Orchids Made Easy
Tacoma News Tribune
October 29th, 2005
|Melissa Rathbun-Holstein grows about 150 orchids in a solarium attached to her Gig Harbor home. She's eyeing a hybrid of the phalaenopsis, a type of orchid she recommends beginning growers try.|
When a glance out the window reveals gray skies, Melissa Rathbun-Holstein can be transported to a warmer clime by wandering over to her home solarium, where some 150 orchids hold court under special lights.
“It’s like a tropical paradise in my solarium because of the lights, and some of (the orchids) smell nice,” explained the Gig Harbor resident, who is one of about 100 members of the 51-year-old Tacoma Orchid Society.
Orchids continue growing in popularity across the U.S., with more than 17 million potted orchids sold in this country by U.S. growers last year. That’s nearly double the number sold in 1996, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began including orchids in its annual survey of the ornamental plant industry.
Gorgeous colors, plants that are native to far-flung countries and the challenge of coaxing an orchid into bloom are some of what makes the flowers so alluring. Often it only takes one plant for the orchid obsession to strike.
“I grew cactus and succulents for a lot of years, and then my husband bought me an orchid, and it’s been all downhill from there,” Tacoma Orchid Society member Barbara Inman recalled with a chuckle. Nearly 30 years after that orchid came into her life, Inman estimates “probably a couple thousand” of its relatives thrive in the greenhouse at her Puyallup home.
That’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to orchids. The orchid family is the largest group of flowering plants in nature, boasting more than 25,000 species and 120,000 registered hybrids, according to Dr. Rob Griesbach of the U.S. National Arboretum, a past president of the American Orchid Society.
Orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica, Rathbun-Holstein said. Plants can be miniature or grow up to 20 feet tall; blossom sizes range from minuscule to as large as a dinner plate. Some orchids bloom once a year, while others might bloom several times a year or almost continuously; some produce blooms that last for months.
Orchids might be pleasingly fragrant – with scents similar to citrus, vanilla or lilac – or emit an unpleasant odor to attract insects for pollination. For instance, the bulbophyllum echinolabium’s pinkish bloom shaped like a spidery star is “a cool-looking flower, but it really smells like dirty socks,” said Darlene Cupp, secretary of the Tacoma Orchid Society.
With a galaxy of orchids out there, an aficionado is always looking for the next star in her collection.
Orchids can be fairly easy to grow or fairly finicky, depending on the variety. Beginners, Inman said, “should try to stick with things that are easy to grow, especially in the house. A lot of times, people get bitten by the bug, and they want everything out there.”
“Some (orchids) are very difficult to grow and hard to re-flower,” she noted. Inman knows this from experience: An orchid she purchased in a group of plants from Thailand about 25 years ago arrived with a withering bloom; it didn’t rebloom until this year.
“The object when you grow something is to get it to bloom,” she said.
Although orchids can be grown from seed by those with enough expertise, expect a long wait: On average, it can take seven to 10 years for an orchid to go from seed to a flowering plant, Rathbun-Holstein said. Beginners should purchase an orchid in bloom so it can be enjoyed now, and then work to get it to rebloom.
“If they can keep an African violet alive and have it bloom, then they can try a lady-slipper or phalaenopsis,” she suggested.
In fact, those are the two types of orchids that experts say are the easiest to grow in a typical home environment.
Phalaenopsis is commonly known as the moth orchid because its flowers look somewhat like moths; lady-slipper (paphiopedilum) is so-called because its blooms look like slippers.
Both types prefer lower light and have a good chance of reblooming without the use of special lights, extra warmth or the controlled environment of a greenhouse. And they have less chance of being drowned by well-meaning plant parents.
Like any plant, orchids need water, fertilizer, light and air – but most orchids don’t need dirt. In nature, many orchids grow attached to trees or rocks, with their roots exposed, although they aren’t parasitic. “We only grow them in containers as a means to display them,” Inman said. In the Northwest, she noted, fir bark mixed with charcoal and perlite is probably the most commonly used basis for a growing medium.
“You can plant an orchid in just about anything, but you have to know the (cultural) requirements of the plant to keep it doing well,” said Cupp, who grows about 100 orchids in the greenhouse at her Edgewood home.
One of the biggest misconceptions about orchids, she said, is that they need lots of water. Actually, orchid roots like water to some degree, “but they don’t like to be wet,” Cupp explained.
The moth orchid or lady-slipper can be grown in indirect light or placed in an east- or west-facing window, or a shaded window with southern exposure. Inman said orchids grown in a windowsill should be misted daily before noon, so the plant will dry out before evening, when the air is cooler. “You never put your babies to bed wet,” she explained.
During hot summer days, place a sheer curtain between the window and the orchids, or move the plants back from the window.
