America's most popular houseplant
is easy to grow and flower with the proper care
by Ned Nash/Photographs by Charles Marden Fitch

Reprinted from the October 1997 issue of Orchids -- The magazine of the American Orchid Society


PHALAENOPSIS HAVE SHOWN phenomenal growth in popularity, availability and cultural techniques in the past few years. These three factors have gene hand-in-hand in a synergistic manner. fueling a wave of plants and new growers unprecedented in the hobby of orchid growing.

The economic and social reasons behind this occurrence could be the subject of a lengthy essay. It is sufficient here. however, to note that there have been great changes to who is growing phalaenopsis and how they are doing it.

Growers of some years' experience, often with a long history of success with traditional cultural practices, are finding profound lessons to be learned in some of the breakthroughs being pioneered today, often by those less hindered by concepts of "how it has always been done." Newer growers, of which there are many, are finding a welter of often contradictory care information from which to select their preferred cultural methods. More experienced growers have the advantage of knowing the basic needs of their plants, and will usually be able to adapt to new or different techniques with a minimum of trauma to themselves or to their plants. Newer growers lack the confidence that crones with the experience of growing a variety of plants under a variety of conditions over a period of time.

First Steps

Growing phalaenopsis is remarkably straightforward and like the cultural needs for growing any group of orchids it can be broken into key components: watering, fertilizing, temperature, repotting and more. Knowing when to cut off the flower spike, understanding why the lower leaves fall off and choosing potting materials come with experience. Whether you grow phalaenopsis in a greenhouse, the home or even outdoors (in frost free areas), you will soon learn that experience teaches the value of going from the general to the specific, rather than the reverse.

A good basic grounding in the plants and their needs will go a long way toward the understanding of some of the more specific needs and situations. Too, so many of the little things that happen to plants under cultivation are isolated instances, or prove to be part of a larger picture that is only discernible over a period of months or years. An advantage to phalaenopsis, one capitalized on by the emerging pot plant market, is their relative speed of growth when compared to other orchids. This rapidity enables observant growers to compress a significant amount of experience into a much shorter time than is needed by most other types of orchids. The fast growth rate of phalaenopsis indicates their cultural needs and helps to explain their overall appeal.

First, phalaenopsis are tropical plants. They, or their species forebears, come from areas where high rainfall, high humidity and high temperatures combine with strong light softened by an upper tier of forest canopy to make for -- especially in the case of orchids rapid growth.

It is not uncommon for plants to flower, under good conditions, in two or three years from seed. Full maturity can be reached in as little as five or six years. This, compared to a cattleya's four or five years to flower and seven or eight to maturity. There are drawbacks to this rapidity of growth, most importantly an increased susceptibility to both sucking pests and to fungal infections fostered by the warm, moist conditions.

When planning a cultural regimen. remember the best performing plants will be grown in the greenhouse, with 65 to 68 F nights, and 80 to 85 F days. They will be kept evenly moist, be given applications of fertilizer regularly and receive approximately 1,200 foot-candles of light.

In the home, they can be grown adequately well with conditions under which African violets thrive. This is the better news for the novice growers. The plant they purchased in bloom will grow and flower over a period of many years, if kept in a bright window, watered regularly and potted every one or two years (depending on choice of mix). if a sufficiently bright window (east, west or lightly shaded south) is not easily available, supplementary artificial lighting may be provided with the simplest of fluorescent light fixtures. Phalaenopsis are not tough plants to grow -- they grow fast and they flower easily. If they did not, they would nut be so widely available, and so popular.

The new grower can fine-tune his or her culture to help the plants do as well as conditions allow. Watering is undoubtedly the first controllable variable that can be addressed. "Evenly moist," while the most commonly given advice on watering, is the least easily explained. Because most plants are grown in plastic containers a good diagnosis is the weight of the plant: heavy - does not need watering; light - does require water.

With a little practice, one can easily tell the amount of moisture remaining in the container, The classic advice is to water the day before it dries out. If you have to let the plant go dry to discover this weight point, it will not kill the plant and will make you a better grower. Always water copiously, until water drains through the drainage holes of the container.

Fertilizing, providing the plant the nutrients it needs for best growth, is obviously critical. The recommendation here is to feed "weakly, weekly" with a fertilizer appropriate to the mix in which the plant is grown. In most cases, this will be a balanced fertilizer with a formula ratio like 1-1-1; while if the plants are grown in a bark-based media, the higher nitrogen needs will require a formula similar to 3-1-1. If you fertilize every week at one-half to one quarter strength, you will be able to remember easily: while if you intend to feed only every other week, you may forget whether or not you fed last week.

Potting Phalaenopsis

Potting is another misunderstood aspect of successful phalaenopsis culture. A fresh, fast-draining, though water-retentive medium, is essential to the healthy root system necessary for good growth. Whether a bark-based mix (which drains well, is forgiving of watering errors but breaks down rather quickly), a peat-based mix (which retains moisture well but requires more careful watering and frequent potting) or some inorganic, basically hydroponic method, phalaenopsis have been grown successfully in a variety of media.

