessible to the 30+ doves that regularly visit our feeders.
Nyjer Socks& Feeders
These feeders have especially small holes which are designed to dispense nyjer (thistle) seed. Typically, this type of seed is eaten almost exclusively by finches- such as American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin which have small, sharp beaks. If you’re going to use nyjer seed, it’s best to have a dedicated feeder since most birds will not eat thistle seeds.
There are a couple of options when it comes to nyjer feeders. There are different styles of nyjer tube feeders, which typically cost $20 or more. Most nyjer tube feeders are made with mesh, where finches can land and easily remove the small seeds.
If you’re like us, you may not want to invest a lot of money in a feeder if you aren’t sure it will actually be used. Nyjer socks are a great option- they’re basically a mesh bag and tend to be a much more affordable option (you can easily get them for <$10).
To be clear, a nyjer feeder is not necessary to attract finches. Personally, our goldfinches and pine siskins seem to enjoy our normal bird seed more than nyjer seeds. I would only suggest getting a nyjer feeder if you know that you have finches who would use it.
Suet cages are designed to hold suet (beef fat) or suet cakes (suet mixed with seeds or other food). These feeders are good for attracting insect-eating birds like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. I’ll note that I’ve seen other birds eat suet too- including doves.
Extreme heat can melt suet and cause it to spoil. We usually take ours down once temperatures begin to warm up in the spring, and put it back up in the fall.
I was first exposed to fruit feeders was while I was studying abroad in Costa Rica. A large number of birds in the tropics enjoy fruit, so it was common to see bananas, papaya, and other fruit nailed to boards to attract birds. A less crude (but equally effective) option is to add fruit to platform feeders.
In North America, including fruit at bird feeders is much less common. Most often, fruit (such as orange halves or slices) can be used to try and attract orioles. Other fruits, such as grapes and raisins, can attract other birds such as mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings. If you decide to add fruit to your bird feeders, you’ll want to keep an eye out to make sure they don’t get moldy.
These feeders are specially designed to disperse sugar water for hummingbirds. These feeders are rather unique, so I plan to describe them in more detail in a dedicated future post. We normally put our hummingbird feeder up around the same time we take our suet cage down in the spring.
Maintaining your Feeders
One of the drawbacks of bird feeders is that they can facilitate the spread of disease. If you aren’t willing to regularly clean your bird feeders, you may be doing more harm than good.
Regardless of what type of feeder you have, you’ll want to make sure you clean it regularly to remove any rotting food debris and disease-causing bacteria like Salmonella. One study found that soaking feeders in a diluted bleach solution for 10 minutes helps remove more bacteria than washing with soap and water alone. Alternatively, you can soak the feeder in a weak vinegar solution for 1 hour, then scrub any debris with a clean brush, and rinse thoroughly. A third option is to run them in a dishwasher with hot water (we use a dish detergent with bleach for good measure).
One of the drawbacks of tube feeders in particular is that they require birds to insert their heads into the feeder. This can facilitate the spread of conditions like conjunctivitis, an eye condition which occurs in finches. Sometimes called House Finch eye disease, this infection can cause birds eyes to become swollen shut, causing blindness in extreme cases. To minimize this, you should regularly clean tube feeders. My husband likes to run our empty tube feeders though the dishwasher about once a week. If you notice an outbreak of conjunctivitis, you may want to take down your tube feeders until the infected birds recover, pass on, or leave.
Our Feeder Setup
Our apartment is on the third floor and has several trees nearby, where birds often post up in before and after visiting our feeders. We live off of the Trinity River in Fort Worth (e.g. there is a fair amount of green space and trees around). We are fortunate in the fact that our patio is extremely difficult for both cats and squirrels to reach.
Our feeders are positioned along our patio so they can be seen from our living and dining rooms. Incidentally, we can also see our feeders from our desks, which has made working from home a lot more bearable.
Our setup varies with the seasons. Currently it includes: a platform feeder, a large tube feeder, a small tube feeder, and a nyjer sock. Aside from the nyjer sock, we only use Wild Bird Center’s Patiowise bird seed for our platform and tube feeders. We also have a suet feeder, but have not put it up yet for the fall. During the summer, we take down the suet feeder and replace it with a hummingbird feeder. As I mentioned earlier in this post, we have documented almost 30 bird species over the last year, including: goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Pine Siskins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, and many more.
