Grown as popular houseplant, orchids (Orchidaceae) are easy to grow and care for once you understand the plant's ideal conditions and maintenance requirements. While there are hundreds of orchid species to choose from, the most commonly sold orchids are Phalaenopis, Cattleya, Denrobium, and Cymbidium. They all have similar physical characteristics with tall, gently curving stems (flower spikes); large, waxy leaves to prevent water loss; and colorful, unusual blooms.
|Common Name||Orchid, cane orchid, moth orchid|
|Plant Type||Perennial, herbaceous|
|Mature Size||1–3 ft. tall, 6–12 in. wide|
|Flower Color||Pink, purple, white, red, yellow, orange, green,|
|Hardiness Zones||5–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America, South America, Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Caribbean|
|Toxicity||Non-toxic to dogs and cats|
The golden rule for orchid care indoors is to duplicate the plant's natural conditions of exposed roots clinging to rough bark as closely as possible. When you first obtain your orchid, it will likely be healthy and in bloom. However, many store-bought orchids are not potted correctly for long-term growth and in a medium that can cause root rot. However, never repot an orchid while it's in bloom, just reduce the amount of water it receives until the blooms fade.
- Offer plenty of bright, indirect light.
- Allow the growing medium to dry out between waterings.
- Feed with an orchid-specific fertilizer or what is a balanced formula such as 20-20-20 at half strength the concentration recommended. Administer when the plant is actively growing.
Orchid Care After Flowering
When the blooms drop, shift your care to long-term maintenance. Most growers snip off the old flower spike near the base. Also after the orchid blooms fall off, you can repot your plant into a more suitable container with a light, porous growing medium and a pot that allows for good airflow, such as unglazed clay or a specialty orchid pot.
Orchids need bright light to produce blooms. However, direct sun can burn them. Opt for bright, indirect light from a south- or east-facing window.
Orchids will not thrive in regular potting soil or potting mix. Instead, you can purchase or make a DIY orchid-growing medium, which should be lightweight and fast-draining. Common mixes include bark, sphagnum moss, perlite, and peat. A slightly acidic pH is ideal.
Orchids need to dry out between waterings to prevent rot. One way to tell whether it’s time to water is if the growing medium feels dry to the touch and the pot feels light. Or, look at the roots themselves: if they’re plump and white or green, that means they’re well-watered. If they’re shriveled and gray, they need water. If they’re shriveled but spongey and black or brown, they may be rotting.
Orchids typically need water twice a week in the warmer months when the plant is actively growing and only once a week in the colder months. Use room-temperature water, and water slowly until it flows out of the pot's drainage openings.
Temperature and Humidity
Depending on how they're classified, orchids do best in ranges between 50 degrees and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer humidity levels from around 40% to 70%.
You can keep an orchid blooming longer if you provide a warm and somewhat humid environment. Don't place your orchid where it will experience cold drafts, exposure to direct sunlight, or dry air from heating vents.
During the growing season, use an orchid-specific fertilizer, following label instructions. Don't fertilize in the winter.
Types of Orchids
About 30,000 species of orchids live in the wild, along with more than 100,000 registered hybrids. Knowing the orchid variety you have is essential for its care. The majority of commonly available orchids for purchase are one of two varieties:
- Phalaenopsis (moth orchids): These orchids have round flowers with a pronounced lip that grow on a single tall stalk arising from a whorl of fleshy, oval leaves. Flowers are usually white, purple, pink, or a combination.
- Dendrobium (cane orchids): These orchids have small flowers that grow in rows on stalks that arise from thick canes, often with several flower clusters per plant. Flowers are typically white or purple. Dendrobium leaves are narrow and emerge from the sides of the cane.
- Cattleya (corsage orchids): The most frequently used orchids in corsages, Cattleya orchids have been widely hybridized, leading to a large variety of colors and forms. Some varieties are quite fragrant and many have appealing freckles, streaks, or other bicolor features.
- Cymbidium (boat orchids): These orchids have multiple flower spikes to ensure a satisfying display. Good choices for beginners include the lime green 'Chica', the yellow and red 'Showoff', or the bright pink 'Frae', all recipients of the American Orchid Society’s Highly Commended Certificate.
Proper pruning old growth from the orchid will make way for new blooms. When pruning an orchid, make sure your tool is sharp and sterilized. A clean cut will help to keep an orchid healthy.
Different orchids require different pruning methods, however, remove faded orchid blooms to keep the plant from spending energy on old growth. After flowering is complete, you can cut off the flower spike. However, certain orchid varieties are known to rebloom on the same spike. In that case, you should remove the faded blooms but not the spike.
Propagating orchids by seed is notoriously difficult because the minuscule seeds need extremely specific conditions that are hard to duplicate. The most common way to propagate an orchid is by division. If you already have a mature or large orchid and you'd like to divide it into two stand-alone plants, take these steps:
- Moisten the growing medium to make it easier to remove the plant from the container.
