My grandmother tended a Boston fern, my mother a philodendron that she called "parlor ivy." Both house plants were labeled "easy care," with forgiving ways as to their watering, feeding and light requirements.
The houseplants of yesterday are still to be found but not always in the house. Boston ferns in the Lowcountry might be seen carpeting our shady gardens or hanging in baskets outdoors. Philodendron will survive mild winters if grown outdoors in a protected space.
And in the house? Growing in the proper light in a room with humidity levels between 40 and 60 percent, a drop in night temperature of at least 10 degrees and with good air circulation, plus a person to water and mist regularly -- unless it is of the variety that prefers a little drying out between waterings -- you will find today's most popular houseplant: drum roll, please ... the Phalaenopsis orchid.
Orchid growers tell us that growing orchids is not difficult; it is simply understanding their native environment. I am not taken in.
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Many times I've visited local orchid growers, John Summerall in Okatie and Stiles Harper and Madeline Nelson of May River Orchids in Bluffton. What I see in their greenhouses is awesome and incomprehensible. The magnificent gardens of Harper and Summerall serve as a tip-off: The orchids clearly benefit from their green thumbs.
Listen and learn, I told myself as I went to Jean Caplan's home on Hilton Head Island, where I spent two hours taking notes on the care and feeding of her 200 orchid plants. Caplan grows in a large window that receives a half day of sun. She uses a hose to water once a week. The roots must not get mushy from overwatering. Regular weekly feeding is suspended while the orchid is flowering.
"Orchids do get some bad things like mealy bug and scale. I zap them with an insecticidal spray. When I buy an orchid and bring it home, I isolate it for a few days and spray before placing it with the others. You do have to have patience to grow orchids."
I met Caplan this past week at The Crazy Crab, where the monthly meeting of the newly formed Hilton Head Island Regional Orchid Society meets the second Tuesday of each month. There are presently 80 members, many grow orchids, some do not. Past president of the Deep South Orchid Society, Lee Bredeson, of "Orchids-R-Easy," introduced Caplan, who led the meeting. Both took questions from the members present.
Question. How do you determine when your orchid plant is dry and needs water? -- Lainey Moore
Bredeson: The single most important secret I call The Water-O-Meter. This is simply a wooden BBQ skewer. It never fails. Push it down in the potting material to the bottom of the pot. Leave it there. When you consider watering, pull the skewer out and feel the bottom of it. Cool and wet? Don't water yet. If you learn nothing else today, learn this. Growing in air-conditioned houses, orchids should be dry in 10 days.
Q. I'm a great gardener but nervous right now looking after a neighbor's orchids. I used ice cubes when she left, and the orchids were blooming when she came back. Could we use ice cubes every day? -- Maureen Wilson
Bredeson: You can trick an orchid into flowering using ice cubes, or place it in a dark closet every day.
Q. What about light? How much sun can an orchid take? -- Ruth Halprin
Bredeson: Your hand is your light meter. If you see a shadow, that's too much light.
Q. When I visited at your house, I recognized Cattleya, Phalaenopsis and Vanda orchids. What other varieties do you grow? -- Betsy Jukofsky
Caplan: There are dendrobium, paphiopedilum, miltonia, oncidium also. They all have somewhat different requirements. For instance, Lady Slippers (paphiopedilum) do well with much the same light and watering requirements as phals. The difference is in the temperature requirements. Paps prefer day temps between 75 and 85 degrees. Phals like it 70 to 95 degrees. Right now I've an epiphyte, variety stanhopea, blooming with seven clusters that open up five flowers at a time. It has unusual requirements, moderate shade and copious water are a must.