Orchids classy, tropical and no longer all that expensive

bajslj@aol.comMarch 1, 2014 

An orchid grows on a tree in Jupiter, Fla., on Valentine's Day.


It ain't what it use to be. Yesterday's snake plants and parlor palms have given way to the exotic, the expensive, the classy tropical orchid. Only they're not expensive anymore. The breeders, the growers, the orchid nurseries and the florists have made it possible to have an orchid in the living room, and another in the bathroom, where they should thrive in the humidity.

There are so many varieties to choose from. I've read that there are 20,000 orchid species with names like Cycnoches and Cirrhopetalum; a far cry from my first orchid gift, a Cattleya, worn on the wrist to a school dance.

Today we recognize the names of many of the orchid species that are available for purchase: the Cattleyas, Cymbidiums, Dendrobiums, Oncidiums, Paphiopedilums, Phalaenopsis and Vandas. One variety, the Phalaenopsis, is so popular it has acquired a nickname: Phal.

Phals, or moth orchids, are being called America's favorite houseplant. I set out last week to find out why with a visit to May River Orchids in Bluffton. Madeline and Dan Nelson have been growing orchids in a large greenhouse there for 28 years. Madeline has received awards from the American Orchid Society and the Deep South Orchid Society in Savannah, and has had an orchid species named for her, the "Madeline Nelson," a primary hybrid with a star-shaped flower and a nice fragrance.

When you enter the greenhouse, you see a sea of color. Row after row of Phals -- who knew there was so much variety? As to their popularity, the Phals answer with their lavish sprays of pink, white, yellow, red, spotted and striped flowers. That and word's gotten around that Phals are the ideal beginner's orchid because of its ease of culture. Madeline waters and feeds the Phals once a week. If I sometimes forget, they forgive.

Once you get yourself away from the Phals, you begin to notice the Brassolaeliocattleya, often called the classic orchid. Cattleyas, for short, typically bloom in spring or autumn and prefer 70 to 80 degrees during the day, 60 to 65 at night. Keeping company with the Cattleyas are Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum and Vanda species orchids. Dendrobiums are sometimes called Old World orchids. Today, there are more than 1,000 species of various colors, shapes and sizes. Paphiopedilums, or Lady's Slipper orchids, have bizarre flowers on top of compact plants. They thrive under lights on an east-facing windowsill.

The general public seems to have the idea that the care of orchids is time-consuming and unrelenting. In other words, don't grow orchids and take an around-the-world trip. However, orchids just love our spring, summer and early fall climate. They would love to be outside in the shade with an automatic water system from April to November. Most of mine flower then -- without me. Plus, local animals ignore them. They're in good shape when they go outside. I've followed Madeline's greenhouse/indoor regime.

  • Food: Orchid fertilizer; one-fourth teaspoon each time you water. Back off from feeding Dendrobiums in winter.

  • Repotting mix: Sequoia bark from California, plus Sphagnum moss from Chile. I don't have either. I use the bark chips that I buy at a big store.

  • Care: All orchids prefer filtered sun; no direct sunlight.

  • Most important: Air must get to roots; make sure there are holes in the bottom of the pot to allow water to get through.

  • From me and my orchids: Thank you, Madeline Nelson.

    Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.

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