Most important is to pot when roots are actively growing, evidenced by fresh green root tips, ideally when new root tips are emerging from the base of the plant. This usually happens in the spring. Because phalaenopsis will usually need to be potted every year or two, they do not need to be over-potted. That is, it is more important to size the container for the size of the root mass rather than for the foliage size.

Pot firmly, but without pounding in hard, with the base of the plant at the level of the mix in the pot. Often, tapping the container firmly on the potting surface will settle thc mix firmly. More often than not, plants readily available as flowering potted plants today will have been recently repotted in fresh mix, so will not need repotting for some months. This disruption while in flower, coupled with the stress to the plants resulting from their removal from ideal greenhouse conditions to your home, may lead to the loss of one to several of the lower leaves. This is not normally a cause for alarm as long as the whole plant does not collapse at once. Increased humidity and careful watering are the best ways to avoid this problem. as is careful selection when purchasing of the plants that are showing the fastest reestablishing and best new root production.

Selecting Flowering Plants

Plants chosen in flower will have the freshest blooms and the longest floral life if picked with one or more buds left to open at the tip of the spike. If the spike is open to the tip, there is simply no way of knowing how long the plant has been on the vendors shelf.

Flower life will be prolonged if kept away from hot, cold and dry drafts. When the last flower fades, the spike may be cut below the scar from the first flower, and above the top node on the stem. in many cases, a branch or branches will develop to flower in nine to 12 weeks. If the plant is weak. or young, however, this may not be recommended. You might rather cut the spike off at the base and allow the plant to grow strongly during the growing season to flower better the coming flowering season.

Initiation of new spikes usually occurs as days shorten and nights become cooler. In the western states, this can be as early as July. though more often not until October or November. In the southeastern states, with their hot summer nights, spike initiation may not be seen until November or December. Spikes usually take 12 to 14 weeks to develop to first flower.

The main flowering season is winter. Careful staking and consistent orientation of the plant toward the light source will result in the best displayed spike and flowers. The plant should not be turned once in spike, or the spike will follow the light, resulting in a crooked, unattractive presentation. Be on the lookout, too, for sucking pests as the spikes develop, as they love to hide in the bracts and flower axils. Once the buds form, it is difficult to treat without damaging the blooms.

By working with your fellow members at Affiliated Society meetings, and vendors at orchid sales and nurseries, you can choose rewarding phalaenopsis that will bloom year after year. []

Above Among the new compact hybrids for under-lights and windowsill growers is Phalaenopsis Fairy Charm (Plum Parfait x equestrls).

Problem A caterpillar eats the leaves of a phalaenopsis.

Solution This leaf is permanently damaged and will not grow back. To prevent damage in the futurer inspect plants regularry, both when you water and occasionally take the time to check plants individually. Maintain a clean growing environment. If insects or disease appear, take a sample (in a plastic bag) to show members at an Affiliated Society meeting or to a nursery. Your county cooperative extension service may also be able to diagnose ailments.

Problem Slugs (and snails) eat the foliage and flowers of phalaenopsis.

Solution Damp conditions are inviting to these pests that do their damage at night. Eliminate moist, dark places where they can hide during the day. Inspect plants regularly; lift a container and check the bottom of the vessel to see if any of these culprits are lurking there or in a drainage hole. Apply a control (such as Slugit) or experiment with an organic remedy, such as spreading a bit of diatomaceous earth on the surface ot the potting mix (it scarifies the slug or snail, causing death). However, the diatomaceous earth needs to be dry to be most effective. Remember that chemical controls can be poisonous to pets and people; store in a dry area out of reach.

Problem When watering, the water can accumulate in the center of the plant (called a "crown"). Standing water can induce rot, which threatens the health of the plant.

Solution Direct the water onto the potting minx and not the leaves. If water collects in the crown, dab it away with a paper towel (shown). An alternative is to attach a metal pot clip to the container and then hang the vessel in the greenhouse or growing area at a slight angle so water drains from the crown naturally.

Problem A plantlet (called a keiki) grows on a flower spike (called an "inflorescence"). Initially small, it will grow several leaves and then roots, at which time it can be severed to propagate a new specimen.

Solution Once the roots grow several inches long (as shown here), gently remove the plantlet with a sterile knife and pot in a container to which you add a label with the plant's name. Orchids, like animals, are susceptible to viruses, so whenever cutting an orchid plant always use a sterile tool to prevent the spread of virus. With proper care, a keiki the size of the one shown here may flower in one year. Smaller keikis could take two or three years to reach flowering size.

Ned Nash is the American Orchid Society's director of education & conservation. 6000 South Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach, Florida 33405.

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