“They can get sunburned,” Inman noted. And mist them twice daily, maybe once early in the morning and again around noon or 1 p.m., so they will dry out before evening. (For an abundance of information about growing orchids, visit the Web sites listed in the accompanying box.)
After being successful with beginner orchids, most people will want to try their hand at different varieties of orchids. Some of the hybrids that are easier to grow can be found these days at stores such as Home Depot and Costco, Cupp said.
“I prefer species,” she noted. “I find there’s something just so unique about them, because it’s kind of in a pure form. This is what you could find in nature if you were going to go to Colombia or Thailand.”
Inman is partial to jewel orchids, such as Ludisia discolor, which she said are grown more for the colorful foliage than the flowers.
Whichever orchid attracts a person’s fancy, Rathbun-Holstein strongly recommends doing some research before buying it. “Every orchid has their own fertilizer (needs) and their own light (needs) and their own watering schedule,” she said. “I would read up before you expand to the next one. It gets overwhelming when you start to study up on what you’ve bought.”
Her own latest expansion is growing native orchids (available from nurseries that have propagated natives) in her outdoor garden and starting Native Orchids of Washington.
The organization’s goals are educating the public about the 40 types of orchids that are native to the state, and promoting preservation of the orchids and their habit.
Joining the local orchid society is a good place to start or continue learning about orchids. At the Tacoma group’s meetings, members bring plants for display and sale.
Orchid shows are also a good place to see some of the amazing variety of orchids available, talk to growers about their plants and purchase the next star for that growing collection.
Grow your own tropical paradise with these popular orchids
Orchids grown by Melissa Rathbun-Holstein
Paphiopedilum: Lady-slipper (paphiopedilum) is one of the easiest orchids for beginners to grow. The plant’s name comes from the slipper shape of its blooms. This orchid can be grown in indirect light or placed in an east- or west-facing window.
Phragmipedium Wossen: The white to pink flower of this orchid is thinner than a normal phragmipedium. Its leaves can reach up to 10 inches in length.
Odontoglossum: The long, slender stem of the odontoglosum is peppered with distinct, intricately patterned flowers. It also has a pleasant fragrance.
Cymbidium: These orchids are probably the most widely grown by orchid collectors because they are so easy to cultivate and the flowers last longer than many others. Flower colors range from white, yellow and orange to pink, red, brown and green.
Phalaenopsis: Phalaenopsis, commonly known as the moth orchid because its flowers look like moths, is an easy orchid for beginners to grow. This orchid prefers low lighting levels.
- Oregon show: The Oregon Orchid Society’s fall show, among the largest in the Northwest, is today and Sunday at the Washington County Fair Complex in Hillsboro, Ore. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Web site: www.oregonorchidsociety.org.
- Seattle show: The Northwest Orchid Society’s Fall Show and Sale is scheduled Nov. 12-13 in the Rainier Room at the Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Suggested donation is $3. Web site: www.nwos.org.
- Tacoma show: The Tacoma Orchid Society’s 2006 Orchid Show & Plant Sale is slated for Jan. 21-22 at Windmill Gardens, 5823 160th Ave. E., Sumner. Event hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Web site: www.tacomaorchidsociety.com.
- Tacoma Orchid Society: Meets 6:30-9 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of the month (except July and December) at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 101 E. 38th St., Tacoma. Meetings include a program, a sale table and a “show-and-tell” table. Web site: www.tacomaorchidsociety.com.
- Puget Sound Orchid Study Club: Focuses on species orchids; meetings are the second Tuesday of the month (except July) at members’ homes. Contact Darlene Cupp at 253-891-7164 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Washington Native Orchids: A new group that promotes education about and conservation of the 40 native orchids found in Washington state. Web site: wanativeorchids.com.
- Olympia Orchid Society: Meets at 7:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month (except July, August and December) at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. N.W., Olympia. Contact Nona Selover at 360-456-6042 or Anita Ellison at 360-491-5963.
- Monthly judging: Every month, regional judges of the American Orchid Society meet in Tacoma to scrutinize orchids grown by hobbyists and professionals, deeming some of the subject plants worthy of AOS awards or certificates of merit.
Open to the public: The judging sessions are open to those who want to bring in their orchids for evaluation, or anyone who wants to observe the judging process.
Next session: Begins at 1 p.m. Nov. 19 at the King Oscar Convention Center, 8820 S. Hosmer St., Tacoma.
More information: Visit www.orchidweb.org, and click on “judging.”
Orchids on the Web
- American Orchid Society: www.orchidweb.org
- The Orchid Mall: A comprehensive listing of links to various informational and commercial sources about orchids, www.orchidmall.com
- The Orchid Lady: A site full of information on the history, classification, culture and care of orchids, www.orchidlady.com
- Orchid Photo Encyclopedia: Reference source containing nearly 4,300 species, many with photos, www.orchidspecies.com
- Venamy Orchids: Includes a comprehensive guide to growing orchids, www.orchidsusa.com