Orchids: Not Difficult. Just Different

I was introduced to orchids and to orchid care when I became friends with Stanley Adderley. His father, Lincoln or ‘Linc’ as I remember him being called, worked at the New York Botanical Garden, but also had two greenhouses full of orchids that were attached to the back of their house in Beacon, N.Y. Stanley had to take care of the orchids the way farm kids have to take care of chickens or pigs. They had to be watered and fed in a particular way on a particular schedule. Stanley carried out these chores in a fairly desultory fashion; I never got the feeling that he was going to follow in his father’s career footsteps.

Orchid without flowers
Orchid without flowers

I never had much of a clue has to what was going on. The Adderleys’ greenhouses were an exotic environment, especially in the winter, when the air in there was warm and thick with moisture and many of the tropical and Southern Hemisphere varieties were in flower. During the summer they removed the heavy plastic covering from one of the greenhouses, which I believe was mostly full of Cymbidium, which were large plants with long blade-like leaves. That was the only genus name that stuck with me down through the years after the Adderleys moved back to the Bahamas.

Gradually I became aware of the enormous diversity of the orchid family (Orchidaceae) and that they were not all tropical species. Lady-slippers, for example, are a large temperate zone orchid that—but for over-harvesting—would be relatively common in deciduous woodlands. When I moved to western Massachusetts in my late 20s I discovered that rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) was both an orchid and quite common on the forest floor of the Mt. Toby Range north of Amherst. Orchids began to seem a bit less exotic.

Over the years I have kept a few house plants, but have moved so often that I have never accumulated much of collection and have steered clear of varieties that I perceived to be delicate, including orchids. So, a couple weeks ago when my friend and I found an orchid in the hallway of her apartment with a ‘Free’ sign leaning next to it, I had no idea how to care for the thing. The poor thing had apparently been discarded after it had finished flowering. The flower stem was still attached, but bare. Neither of us had any idea what kind of orchid it was.

A Phalaenopsis variety
A Phalaenopsis variety

Then I saw a picture of an orchid on Facebook. Another friend had picked it up at Wegmans grocery store because it was bright colored and it was a gloomy winter day. I recognized the leaves on it as quite similar to our hallway orphan. It seemed to be a Phalaenopsis or ‘moth orchid,’ a large and much-hybridized genus that was popular as a house plant. Some of the species have flowers that resemble a large moth in flight. They cost $35 in Wegmans.

Over the past couple of weeks the leaves have been turning yellow and falling off the orphan Phalaenopsis. I had no idea how much often to water it, let alone provide any additional care. A quick trip to the Internet provided an avalanche of orchid care websites. One of them put it pithily: “Orchid care isn’t difficult. It’s just different.”

A site called Beautiful Orchids summed up the watering situation boldly. There were three different watering schedules for various kinds of orchid: 1) Varieties to keep evenly moist (not soggy or wet) at all times:

Paphiopedilum, Miltonia, Cymbidium, Odontoglossum. 2) Varieties to keep evenly moist during active growth, allowed to dry out between waterings when not: Cattleya, Oncidium, Brassia, Dendrobium. 3) Varieties to keep nearly dry between waterings: Phalaenopsis, Vanda, Ascocenda.

Healthy orchid
Healthy orchid

The other question I had is “What do you do with the flower stem?” Apparently a healthy Phalaenopsis can flower a second time, so when it finishes its first set of flowers, you cut it back to the first node before the flowering portion of the stem and it will sprout a secondary stem. These will be fewer and smaller than the first set.

Our Phalaenopsis was not healthy. There are exactly two leaves left on it and one of them is yellowing. In this case you cut off the whole stem and give it some food (orchid food only; not just any plant food), although not more than once a month.

These are the basics. If this orphaned plant revives I guess I will have to read a little further.


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