The Exotic, Easy Orchid

Tacoma News Tribune
February 9th, 2008
Photos by DEAN J. KOEPFLER of Vern Nelson’s Orchids

To the uninitiated, orchids have a reputation as the finicky, fragile prima donnas of the plant world.
But those who take the time to get to know these showy beauties say the reputation is undeserved.
Even beginners can grow a few orchid varieties by following some basic guidelines, they say.

Just two years ago, Vern Nelson of Lakebay was a beginner who attended an orchid show put on by the Tacoma Orchid Society. Smitten by the orchid bug, he joined the society and started learning.
Today, he has a greenhouse full of more than 20 species of orchids.
“I don’t really understand the lingo yet, but I’m learning,” Nelson says. “A lot of (society) members can look at a plant and tell you if it’s a cross between this plant and that plant. It can get pretty in-depth.”
But Nelson and others say that it doesn’t have to be difficult.
“With a little bit of experience and investigation,” he says, “you can grow orchids on your windowsill.”

About 20 percent of wild orchids are termed terrestrial – they grow on the forest floor. The rest are referred to as epiphytes. These plants grow in the branches of a tree. But unlike a parasite, the epiphyte orchid derives no nutrition from the host plant.
Instead, these plants get their food and water from rainfall, from the air and from decomposing plant material.
That’s why many orchids grow best in bark, sphagnum moss or a mixture or moss and Pearlite, instead of potting soil. You may not have thought about this possibility, says Jim Lailey, owner of Plantsmart, a Redmond plant supplier, and a veteran orchid grower. But orchids grow well in the bathroom.
“There’s perfect humidity from the shower, and it’s not typically the hottest room in the house,” he says. Just make sure your bathroom orchid has adequate light.
Elsewhere in the house, you might need to spritz your orchid with a spray of water to keep it happy.
Air movement is also critical, says Lailey.
“You don’t want a Boeing wind tunnel,” he says. But try a small fan, running on slow speed. Or, deflect the air off a nearby wall.
It’s important to know the kind of microclimate your orchid needs. Some grow in bogs, others in the mountains. Some simply won’t grow outside of their natural habitat.
“You need to read up on the kind of orchid you have,” says Tina Taylor of Belfair, a member of both the Tacoma Orchid Society and co-founder of the Washington Native Orchid Society.
Hobbyists sometimes like to concentrate on a few varieties of orchids and focus on quality, rather than quantity. For others, the challenge of growing new and different varieties is satisfying.

In years past, orchids were considered expensive playthings of people who could afford them. Orchids were in vogue among the rich during the 19th century, when wealthy people traveled to exotic locales in pursuit of new orchid varieties.
Nurturing an orchid from seed to fragrant maturity can take years, and for a long time, only those with deep pockets could afford the care needed.
“Then they discovered something called tissue culture,” Lailey says.
The technique, which he likens to cloning, involves isolating certain plant cells and sprouting them in a growth medium. The result: Growers are able to produce many more plants in a shorter time, and the stepped-up production lowers the price.
A lot of serious orchid growers purchase their plants online, either from nurseries or individual sellers. You can even bid on orchids on eBay.
Although you can buy orchids almost anywhere, serious hobbyists recommend that you purchase from a reputable store or online supplier that sells plants which are clearly identified.
Because there are tens of thousands of orchid varieties, each with its own peculiar needs, it’s important to know what you’ve got in order to create an environment that will help your plant thrive.
Once you know what type of orchid you’ve purchased, it’s time to start reading about it and networking with other orchid enthusiasts. Soak up all the advice you can find.
“Once you’re lucky enough to re-bloom one on your own,” says Lailey, “it’s addictive.”

