Drama Queen

Orchids, less finicky than you imagine and worth every penny, are available in myriad colors, sizes and shapes to chase those winter blues away.

Charles Darwin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout are just a few well-knowns from a long list of orchid fans. With more than 100,000 available hybrids, there’s a flower for every taste. And not unlike the world of roses, every enthusiast has favorites. What sets these beauties apart is that most cultivated orchids are epiphytic. Translation? They grow on trees. The trees are supports not suppliers of nutrients and water. Instead, the dangling roots drink dew and rain and store it away in their leaves and stem.

Novices bring an orchid home in flower and then are lost as to what to do when the show is over. Master the watering issue, and give them sufficient light, correct heat and a good medium, and there will be another burst of irresistible, long-lasting blooms.

According to physician, surgeon and hybridizer Azhar Mustafa, owner of A&P Orchids in Swansea, orchids just want to be understood. “They’re not like geraniums, nor mums, nor figs.If we meet their needs, the plants will thrive,” Mustafa says. Here’s what to remember:

Too much water is the number one way to kill an orchid.  Depending on the plant, medium and conditions in the home, orchids in mid-sized pots generally need watering about once a week. When you water, drench the entire root system with room-temperature water. Some (Cattleyas, for instance) like to dry out between waterings. Others (Phalaenopsis among them) prefer to almost dry out. Humidity also factors in. New England homes are often dry in winter, so regular misting (preferably in the morning) or placing the plant in a shallow tray filled with gravel and water can enhance flowering. Make sure the pot sits atop the stones, not in the water. To reduce the chance of disease, place a small oscillating fan nearby just to keep the air moving. Keep orchids away from air conditioners and radiators.

Orchids really are not divas. Proof? Some have roots that will make themselves content in a bowl of wine corks, writes Henry Jaworski, author of Orchids Simplified. Soil is out. Orchids are air plants. A lack of oxygen causes roots to suffocate and decay. The medium needs to hold water, retain nutrients and provide the roots something to cling to. To that end, orchids should be grown in pots filled with bark, bark mixtures, stones or other loosely packed, free-draining material. Sphagnum moss, particularly the live variety, is a popular medium either alone or as an additive. The water-retaining moss has an antiseptic that inhibits fungi. Chipped fir bark is high on the list, too. It’s inexpensive and not easily compacted. However, “when the medium breaks down and gets too spongy, you’ll need to repot the plant to prevent rot,” cautions Judy Gould, horticulturist and president of the Rhode Island Orchid Society. Orchids grown in fir bark also require high-nitrogen fertilizers (sometimes dubbed orchid food), as the decaying bark absorbs nitrogen leaving little for the plant. Mustafa makes feeding part of his regular watering regime. His recipe: a half teaspoon of balanced, all-purpose twenty-twenty-twenty fertilizer to one gallon water in the winter; and one teaspoon fertilizer to one gallon water in spring and summer. Water the plant, allow it to drip dry, then fertilize.

Light and Heat
Orchids are often categorized according to how they like the temperature: warm, intermediate or cool. Still, normal house temperatures are fine for most. And most— lucky for us—also prefer a nighttime temperature drop. In fact, the drop, which can be as much as ten degrees, is essential for reflowering. Orchids are also classified as to how much light—low, medium, high—they need. The rule of thumb is at least six hours per day. From about November to January, a south-facing window or a sunroom is a fine spot. But even then a supplemental fluorescent light is a good idea to compensate for gray days. Orchids crave bright light, not direct scorching. Monitor the plant carefully, moving it toward or from the window as needed. Leaves that turn white then black are showing signs of sunburn. No window? No problem. Beautiful orchids can be grown in a basement under grow lights. Figure on giving them anywhere from about fourteen to sixteen hours of light per day. “Ninety-five percent of the time, an orchid that’s not blooming simply needs more light,” says Gould. “Here’s a secret: Blooming plants have apple-green leaves. Orchids with dark green leaves aren’t getting enough.”

