One of the first things you’re told when you start growing orchids, is that the Phalaenopsis is the easiest type of orchid to grow. I will agree that it is certainly the easiest and most inexpensive orchid to find for sale, common at grocery stores and big box retailers starting at under $10. So, with something this readily available, why couldn’t I, a person with two very clearly green thumbs, manage to keep one alive for more than a month? Very good question and one which it took me many years and many Phalaenopsis orchids before I finally figured it out.
To start with, I was buying plants in full bloom, based solely on the flowers, and totally ignoring the condition of the leaves and the roots. If the flower looked nice, I assumed the plant was in good shape. This was not necessarily the case. While the plants may have been doing great in the greenhouse they were born into, once they left the confines of that greenhouse, their treatment may not have been all that it should have been. Did the plant get watered in the right amount and at the right time? Did anyone bother to give it some fertilizer and, if so, was it the right kind and in the right amount? Was it given some sunlight or kept in a dark storage room? Was it being kept too cold or hot? Bottom line is that you just don’t know and you have to do your best to guess, so where to begin?
Start with the leaves. Are they firm and green? This is what you are looking for. If they are wrinkled or discolored, it’s a good sign that there is something going wrong with the plant. The next step is to, if at all possible, look at the roots. Many plants are potted in a moss mix set inside a clear plastic pot, covered by a more decorative pot. Gently pull the plant (in its plastic pot) out of the decorative pot and take a look. Are the roots thick, firm, and white, often with green tips, or are they dried up and brown? And the moss, how does it feel? Is it dry and hard or is it moist and pliable? Your ideal choice is a plant that has firm, green leaves with roots that are thick and white with some green tips, all nestled in moss that is moist but not saturated, unless the plant has recently been watered.
Once you are convinced that the plant you’re looking at is a good one, only then should you start to consider the flowers. Many Phalaenopsis plants will hold their flowers for as many as six months, some even longer. But if the plant you’re purchasing is already in bloom, how do you know how long the flowers will last? The only way to know you’re getting a plant with the longest lasting flowers is to select the plant with flower buds that have not yet opened. If you have an option, go for the plant with more than one flower spike, or one whose spike is branching. The larger and more spikes you have, the more flowers you will get.
Now that you’ve made your selection, take care in transporting it home. Orchids like to be kept at the same temperatures we like. If they are suddenly chilled or overheated, they are apt to lose their flower buds, and you might just lose the whole plant. So, take care in moving your plant from the store to the car; if it’s cold out, get some extra bags from the cashier and bag it up. Plastic is fine, but paper is better as it allows more warm air to surround the plant. And take your plant directly home. Whether it’s hot or cold out, you don’t want to be running errands with a temperature sensitive plant in the back seat. Upon arrival, let the bag come to room temperature before removing the plant. Then place the plant in a bright, sunny location, with indirect light, to encourage the flowers to continue opening. After they’re all open, back the plant away from the light to extend the duration of the flowers. To make sure your plant is getting enough, but not too much, light, touch the leaves in the heat of the day. If they’re hot, they’re getting too much light. If you notice the leaves starting to turn red or brown, that’s sunburn. So keep an eye on the plant to make sure it stays happy in its new home.
Water your plant when the moss is totally dry and fertilize with an orchid fertilizer regularly, generally once a week. Water lightly once, to allow the moss and roots to rehydrate, then go back and water again about ten minutes later more deeply. Once a month, just use water (without fertilizer) to flush out any lingering fertilizer salts that can cause browning of your leaf tips. And pay attention to the water you use – the purer the water, the better, and make sure the water is not softened as softened water contains low levels of salts that can slowly cause the deterioration of your plant. If you want to increase the humidity around your plant, you can mist around it periodically, but make sure water never sits in the crown of the plant (the point in the middle where the leaves come together) as this can cause the plant to rot and die, and you certainly don’t want that to happen!
After your plant is done flowering, you can cut the dried flower spike off and then wait patiently for the plant to take a break before it chooses to flower again. These plants can benefit from a cool period in the fall, so allow your plant to sit near a window or even outside, where there is a ten degree temperature drop between day and night temperatures. This is pretty easy to accomplish in Minnesota, where many of us use a setback thermostat to save on heating costs in the winter. Just make sure the plant is not kept in an area that falls below 55 degrees.
So, did I ever figure out what I was doing wrong? Yep, pretty much everything. But now I know and I’m doing much better! I’m happy to report that I’ve kept Phalaenopsis orchids alive for well over a month. This one, pictured below, was purchased in but in September 2020 and it is now April 2021 and continuing to bloom. What did I do right? I spent some time looking the plant over carefully, it’s roots were good, the leaves looked great, there were three flower spikes, and only a couple flowers had fully opened. And did I mention that it only cost me $14.99? And it’s been seven months? And it’s still blooming?
If I can do it, so can you! So, get on out there and get yourself a plant to try! With these tips and a little bit of luck, you’re going to have a plant you can grow and appreciate the flowers on for many years to come!
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