Hands down, the winner of the easiest-to-grow orchid contest is the phalaenopsis (pronounced fal-en-OP-sis), or moth orchid. This ubiquitous orchid is found in discount and home improvement stores as well as at nurseries.
Warm days, cool nights: The moth orchid thrives in temperatures that people might also find comfortable: 75 to 85 degrees during the day, 60 to 65 degrees at night, according to the American Orchid Society. That makes it an ideal house plant.
Light touch: The tropical moth orchid needs bright light, but not direct sun.
During our Northwest winter, the moth orchid needs all the light it can get, says Jim Lailey, owner of Plantsmart, a Redmond plant supplier, and a veteran orchid grower.
“But between March 15 and September 15, keep it out of direct sun,” he advises. “It will burn the leaves.”
Grower Vern Nelson suggests using a sheer window curtain to shield the orchid from direct sun during warmer months.
An east, west or shaded south window works indoors. Watch out for dark green, wilting leaves; they mean the plant is receiving too little light.
You can use artificial lights if you lack adequate window light.
Find specially made grow-lights at plant supply stores.
Humidity lovers: Be sure to place your indoor orchid on a tray of moistened pea gravel. The humidity orchids crave will rise from the moistened pebbles. Some growers like to set the pots on plastic webbing (available at home supply stores) that can cover a tray of water placed beneath the plant, yet keep the plant up out of the water.
Fertilize with care: You can buy a special fertilizer for orchids – Miracle-Gro is one brand – or use ordinary houseplant fertilizer at one-quarter strength.
Soil is out: Most orchids, including the moth orchid, are best grown in something besides ordinary potting soil, Nelson says.
He uses fir bark, available at nursery supply stores, or clay pellets made for hydroponic growing. Some manufacturers market bark mixtures specifically designed for orchids.
“You’re trying to make them think they’re in their own environment,” he says.
Watering: Nelson collects rainwater to use in his greenhouse, but he says that is not absolutely necessary for indoor orchids. The American Orchid Society recommends enough water to keep mature plants from drying out between waterings. But don’t overdo it, and make sure your orchid’s roots are well-drained.
New home: Orchids like to be re-potted every year or two, before the growing medium breaks down too far. Slack off on this, and root rot will set in.

To Learn More:
The Tacoma Orchid Society
meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month at
6:30 p.m. at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 101 E. 38th St., Tacoma.
The Web site contains a list of Northwest orchid suppliers.

American Orchid Society

Northwest Orchid Society

Suggested reading
“Ortho’s All About Orchids”

Seek and you’ll find native orchids in Washington

Tacoma News Tribune
February 9th, 2008

Photos by Melissa Rathbun of Cypripedium parviflorum var maskins

Orchids flourish in the tropics, but they also call the Evergreen State home.

The founders of the Washington Native Orchid Society count 41 types of orchids that grow both east and west of the Cascade Mountains.

“I was surprised to find out we had native orchids,” says Tina Taylor of Belfair. With her daughter, Melissa Rathbun of Gig Harbor, she helped found the Washington Native Orchid Society.

“Even people who are interested in native plants don’t always realize we have native orchids,” Taylor says. “They’re not all that easy to find. It takes a little investigating.”

Taylor, Rathbun and other members of the society have helped catalog many of our state’s native orchids on the group’s Web site.

The group emphasizes conservation and caution around these flowers, many of which are in danger of extinction, due to either over-harvesting or loss of habitat. Picking the flowers, digging them up or trampling the plants’ delicate roots can kill them.

“The calypso orchid, or fairy slipper, looks so out of place when you see it in the forest,” Taylor says. “Most people fall in love with it.”

But if you dig this plant up and move it to your backyard, she warns, it will probably die. That’s because it is nearly impossible to duplicate the special shade, water and soil conditions it craves. Likewise, picking a wild orchid deprives the plant of a chance to produce seeds and reproduce.

Taylor urges anyone who finds a native orchid to “leave it alone.”

“Take a picture, and try not to walk too close,” she adds.

The large yellow lady slipper, on the other hand, is a native Washington orchid that is cultivated commercially and is a good choice for gardeners who want to try growing native orchids outdoors, says Taylor.

If you find the orchid growing wild, it would probably be at the edge of a woodland, perhaps in a marshy area or streamside.

“If you have a woodland garden, and you can grow trillium, ferns and Solomon seal, that would be a good place to try orchids,” says Taylor.

Don’t try it in bright sunlight or a rock garden; those environments are much too hot.

“You need to buy it from someone reputable,” she adds. “Don’t dig it out of the wild. There are not enough left.”