Tuesday, December 12

How to Buy Orchids With Confidence

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There are an enormous number of different varieties of orchids; between 25,000 and 30,000 different species are found in nature. As if that wasn’t enough, human growers have produced almost 150,000 distinct hybrid varieties by cross-pollinating different but related species. Different types of orchids have different requirements to keep them healthy; with such a variety, trying to do the job right can be a daunting task.

Don’t fret; I’ve been there myself, and not so long ago that I don’t remember what it was like. You can get a fairly good grasp on the subject with probably no more than 10 hours of diligent study, and be growing beautiful orchids in no time. There is a huge online support network of forums and enthusiasts’ sites to help you along the way. Let’s start out by breaking down the most popular orchids varieties and giving you an idea of what sort of care they need.


Some of the Most Popular Orchid Types


  • Cattleya Orchids

  • Oncidium Orchids

  • Phalaenopsis Orchids

  • Masdevilla Orchids

  • Cymbidium Orchids

  • Dendrobium Orchids

  • Epidendrum Orchids

Cattleya Orchids

This variety is named for William Cattley, an English botanist who introduced the species to Europe in the early 1800s. These are classic “corsage orchids” and produce beautiful blossoms. They can handle direct sunlight, though not as well as oncidiums; and they need alternating wet and dry periods; let the media get completely dry for a day or two before watering again. Give them a weak fertilizer in light doses about once a week — misting works well for this!


Oncidium Orchids

These are probably the most popular indoor orchids because they produce lots of beautiful blossoms during their peak season. They handle direct sunlight far better than most of the other popular varieties; in fact, they need some direct sunlight to produce their best blooms. And like the other species that like sun, they like a lot of moisture too; you should water them every other day. Don’t use too much fertilizer; use a mild fertilizer no more than twice a month.


Phalaenopsis Orchids

This is the variety that most newbies start out with. They are fairly hardy, adapt well to being grown indoors, and don’t require a lot of constant care. Unlike the Oncidium, they do not like direct sunlight. Put them in east or west-facing windows that don’t get direct sunlight, or grow them under lamps, otherwise they will get scorched and yellow leaves. They need to be watered about once a week. Watch the roots; if they start to turn white or light tan, you aren’t watering enough. During active growing, give them fertilizer weekly; during winter, once a month or less.


Masdevilla Orchids

Originally from the Andes mountains, they produce single blooms of a distinctive triangular shape, not sprays. They are fairly high-maintenance, require daily watering and constant humidity, and do not tolerate direct sun. They prefer cooler temperatures, between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.


Cymbidium Orchids

This variety originally came from the Himalayas! As you might guess, it handles cool temperatures well, but it also is very sun-tolerant. They are very hardy, and will grow well near any window; they have the added benefit of producing very long-lasting flowers, sometimes for several months! Be aware that they need a significant temperature drop at night to do their best, on the order of 20-25 degrees fahrenheit.


Dendrobium Orchids

These generally require warm temperatures and a lot of light, even direct sunlight. Like the Oncidiums, they should be watered frequently, as often as every other day. During the winter, however, they should get very little water and no fertilizers at all.


Epidendrum Orchids

These are possibly the least finicky of all orchids. They are very tough, and also produce beautiful arrays of flowers that can last for years! If you are just starting out, this can be a good choice, because it is almost impossible to screw up with them. Be sure to give them good water and fertilizer in the spring to summer months.


How to Select Orchids to Purchase

The first thing to select is not the orchid, but the supplier! Look for a nursery that either specializes in orchids or can demonstrate significant expertise. Check yelp.com, ePinions.com, and the bigger orchid forums for suggestions on good suppliers in your area. If you have friends who already grow orchids, be sure to ask for their suggestions, as well.

Having chosen your supplier, now you need to evaluate the plants and make your choice to purchase. It’s critical to fully scrutinize several aspects of the possibles when you set out to buy orchids that will both produce great sprays of blossoms and have decent longevity. Don’t make the mistake of buying an orchid plant just because it is currently producing all sorts of blooms. Sometimes orchids can be encouraged to over-bloom with excessive fertilizer early in the growing season. Some varieties, such as phalaenopsis, can actually produce so many blooms that they will not recover the following season. If you are going to buy an orchid that is already fully in bloom, check for the classic telltale of over-fertilizing: glossy leaves!

That said, the two most important things to inspect on the plant are the roots and the leaves, in that order. The roots should be firmly attached to the growing media, which is easily checked by doing a wiggle test; grasp the plant at the base, just above the roots, and gently shake it. It will be immediately obvious if the roots have not firmly established themselves in the potting material. If not, pass on that plant. The roots themselves should be light green if dry, dark green if wet, and definitely NOT tan/light brown or white.

The leaves should be solid, even hard, and roughly the color of a granny smith apple or possibly a little darker. Some slight yellowing is fine so long as it is localized on a few areas of the leaves and not extending onto the stems. Generally this is caused by a sun-intolerant orchid getting too much direct sunlight and will go away if you provide the proper light conditions. Look closely for small holes and significant discoloration on the leaves — this could indicate pest problems. If you find such holes on multiple plants, the nursery may have pest problems; it would probably be wise to find another supplier.

After the roots and leaves, check the growth bulbs on the orchid. These are the points on the plant where new stems and flowers will grow. They should be plump and healthy-looking. Note that different types of orchids have different numbers of growth bulbs, some, like phalaenopsis, have only one such growth point, others like cattleyas will have several. The details on this are outside the scope of this article — look for information on elongated rhizomes with respect to your chosen variety.

Whether the plant should have unopened blooms is almost entirely a personal choice, apart from the advice about avoiding fully-blooming plants that may have been over-fertilized. Generally, a plant with a mix of opened and unopened is your best bet, as you get to enjoy the existing blossoms as soon as you get it home, but the unopened buds are a near-guarantee of continued enjoyment in the weeks or months to come.

I hope this information will help you to pick good, healthy orchids that will provide you with years of enjoyment!


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