- Examine the roots of the orchid, and remove damaged or dead parts that appear black, mushy, or paper thin. Healthy roots are firm and plump.
- Try teasing apart some of the roots and stems. If they won't separate by hand, use a sharp, sterile cutting tool.
- Repot each plant in the new medium, stake if necessary, and water.
Potting and Repotting Orchids
If the orchid's roots are growing out of the pot excessively or the growing medium has completely broken down, it’s time to repot. Wait until you're sure your plant is done flowering before repotting your orchid. Select one of these appropriate pots:
- A clear plastic pot with multiple slots allows water to drain away and the grower to monitor the health of the roots. It can be placed in a larger, more decorative outer pot.
- Terracotta is an inexpensive, popular choice because it dries out quickly.
- Specialty orchid pots have a lacework of holes on the sides of the pot which allow for air circulation around the roots. When purchasing one of these pots make sure that the holes aren’t too big. You don’t want the potting media to come out when watering.
- Gently remove the orchid from its old container, moistening the growing medium as necessary to make it easier to slide the plant out.
- Cut away any dead or damaged roots with a sterile cutting tool.
- Set the orchid in the slightly larger container, and fill around the roots with fresh growing medium.
- Because the roots won't be anchored to the medium yet, you stake the plant if necessary to help it stay upright. Eventually, new roots will grow through the medium and attach to the pot anchoring the orchid.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Orchids don't tend to have major pest problems. But they can be appetizing for common plant pests, including aphids, fungus gnats, mealybugs, spider mites, scale, cigar-shaped thrips, and whiteflies. Most pests can be eliminated with a gentle brush of the hand, a jet of water, or washing with soapy water to reduce insect populations. You can also dab rubbing alcohol or mix alcohol with a few drops of liquid dish soap and then gently spray the insects as a way to damage their bodies. Another solution for insect removal is neem oil, which can smother pests.
In addition to root rot from overwatering, orchids also can become afflicted with various fungal diseases, such as anthracnose, phytophthora (black spots on leaves), botrytis, leaf algae, and petal blight.
How to Get Orchids to Bloom and Rebloom
An orchid should bloom at least once a year, though species vary in blooming cycles. Flowers generally last, on average, two to four months.
If your orchid won't bloom, some varieties like Phalaenopsis can be stimulated to bloom by dropping the temperature down for a few nights. But the most reliable way to ensure rebloom is to provide the proper light, moisture, temperature, humidity, food, and growing medium.
Common Problems With Orchids
Once an orchid finds a suitable spot and falls into a routine, the plant should produce healthy growth and reward you with a beautiful bloom. However, subpar conditions can result in some common problems.
Leaves Shriveled and Wrinkled
Shriveled and wrinkled leaves indicate that the orchid is not getting enough water. The culprit is often unhealthy roots. If the roots are black and mushy, use a sterile cutting tool to eliminate the bad roots, and repot the orchid in a new growing medium. If the roots are plump and white or green, but the leaves are shriveled the plant is being underwatered.
Leaves Turning Yellow
Overwatering and root rot are often the cause of yellowing leaves. Give the orchid growing medium time to dry out between waterings. If that doesn't work, repot the plant and remove any unhealthy roots.
If buds drop before they bloom, the plant is under stress. Investigate the orchid's environment and perhaps move it to a better spot. Look for the following possible issues:
- The plant is being underwatered or overwatered.
- The orchid is experiencing swings in temperature due to a heating vent, air conditioner, or other drafts.
- The plant is sensitive to nearby chemical fumes (paint or gas, for example).
- The orchid is nearby plants or fruits producing ethylene gas.
- The orchid is in a low-humidity spot.
- There is a pest infestation.
Are orchids easy to grow?
Orchids are easier to grow than you might think, as long as the plant lives in the right conditions.
How long can an orchid live?
Most orchids seem almost indestructible and can live a very long life—for decades or more—given the right environment.
Where should I cut an orchid stem when the blooms are gone?
Cut the stem or flower spike back to its base where the spike initially appeared. Always use a sharp sterilized tool such as scissors or a razor blade to remove the spike. The one exception is if you have a Phalaenopsis orchid. The species will set a second bloom of fewer and smaller flowers on the same spike. Rather than cutting the spike to the base, cut it back to the first two or three nodes.
How long does it take an orchid to rebloom?
Orchids typically bloom once a year, although some species may bloom more than once. The growth of a flower spike and the blooming process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
Orchid Care and Repotting. The University of Connecticut.
Pests and Diseases: Mealybugs on Orchids. American Orchid Society.
Orchid Pests and Diseases - Orchid Diseases. St. Augustine Orchid Society.
What Causes Orchid Leaves to Turn Yellow and Shrivel? University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center.
What’s wrong with my orchid? American Orchid Society.