At some point a couple of years ago I realized that I could add an orchid to my grocery order through one of the places I shop. I realized this pre-pandemic. It’s the reason I have so many orchids. I tend to order a new one anytime the life of the flowers on one plant comes to an end. Those blooms last for a surprising amount of time though, so I only wind up getting a couple each year.
I had always read that orchids were fickle and hard to care for, so way back at the beginning of my plant lady career I decided that I would be able to consider myself a “real plant person” once I was able to keep an orchid alive for a second bloom. I thought it was going to be a real challenge. Because Orchids are these mysterious exotic things that need constant care. You can’t even leave them alone in a room for 5 minutes without turning some mood music on because they’ll just die. Just like that. Poof. Dead plant.
Except that is totally and completely the furthest thing from the truth. They take patience, but they aren’t actually hard to deal with. The first orchids I had I most certainly killed. I killed them dead. By not understanding anything about them at all and not doing any research. At all. I just did what I thought I should do. And… well that never works out when I’m caring for plants.
As is pretty common with me, I got the watering all wrong. Yes. I know this is surprising to you. I mist things when they don’t need to be misted. I water things when they want to be dry. I overestimate the amount of liquid and care things need. It’s possible that I smother plants with love, water, care, and repotting so I can take a break from smothering and over communicating with my favorite humans. Plants are most certainly a coping mechanism for me. But part of why I love them as a coping mechanism, and just as what they are, is that there is so much you can learn. Both about them, and from them. So today I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I’ve learned from and about orchids.
Currently I have five of them. One has some gorgeous blossoms going right now, one has little blossom pods all shiny and green and preparing to someday bloom, and three are just chilling out being green and healthy and not flowering at all. All are healthy. All are beautiful. All are well. And I have no doubt they’ll all bloom again at some point. But only when they’re ready to.
Orchids are a diverse plant family (Orchidaceae) that includes more than 700 genera and some 28,000 individual species.The Spruce
That’s a lot of freaking different kinds of orchids. Like… A lot. I have a friend whose mom breeds and splices and does mad science stuff with orchids. She fauns over them and creates new hybrids and wins awards (shout out to Alma Bannett!) and it’s amazing. And I happen to know someone who knows her. Like… who she gave birth to. And I don’t really know that many people. It would be a huge coincidence if I knew one of the only people birthed by an award winning orchid breeder. So are there really only 28,000 individual species? Are they really tracking what orchid enthusiasts the world over are doing in their at home green houses?
That was not a rhetorical question by the way. If you happen to be a person who does the orchid census and can tell me, please do. I’d love to know.
But unless you’re going out and looking for specialty orchids you’re probably getting something that was bred to live in your house. So let’s talk about what those orchids need, shall we?
Three of my orchids seem to be Phalaenopsis Orchids, which is often called Moth Orchid. They’re super common and made to be indoor plants. While they could live outside, they tend to struggle when you change their environment drastically. And outside they need to be in bright shade… Yep. Bright shade. No. It doesn’t make sense.
Bright shade is when the plant is in a shaded area and isn’t hit directly by the rays of the sun but the area is otherwise overall bright. It’s hard to make that work outside, so it’s a good thing I’m only keeping mine indoors.
Indoors they still crave bright indirect light, especially if you want them to grow up to blossom again. But indoors it’s a lot easier to control. Keep them in bright naturally well lit rooms out of the harsh rays of the sun. They also thrive with artificial plant lighting.
Then there’s the thing that kills them. Watering. Or not watering. Either thing will do it. What I know about orchids is that they are tropical plants. To me a tropical plant should need a lot of water. A lot. It’s like I thought they lived in swimming pools somewhere and now that they’re in my house they’re just always thirsty. In fact most orchids are air plants. Which means they need water but not in their soil. In fact most orchids don’t need soil at all. They prefer to grow on trees, other plants, and in some cases rocks. Which is why when you get an orchid from the store you’ll usually find it growing in what I can best describe as bark chips. Its roots are usually partially exposed, and much like a Cthulu, you’ll find they reach out like tentacles or tendrils stretching into the air and wrapping around things they come in contact with. So, you know. You can’t just pour water on them and expect it to take. And you can’t just fill up their pot with water or they’ll drown. They’re air plants, not water plants.
Once I got over needing to water them like a “normal” houseplant I got a couple of recommendations.
The first is the ice cube method. And it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once every week to 10 days you set an ice cube over the roots and bark and you let it melt. Then your plant is watered. Some people swear by this method. I know my aunt is an ice-cuber. I tried this for a while but it didn’t seem to work for me. It could be for any number of reasons. Variables I can’t figure into the equation. But it just didn’t work for me.
This is my preferred method of orchid watering. Especially with orchids that are actively blooming or trying to bloom. Orchids should come in special little baskets, rather than your standard grower’s pot. That basket is then set into a decorative planter. With the soak method you water every 10-days to 2 weeks depending on the humidity of the area your orchids are in. I take all my orchids to the bathtub, leave them in both their growing basket and decorative pot and fill them all up to the top with water. Then I let them soak for 10-15 minutes before pulling the orchid baskets out of the decorative pots, dumping the excess water, and letting them drain for a couple of hours. This is incredibly similar to how many folks care for their air plants. I will never go back to the ice method.
Okay… there is a third method that no one has ever recommended to me but that I stumbled upon and that I tend to use with my dormant orchids. It’s the steam method. My blossoming orchids tend to be on display in the living room or in the bedroom so I can enjoy the flowers. Once they lose their blooms they’re significantly less showy. At some point after soaking one of my dormant orchids and draining it and putting it back in its pot I took it out of the bathtub but never really got around to taking it out of the bathroom. So it just sat in the windowsill of the frosted window next to the bathtub soaking up diffused light and steam from all the showers. And it just seemed… so… happy there.
So happy that when my next one lost its blooms I kept it in the bathroom. The healthy sheen on the orchid’s leaves and the plump curviness of their roots are just perfection. Those dormant plants get a lot less care from me. I probably only water them once a month. But they have gone through multiple blossom cycles each.
So that my friends is the tale of my orchids. They’re the plant I feel should be the most mysterious but somehow aside from ZZ plants they’re the ones I manage to keep the healthiest and happiest.
Have any orchid pointers? Orchid questions? Drop them in the comments.