Narrowing the Field
Mike Sheridan at Wickford Orchids in North Kingstown asks first-time orchid growers to describe their environment. “That helps me decide which plant is best for growth and reflowering in their particular house,” he explains. In the end, trial and error is an excellent teacher. Most orchids don’t have a fragrance, some are incredibly perfumed and some, well, you’ll have to sniff for yourself. Expect to pay about $20 on up for an orchid in our area. How about one of these genera to start?

Phalaenopsis Known as the moth orchid, it’s the one with the graceful spike we often see for sale. Phals produce a number of flowers (in colors that span from white to pink, orange, red, dotted, striped and more) that can last up to three months or longer. Leaves are large and glossy. Give them warm temperatures and indirect, bright light. Phals want to almost dry out between waterings. Poke your finger into the pot; the medium should feel a bit moist, not completely dry. “When blooms fade, cut the stalk at the base,” advises Gould. “With luck, the orchid should reflower about twelve months later.”

Paphiopedilum Also called lady’s slippers (Martha Stewart likes the mini-hybrids), these orchids have an unmistakable lip or front pouch. Available in scores of colors, shapes and sizes, they put out blooms that last for months. Popular lady’s slippers also relish a bit more moisture about the roots. Don’t let them dry out completely between waterings. Use a bark mixture and repot once a year immediately after flowering.

Oncidium This massive genus includes plants that range from small to large. Flowers, lasting three to four weeks, are usually yellow, brown or red. These orchids like plenty of light and generally want to dry out between waterings.     


Some common problems and the fix.
Problem: No new growth.
Fix: This may not be a growth period. Wait and watch.

Problem: No new flower.
Fix: More light. Find out the plant’s bloom period. The orchid may have been blooming for the first time when you bought it. If that’s the case, flowers may take as long as two years to reappear. As the plant matures, it will bloom more frequently.

Problem: Yellow leaves.
Fix: Old leaves yellow as they age, but new leaves yellowing is a sign of too much light or insufficient feeding. Shade the plant and add nutrients as directed.

Problem: Black area on leaf.
Fix: Lessen the amount of direct sun. If the area increases, cut it off with a sharp, sterile knife. Treat the plant with fungicide as directed.

Problem: New buds drop off, and flowers wilt before opening.
Fix: Sudden changes in temperature or allowing the plant to dry out too much can cause a drop. So can ethylene gas, the kind ripe fruit produces. Keep orchids away from fruit and, if it’s in the kitchen, the gas stove.

Fix: Try spraying them off with water. If that doesn’t do it, ask the grower to recommend a pesticide.

Sources Helpful advice for tending your own orchids.


Novices hoping to form a long-lasting relationship should forego home centers or markets and buy their orchid from local growers. Two reliable sources:

A & P Orchids 110 Peters Road, Swansea, Massachusetts, 508-675-1717, aandporchids.com. This grower supplies retail stores throughout the region. Their greenhouses are usually open to the public Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In January, A & P will begin a series of free orchid-growing workshops. Classes will take place on the first Saturday of the month. Check their website for updates.

Orchids of Wickford 917 Ten Rod Road, North Kingstown, 884-4695, wickfordorchids.com. Open by chance or appointment. This retail and wholesale nursery is full of plants (including many of their own hybrids). Check their informative website for orchid-growing information.

Bedtime Reading

Orchids Simplified by Henry Jaworski (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). An easy read for neophytes.

Orchids for Dummies
by Steven Frowine (Dummies Series, 2005). The title says it all.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Ballantine Books, 2000). An interesting and engaging true story about a renegade plant dealer.

Take Note
Those grade-school flash cards worked, right? Pretty orchid notecards are a fabulous way to get to know your plants and keep up with friends at the same time. We found just the thing: twenty stunning photographs of orchid hybrids by William Castner, $14.95, at The Curatorium (197 Wickenden Street, Providence, 453-4080, thecuratorium.com).  

Lucky for us, there’s plenty of orchid support to be had in Rhode Island. Contact the following for information and links to orchid-related sites.

The Rhode Island Orchid Society (769-0369, riorchidsociety.org) maintains a dazzling exhibit at the Roger Williams Botanical Center and holds regular monthly meetings.

The Ocean State Orchid Society (oceanstateorchidsociety.org) holds monthly meetings and hands-on workshops.