If you’re interested in starting your own bird feeders but want a setup a little less extensive than ours, then my husband recommends buying one platform feeder and one small tube feeder for the most bang for your buck. The platform feeder will attract a wide diversity of birds, but if larger-bodied birds start to take over (like our swarm of 30+ White-winged Doves) the smaller and more dexterous birds (such as titmice and chickadees) can still visit and feed at the small tube-feeder. Something for everyone.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs a citizen-science project every year from November to April called Project FeederWatch, where residents of the U.S. and Canada report on birds visiting their yards and feeders. Although it might seem trivial, data from projects like Feederwatch have been invaluable for assessing long-term trends in North American bird populations.
If you are interested, you can read more about FeederWatch on their website.
Not super confident in your bird identifying skills? Not to worry! If you need help identifying birds, there are many resources and apps (such as iNaturalist and Cornell’s “Merlin” app) which are very helpful.
I have obviously not addressed everything there is to discuss about bird feeders in this post. If you have additional questions about bird feeders, nonnative birds, squirrels, landscaping for birds, feeder placement, and more you can find more information at Project FeederWatch’s website.
Keep in mind that every setup is different. Even if you use the exact same feeders and seed as me and Tom, you will likely get different results depending on where you live and the surrounding habitat and vegetation. At my last apartment, we only had cardinals and house finches visit our feeder (even though we used the same feeders and seed we do now).
My biggest piece of advice: Be patient. It may take time for birds in your location to discover your feeders and figure out how they work.
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With the holidays rapidly approaching, many of us are likely asking ourselves what we plan to gift our loved ones. Whether they’re treats for yourself or gifts for other people, these are some of my favorite science-related gifts. Most of these gift ideas are targeted for adults- let me know if you would like a dedicated list for kids!
Charty Party ($24.99). I recently discovered this game and I am OBSESSED with it. It’s basically cards against humanity, but with graphs. I promise it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
Cognitive surplus graphic tees ($24.95) This is just one of the many field-specific science t-shirts made by Cognitive Surplus. I got the green bird graphic tee for my husband a few years ago and he loves it. They run a little small- I would order a size up unless you’re looking for a fitted t-shirt.
If you know someone who is into gardening or geeks out about native pollinators, consider getting them a Crown Bees bee house kit (prices vary). I will definitely have a post in the future about bee houses. Long story short, not all bee houses are created equal, and Crown Bees is a company that makes very well designed ones. These are not for keeping honeybees- they are designed for local, solitary bees. These bees (such as mason and leafcutter bees) are extremely important pollinator species. Kits come both with bee cocoons or without them (so you can attract the local bees in your area).
For someone who enjoys looking at the small things in life, consider this wireless digital microscope ($41.99). This is also a good option for any especially inquisitive kids you know.
Any math teachers, mathematicians, or math appreciators in your life may appreciate this clock ($24.95).
For your friend who appreciates some good periodic table mugs, consider one of these Periodically mugs ($18.00)
I can guarantee that these hexagonal graph paper ($10.99) and organic chemistry stencil ($11.99) will definitely be appreciated by anyone you know who is taking organic chemistry, biochemistry, or is otherwise an organic chemist. (I know I wish I had these when I took O chem)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 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!
Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows one thing: I love science, and I love talking about science even more.
Not just I love to do science (because I do)- I love seeing and understanding the science in everyday things- why is the sky blue? What is rose gold, and how is it different from yellow gold? What is fermentation, and how can you use it to make naturally carbonated soda?
I am a firm believer that understanding the science of our bodies and the world around us makes life a little easier. In this blog, I hope to share various aspects of life- skincare, my houseplants, making bread, my struggles with ADHD- and the science behind them.
I’m not sure where this journey will take me, but I hope you’ll be along for the ride (and maybe learn a thing or two!)
Who exactly am I, and what makes me qualified to talk about science?
My name is Rachel Alenius-Thalhuber. My maiden name (Alenius) is pronounced like the word “miscellaneous”- hence the name of the blog. I am a 26-year old woman living in Fort Worth, Texas and working on her Ph.D. in biology. I study the reintroduction and conservation of Texas horned lizards, but I’ve dabbled in a lot of different scientific fields. My background spans a pretty wide field of computer programming, genetics, chemistry, math, physics- it’s a lot.
That being said, I plan to use this blog to explore the science of a wide variety of topics, including:
How to care for orchids (based on their ecology)
My holy grail skincare products and the science behind them
I have ADHD. What does that mean?
Why science says you should walk more
How to make naturally carbonated soda using the science of fermentation
What you need to know about antibacterial products
And so, so much more.
Like life in general, I’m not sure where this blog will take me, but I hope you’ll join me for the ride!