A properly nurtured orchid can be one of the most stunning houseplants. These lush tropical flowers are one of the most prized and diverse human cultivars. A 2016 scientific census article of worldwide plant diversity written by Maarten Christenhusz and other contributors in the journal Phytotaxa states that there are more than 28,000 accepted species in the orchid family and nearly 100,000 hybrids, which almost all have bright, fragrant flowers. It's these beautiful adornments that draw indoor gardeners to the healthy orchids on display in plant shops and groceries, but somehow, these finicky plants always seem to spiral out of control the second they are brought home. Amateurs and green thumbs alike have trouble keeping orchids alive, but with a little scientific background and some key advice from orchid experts, there is hope for your wilting home-garden trouble child.
It is important to know why orchids require such special care and how they are different from your other houseplants. Most orchids that you can buy are perennial epiphytes -- meaning that they bloom seasonally without dying (as opposed to having one blooming period) and grow in nature by anchoring themselves to sturdy plants, according to The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, published in 2001. This means that they lack their own woody structure and cling to tall plants in the tropics to achieve stability and access to light from the canopy. This also means that they require much different growing conditions than standard potted plants.
Although most orchids for sale are potted, they have splints in place to support the heavy flowers and need to be treated as if they are still epiphytes. This requires proper manipulation of water, air, light and fertilizer. Eric Liskey, a contributor for Better Homes and Gardens, says overwatering is the No. 1 cause of orchid death. Normally suspended aboveground, orchids are not adapted for prolonged water exposure, as most rain drips through the root system and then keeps trickling down the tree. Liskey recommends watering your orchids just before they get dry. You can gauge this by dipping your fingers into the potting medium. Additionally, contributors from Just Add Ice aptly recommend adding one to three ice cubes to orchid pots to simulate drip-watering and also trigger re-blooming.
Because orchids do not naturally grow in soil, the entire plant will die if it does not get ample aeration, according to an article titled "Orchids 101" on the American Orchid Society's online database. To achieve ideal conditions, Liskey recommends repotting your store-bought orchid in a combination of moss and bark. These porous media allow airflow but will decompose over time, necessitating repotting. In addition to providing the proper conditions for an orchid to get sufficient water and air, you must ensure that the orchid has the proper light exposure for it to fully thrive. Although many amateur orchid gardeners assume that orchids don't need much light -- seeing as the flowers flourish in the dark jungle understory -- orchids developed as epiphytes so that they could grow higher in the canopy to gain better light exposure. If an orchid doesn't receive enough light, it will produce lush dark green leaves but no flowers. The American Orchid Society recommends placing orchids near bright windows with plenty of sunlight throughout the day.
The final facet in getting successful year-round orchid blooms is proper fertilization. In most soil plants, nutrients are processed and made bio-available by microorganisms in the soil. However, because orchids never cohabit with these nutrient-cycling fauna, adjustments should be made to fertilizer for orchid cultivation. The nutrient profiles must be different. It is for this reason that the AOS discourages the use of fertilizers containing urea (an animal byproduct) and recommends using half of the label-recommended dosage. Fertilize your orchids once a week during the summer and every two weeks in the fall and winter, and adjust concentrations and volumes based on observation.
Although orchids can make many indoor gardeners nervous, with the proper understanding of their natural environment and ecology, the proper adjustments to their care can make more sense. No, orchid care will never be as easy as maintaining that ficus you just plopped in the corner by the window, but with ample attention, orchids can make a beautiful addition to any home garden.