orchids growing in the nook of a tree

Love orchids, but fear killing them? Start with a moth orchid!

The shapes, the sizes, the colors, the minimalist beauty of the orchid. Studied by botanists, painted by artists, it is one of the most beautiful paradoxes of simplicity and complexity. But will you kill it trying to grow one? Plenty of people do, but that doesn’t have to be you! Start with the easy, affordable and beautiful moth orchid (aka, Phalaenopsis).

Triceratops snacking on orchids?

Yes! Scientists think the orchid may be 15-20 million years old if they go by insect and plant fossils, and older if they use genetic sequencing. This would place them in the Cretaceous era with the last of the dinos, 76 to 84 million years ago!

With over 28,000 species, the orchid is one of the largest families of flowering plants. And thanks to cultivation, horticulturists are responsible for over 100,000 more hybrids and cultivars. This means there are more types of orchids than there are types of mammals. Found all over the world, the only continent where they don’t grow is Antarctica!

Mostly tropical flowers, they tend to be epiphytic, meaning they attach themselves to trees rather then sprouting from the ground. They produce nectar, to pollinators love them, but they also have a backup plan–most of them are self-fertilizing. Orchids are used in perfume and food. You may have already guessed that vanilla is a type of orchid, but you may not know that many chefs add powdered orchid tubers to their dishes and that distillers on Reunion Island add the leaves to rum. The China, where many species of orchids originate and thrive, practitioners use it in medicine to treat the lungs, eyes, kidney, and stomach.

Of all these varieties, you will find the moth orchid (aka, Phalaenopsis) most readily available in greenhouses, floral shops and even supermarkets in the United States. It is also reputedly one of the easiest orchids to care for, so we’ll focus on it today.
light purple orchid

Set yourself up for success with your first orchid

If you weren’t gifted your first orchid, be sure to check the root before you buy it. As with most bulbs, you want something firm, not brown and squishy. If you did receive your orchid as a gift or couldn’t exactly tell until you got it home, trim off the brown and squishy parts before you plant your tuber. Like most plants grown from some sort of bulb, orchids are prone to root rot, so take plenty of precautions.

The next precaution is to choose the right potting mix. Orchids do best in some sort of moss or bark–something that will dry out quickly so the roots can get some air. Generic potting mix will be too dense, so lighten it up with some bark, or just start out with widely-sold, specific orchid potting mix.

Be sure the container you choose has plenty of large drainage holes, and don’t let it sit in a tray holding water. Clay works best to help the plant recover from over-watering. If you are more prone to under-watering, however, a plastic pot will hold moisture longer. And be sure your pot is not too big. Fit the pot to the roots and keep it cozy.

Helping your orchid thrive

After you have your orchid in its new home, use tepid tap water, thoroughly soaking it (preferably in the morning). Let the first few inches of potting mix dry out or wait until the pot feels light before watering. Water more often in summer, less often in winter. Avoid watering the crown (where the leaves connect to the root) as it will rot. if you accidentally get it wet, blot it like you would a greasy pizza. Mist the aerial roots.

This is one plant you will fertilize year-round. Go with a 10-10-10, a 20-20-20, or a pre-mixed, just-for-orchids fertilizer. Give it to them once a month, diluted in water, and avoid the root or the root tips you may see poking up. It will burn them.

Find a place in your house with low light, preferably in the east, filtering the light if necessary. Look for olive green leaves, and you know you’ve got it right. After it blooms, you can put it anywhere, but keep it out of direct sunlight.

Orchids do like the same temperature range as we do–no higher than 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and no lower than 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night. You will want to keep your plant humid with tray of pebbles or nearby humidifier, but don’t let the roots sit in water–no root rot here! Some people recommend adding ice once a week to the top of the soil to increase humidity as it melts; however, the people with the most experience say this is not necessary and may even harm them, as it keeps the soil too wet, encouraging the dreaded root rot.

white and maroon orchid on a black background

Repeat performances and a long life

One of the biggest challenges with orchids is that we buy them with gorgeous blooms all over their long stems, and then after they drop off, it’s hard to get them going again. Trim that stem! After the flowers fall off, cut the stem level with the leaves. Keep caring for it as before, and in 12 weeks or so, you should have a new crop of flowers, hopefully even bigger than before.

And if you repot your orchid every 2 to 3 years, you may have one of those plants that lives for 100 years–line up your heir now.

An obsession worth pursuing

After some success with the beginner’s orchid, Phalaenopsis, you may find yourself obsessed with orchids. And there is a whole world of orchids waiting for you. There is even a prestigious association, The American Orchid Society, waiting to help the novice and the experienced orchid grower who may want to grow them for competitions. Enjoy your new obsession!