Moth Orchids

moth orchids (Phalaenopsis)

moth orchids (Phalaenopsis)

My rabbi often assures me that there is a reason for everything, that there is really no such thing as an accident, that life only presents us with trials and tests that we are meant to pass, and that a particular lesson is to be learned from whatever is placed before our eyes to see.
It is in this context that I have been contemplating the Phalaenopsis or moth orchid, received a few days ago as a gift and now perched precariously on my kitchen windowsill.
There are no indoor plants in our house. When you have two Hall of Fame aspirants in the family, it means that footballs and baseballs are constantly in the air, that basketballs are forever being bounced. For a time, our living room was even converted – unofficially – to a handball court. It is easy to see why, under such circumstances, there can be few, if any, thoughts of putting out fragile objects, such as potted plants, which can easily be toppled from where they stand.
Yet the Phalaenopsis (pronounced fal-en-OP-sis) orchid is not nearly as fragile as it looks, or so the experts claim. It is the sturdiest and most popular of all orchids. The literature indicates that a Phalaenopsis should grow fine in the small amount of light available within our home. If you live in an older neighborhood such as ours, filled with mature trees and tall hedges, the sunlight that filters into your house will not support the growth of most flowering plants or even a ficus tree. Phalaenopsis orchids, however, are not crazy for lots of light and should flower nicely in a spot where African violets, philodendrons or pothos grow well.
An east-facing window will provide the proper amount of light for a Phalaenopsis. A west- or even south-facing exposure may also be successful as long as the heat of the afternoon sun is minimized, whether by the presence of an adjoining patio arbor or trellis, or by a large tree in the adjacent yard. Gauzelike window curtains will help to keep direct sun off the leaves, which might otherwise be burned.
Ideally, your orchid should be situated near a kitchen or bathroom window because of the higher humidity in these areas of the house. To improve the humidity around the plant, mist its leaves each morning. Another recommended practice is to place small pebbles in the tray or saucer under your plant. Moisture that evaporates from the pebbles will help to humidify the air. An additional advantage of having your orchid container rest on pebbles is that the plant’s roots will never be in direct contact with standing water, reducing the possibility of root fungus disease.
In general, Phalaenopsis orchids should be watered about once a week – just before the soil is completely dry – and more often during warm weather. Water in the morning so that roots will dry out, somewhat before nightfall. The Phalaenopsis requires more frequent watering than many other types of orchids since, unlike them, it does not possess special organs for water storage. To uniformly soak the root ball, place the container in a bucket or tub of water, the soil will act like a wick, pulling the water up from below.
A word of caution about the water used for orchids, whether for regular watering or misting: use only dimineralized or distilled water that is stored at room temperature. Water that is cold or salty may damage the plant.
A high-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 30-10-10 (30 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, 10 percent potassium), should be applied every other week; it can be dissolved in the tub water taken up by the plant. The reason for this high-nitrogen fertilizer is that medium grade fir bark (in which the Phalaenopsis grows) utilizes lots of nitrogen in its decomposition. You are not only feeding the plant, you are compensating for the nitrogen consumed by the bacteria that decompose the bark.
Prior to the winter-spring flowering season you should replace this fertilizer with a 10-30-20 product. The higher phosphorus concentration will stimulate flowering; the lower nitrogen concentration will mean that less energy of the plant will be spent on leafy growth so most of the plant’s resources can be devoted to making flowers.
After the flowers on a single stalk have faded, the stalk will bloom again if it is cut back to the third node – nodes are points where flowers attach themselves to the stalk – from the bottom.
I believe the Phalaenopsis on my windowsill is the Pink Zebra `Krull Smith’ variety. All the veins in its petals are outlined in pink, and there are many pink dots at the petal bases. Phalaenopsis is derived from two Greek words: phalain, which means moth, and opsis, which means like. The flower does resemble a giant moth, similar to the one that metamorphoses from that enormous green tomato hornworm.
So what have I learned from this orchid? Do not be afraid of new challenges or risks. Do not be prejudiced or intimidated by the unfamiliar. Don’t think that only botanical geniuses can culture a Phalaenopsis, which, after all, is the easiest orchid to grow.

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