Recently, Stewart Orchids, a wholesale grower in Carpinteria, sent a shipment of orchids to England. The shipment was lost in transit and bounced between continents for several months until it finally arrived back in California. Upon being unboxed, most of the plants were found to be in reasonably good condition and could be expected to return to full health.
In another case, Peter Baxter, assistant sales manager at Stewart Orchids, wanted to see how long an orchid could survive total neglect in his garage. After several months, the plant was still alive.
Baxter normally does not abuse his orchids. He has a personal collection of more than 1,200 plants in his own greenhouse. Still, the first several orchids he owned as a teen-ager died under his hands.
“When you first start growing orchids,” he said, “you can only learn by killing them.”
After a while, though, you begin to understand them.
“Most people give up growing orchids before a year has gone by. If you can just get through that first year, you’ll probably be hooked. It’s a little like algebra. You don’t understand . . . you don’t understand . . . then suddenly you do.
“Most orchids fail because they are not given adequate light,” Baxter said. “People think of orchids as delicate plants that need protection from the sun, but without bright light from an eastern or sheltered southern exposure, they will not grow well.”
The orchid family is the most diverse plant family on earth and, in the opinion of most botanists, the largest. There are up to 75,000 species of orchids and millions of hybrids. Orchids are native to every continent except Antarctica, and they are found in every ecosystem. Most orchids are tropical epiphytes or tree dwellers, but many live in the ground (terrestrials) or on rocks (lithophytes). A few species live under water, and still others have been discovered growing entirely underground. Depending on the species, they might be pollinated by syrphid flies, mosquitoes, dung beetles, moths or hummingbirds.
Orchids are expensive because they grow so slowly. It can take up to nine months for an orchid seed to germinate and six to seven years for an orchid plant, started as a seedling, to produce its first flower. The bonus is that a well cared for orchid plant can last for several generations, if not longer. Prized specimens are treated as family heirlooms.
At Stewart Orchids, Baxter and others believe that the capacity for careful observation is “the single most important ability of the successful orchid grower.” Baxter examines each of his 1,200 orchids every day and believes you should not attempt to grow more orchids than you personally can inspect daily. Only in this way will you learn what orchids need and deal with problems that arise before they become serious.
Healthy roots are singularly important to the overall health of an orchid plant. Maximum oxygen is made available to roots through use of firbark as sole or primary ingredient in the potting mix. Fertilization is constant with a 21-14-14 formulation applied at one half strength (one half teaspoon per gallon of water) with each watering. Orchids are great foliar feeders due to their large leaf pores or stomata. To leach out salts, it is a good idea to give plants a thorough soaking with plain or deionized water every fifth watering.
The most popular orchids for use as indoor plants are phalaneopsis types. These orchids require more heat – temperature must be kept between 60 and 100 degrees at all times – and less light than other orchids. Where African violets perform well, so will phalaneopsis.
The second most popular group of orchids are cattleyas, which are leathery-leaved and drought-tolerant. Cymbidiums are the most cold-tolerant orchids and are commonly grown outdoors in Los Angeles; without a certain amount of cold, in fact, they won’t bloom at all.
Tip of the week: Orchids have been coming down in price. Look for them at discount club outlets where they have been priced at less than $15.