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Caring for Phalaenopsis (fah-lay-NOP-sis) Orchids

Knowing that I love plants, I am often gifted with a Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis amabilis). If I was as successful growing orchids as I am most plants, I should have a healthy collection of them, but sadly, this is a plant I can’t keep alive once it sheds its beautiful bloom.

I was surprised to discover that orchids (family Orchidaceae) are the largest family of flowering plants, and there are over 50 species of Phalaenopsis alone. The majority of species grow in the tropical regions of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Himalayas and the Philippines. Orchids are epiphytes, which means it’s a type of plant that grows harmlessly on another plant (like a tree) and gets its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes the debris accumulating around it.

This should give us some insight into how to care for an orchid. Being from a tropical area, a warm and humid location will be best. Growing on a tree, the plant is shaded by foliage, so indirect light is preferred. Being dependent upon moisture and nutrients from the air and rain would indicate that the plant doesn’t need a lot of water and fertilizer.

In the course of some research, I’ve made a list of some care tips that may help us all have success in growing orchids:

1. Grow in pots containing a coarse fir bark or orchid bark medium.

2. Expose plants to warm days (72-85 degrees) and cooler nights (but not lower than 60 degrees). Plants grown without a fluctuation in temperature will not bloom.

3. Maintain 50-60% humidity by setting the pot on a tray filled with gravel and a small amount of water in the bottom.

4. Position plants in bright light with no direct sun, such as east window sill, or a well-shaded south or west window sill.

5. Provide good air circulation.

Orchids are susceptible to root rot, so how to water is quite important:

1. Water mature plants one time per week, and allow the medium to dry slightly between watering.

2. Water with tepid water in the morning only.

3. Place potted plants in a sink and allow the water to flow freely through the potting medium, then drain well.

While actively growing in late spring through early fall, Orchids should be fertilized every third or fourth watering with a 3:1:1 ratio fertilizer. Prepare the solution at half the strength directed on the label. During the winter, reduce applications to once a month.

Experts are divided on how to cut the stalk after the flowers have faded. Most recommend cutting the flower stalk to a 1” stub right away, but several sources recommend cutting the stem halfway between the base and the top at an angle between the nodes for possible re-bloom. If buds don’t begin to develop after 45 days, cut the entire stem down. Everyone agrees that after cutting the stalk, the temperature must drop to 58-60 degrees to force a new flower stem to grow (once a new stem begins, resume normal temperatures).

Plants should be re-potted every two years in the spring after the blooms have faded or just as new leaves begin to appear:

1. If you don’t have access to a commercially prepared Orchid Mix, a popular potting mix is 5 parts fresh fir bark (1/4-1/2” chunks), 1 part horticultural charcoal (chopped into small pieces), and 1 part perlite.

2. Choose a pot just large enough to accommodate the root system (and doesn’t require bending or twisting the roots). Orchids are more likely to bloom if kept slightly root bound.

3. Remove as much potting medium from the roots of the plant, taking care not to damage the roots. This is best accomplished by shaking and washing the the root system under running tepid water.

4. Remove any dead or yellowing leaves.

5. Remove any dead or dying roots. If in doubt, squeeze the roots; dead tissue will feel hollow or wiry.

6. Place potting mix in the bottom, insert the plant and fill in air pockets with potting mix.

7. Place the pot in a bucket of tepid water and allow the plant to soak for one hour.

For step-by-step instructions and photos on how to re-pot a orchid go to:

One last thought about Orchids that I was surprised to discover:

In the course of photosynthesis, most plants uptake Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and release oxygen (O) during the day, and then in the course of respiration, release CO2 during the night. There are a few plants though, that can continue to uptake CO2 and release O during the night because of their ability to perform a type of photosynthesis called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). Orchids are one of these plants. So if you have a place in your sleeping area that will support the growth of an Orchid, it will benefit your health as well.

Not only are Orchids beautiful, but they can improve my health?! I’m looking forward to trying out these tips, and more hopeful that I will be able to enjoy these lovely plants for longer than one bloom cycle.

The stunning display of white Phaleanopsis Orchids is at Hai'ku Mill in Hai'ku, Maui, Hawaii. The grounds and remains of the sugar mill have been transformed into a beautiful botanical garden and event center.

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