I have to confess. I did go grocery shopping last week — and I did buy another orchid for my collection. In my defense, one of my original purchases has begun to drop a few of its blossoms every now and then. This new addition was strictly necessary as a backup …. Needing a backup bloomer however, made me realize something. I haven’t done my due diligence; I have no clue about long term orchid care. I don’t know what to do with orchids once they drop their flowers. These aren’t plants that you toss in the trash when they stop blooming
An initial perusal of the internet came up with dozens of websites filled with detailed care instructions. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to agree on much of anything. Instead, there was an absolute plethora of wildly different opinions. Repot, don’t repot. Water thoroughly and often; water sparingly and only once a month; Fertilize at half strength; hold off on fertilizer. Rather than wade through the options looking for the ones that seem the most reasonable (and that even agree with one another), I went back to Kew Gardens and the American Orchid Society’s care sheets for advice from real experts. I learned a lot!. I hope what I found out from actual orchids experts will help other novice orchid enthusiasts.
All three sources began with exactly the same words of wisdom: Orchids are NOT one size fits all! They originate in different environments all across the globe, so they grow under varying conditions that need to be replicated as much as possible.
To keep an orchid healthy and encourage reblooming, first you need to know what kind of orchid you have, where it comes from and when it blooms. Knowing these pieces, helps you can tailor its care to meet its built-in needs.
Moth orchids, Phalaenopsis, originally hail from South-East Asia, the Philippines and Australia where they grow on forest trees in the upper canopies. Today, moth orchids are the single most popular orchid sold in the United States.(Way back in 2000, the value of Phalaenopsis sold in the United States was $100,000,000.00. Numbers have risen steadily since then.) They are widely accepted as the easiest windowsill orchid for beginners. Not only do they tolerate home conditions beautifully, but with a few tweaks healthy plants can be easily coaxed into reblooming year after year.
Phalaenopsis are winter bloomers, which means that they are in full bloom right now. While you can expect dynamic blooms for another few weeks, some of the blossoms will soon begin to weaken and fade. Gently removing withered flowers keeps the plant’s energy focused on supporting all of the remaining blooms and usually keeps the orchid in bloom longer. Once all of the flowers have fallen, then you have a choice to make. Using sharp, sterilized snippers, you can either cut the stem off near the base, or if the plant is exceptionally robust, you can cut it off by a node near the bottom (three or four nodes up)and hope that a new branch will immediately grow and bloom.
Unlike other orchid species, moth orchids do not go into a full dormancy. Instead, throughout the summer months they typically stop flowering but continue to grow leaves. Throughout the spring and summer months, they need the rejuvenating bright but indirect light of a shaded south or west window. Strong, direct summer sunlight is likely to burn their foliage, slowing down energy producing photosynthesis . As fall comes and the angle of the sun shifts, move moth orchids to a spot with a few hours of direct morning or late afternoon sun. An east window is ideal. The direct light gives the plants’ energy levels a real boost, getting them ready to put on a fabulous winter show.
Temperatures during the spring and summer “rest period” should make moth orchids feel like they are back home again. Daytime temps of 75 to 90 degrees F are perfect, with night time temperatures staying above 60 degrees. A weekly misting bath will make them think they are once again basking in the beloved 90% humidity levels of home. In autumn, three or four weeks before their blooming period, drop their night time temperatures to 50 to 55 degrees F in order to stimulate bud development. Keep temperature patterns steady; wildly fluctuating temperatures, which can cause bud drop.
Fertilizer is another essential element for strong bloom development, but special considerations apply. Unlike the gorgeous pothos your orchid shares the windowsill with, the moth orchid’s roots are not wrapped in a protective coat of tight-fitting soil. The orchid that you love and pamper is anchored in a porous bark mixture. It’s roots are exposed. Too much fertilizer or too strong a mixture can severely burn the root system and will eventually kill the plant. For most of the year, a balanced fertilizer applied every week at ¼ strength is sufficient. When it’s time to push blooms, then switch to a high phosphorus fertilizer at the same strength, but apply it only twice a month instead.
Water is especially critical during a moth orchid’s growing period. Both Kew experts and the AOS (American Orchid Society) stress the need for thorough waterings. Kew even suggests immersing the pot in tepid water for 10 to 15 minutes, then letting the pot drain out and drying the orchid’s crown to prevent rot. Whether you choose to immerse the pot or let water run through, try to always water in the morning so that the foliage has plenty of time in warmer daylight hours to dry. Let the orchid’s planting medium dry out between waterings, but never to the point of wilting. Once the winter bloom season arrives, cut back on water. Depending on the plant's size, a fourth to half a cup once every 8 or 10 days is usually enough. Cutting back on water slows foliage growth and concentrates the plant’s energy on survival, which in plant terms means, dozens of pollen producing blossoms.
To repot or not to repot. That is the question.. (The English teacher in me simply could not resist.) But it really is a valid question. Some online sites advocate repotting orchids as soon as you bring them home because they are "planted in inferior imported materials." (yes, a real quote) The experts strongly disagree. Until the medium begins to decompose and tends to remain soggy after watering, or the roots become obviously pot bound, there is no need to repot your moth orchid. Most Phalaenopsis can wait up to two years before they need repotting. The Missouri Botanical Garden publishes an excellent step by step visual guide for repotting moth orchids.
Moth orchids tend to be relatively pest free, but an infestation can prevent an orchid from reblooming. They feed on plant juices, severely weakening the orchid. Destructive mealy bugs begin by hiding in the crowns of moth orchids and then traveling outward on the leaves. Remove them immediately to prevent a lethal infestation of the pests. Use a toothpick to dig them out, or for stronger control, dip a q-tip in seventy percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol and rub it over the pests. As a last resort, spray the plant with an organic insecticidal soap to kill the wily insects.
This morning another blossom fell off of my littlest orchid, signaling that he is getting tired and will soon need a long rest and rejuvenation. I'm going to hate to see his blossoms go -- they have made me smile for weeks now - - but I'm confident that he will love his new home. It's right next to the banana tree. I think they will have a lot in common.