Orchids are popular houseplants and although there are countless species, they all have similar physical characteristics. Orchids are easy to spot because of their arcs of branches, called spikes, covered with softly colored blooms in solid colors or speckles. Their petals and sepals (innermost petals) are typically found in groups of three. The bottom petal, usually called a lip or labellum, is shaped like that to host pollinators like bees if grown outdoors. Depending on the variety, an orchid's petals can have ruffled, shaped, or notched edges. Orchid leaves are coated with a heavy waxy film to prevent water loss. Some orchids are faster-growing than others which can require more frequent repotting.
|Common Name||Orchids, cane orchids, moth orchids|
|Plant Type||Perennial herb|
|Mature Size||12 in. to 16 in. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Bright, indirect light|
|Soil Type||Sphagnum moss, bark mix, etc.|
|Soil pH||5.5-6.5 (slightly acidic)|
|Native Area||United States, Thailand, other tropical regions worldwide|
When you first obtain your orchid, it will likely be healthy and in bloom. However, many gift orchids are potted in the wrong conditions for long-term growth. They are usually sitting in plastic containers and packed with moss around the roots. In nature, orchids typically grow on trees, and their roots are water-gathering organs that need fresh airflow to remain healthy. Orchids with wet roots are susceptible to root rot and other problems. However, while your orchid's current container might not be ideal, never repot an orchid while it is in bloom, which could last a few weeks or more. Instead of repotting, it's better to hold off on watering.
When the bloom is over, it's time to shift your thinking from short-term care to long-term maintenance. Most growers snip off the old flower spike near the base. (Some experts retain the spikes hoping for a rebloom, which sometimes does happen). Also at this time, you can repot your orchid into a more suitable container with the right growing medium.
To grow an orchid, you have to think like an orchid. The golden rule for orchid success is to duplicate the plant's natural conditions as closely as possible. In nature, most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other objects, clinging to rough bark or even stone. The showy orchids favored by most people are usually either phalaenopsis hybrids or dendrobium hybrids.
These plants thrive in strong light, but not direct late-afternoon sunlight (although dendrobiums can handle more sun).
Orchids do not grow in regular potting soil or potting mix. Instead, you can purchase or make your own orchid medium, which may include a mix of unusual items, such as moss, bark, cork, or even chunks of brick, that will allow the roots to breathe. The growing media, water, and fertilizer will combine for a slightly acidic environment for your orchid.
Orchids need very little water. Their roots are highly specialized organs designed to soak up water very quickly and breathe. They need regular periods of drying alternated with heavy watering.
During the summer months, heavily water your orchid weekly. Let the water drench the roots and fill up the pebble tray. It doesn't hurt every so often to put the plant in the kitchen sink and really soak it down. Don't worry, you won't kill it as long as it's allowed to dry out afterward. Orchids with wet roots are susceptible to root rot.
In the winter, keep your plant warm and cut the water back to once a month or so. Mist it every so often to make sure it stays hydrated, but wipe away moisture on the leaves if you mist too heavily.
Temperature and Humidity
They also need high humidity and airflow around the roots. Orchids do best in temperatures above 50 degrees but below 85 degrees.
Orchid blooms will last longer if you can provide a mild, warm, and somewhat humid environment. Don't place your orchid where it will experience cold drafts or exposure to direct sunlight or heating vents. Dry air, direct heat, and chills are enemies of these delicate flowers.
During the growing season, feed it weekly with a weak solution of a powder or liquid fertilizer. Don't fertilize it 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 will help you care for it after it blooms. 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 some combination thereof.
- Dendrobium (cane orchids): These orchids have smaller 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.
Proper pruning of old wood will make way for new blooms. However, different orchids require different pruning methods. Whenever pruning an orchid, make sure your tool is sharp and sterilized. A very clean cut keeps an orchid healthier.
In general, remove fading orchid blooms to keep the plant from spending energy on old growth. Remove the spent bloom by cutting back to the main branch. Once the plant is done flowering, cut all the stems with faded blooms an inch away from the main branch. Some orchids need the spent blooms removed while the stems, also called spikes, remain uncut, so it is important to know how to prune your specific type of plant. Certain orchids will rebloom on the same 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 somewhat mature or large orchid, and you'd like to divide it into two stand-alone plants, take these steps:
- Moisten your orchid to make it easier to remove from the container.
- Examine the roots of the orchid and remove damaged or dead parts that may be black, mushy, or papery thin. Healthy roots are firm.
- Try teasing apart some of the roots and stems (also called pseudobulbs, which are the pod-like structures below the leaves). If they can't tease apart by hand, use a sharp, sterile cutting tool.
- Repot each plant in new medium, stake if necessary, and water.
Potting and Repotting Orchids
Many gift orchids are potted in the wrong conditions for long-term growth. They are usually in plastic containers and packed with moss around the roots. In nature, orchids typically grow on trees, and their roots are water-gathering organs that need fresh airflow to be healthy. However, while your orchid's current container might not be ideal, don't attempt to repot a flowering plant or it will be stressed and drop its blooms.
After the bloom is done, go ahead and cut off the dead flower spike with sterile snippers and repot the plant in a specialized orchid pot in an orchid mixture. Orchid pots feature wide drainage slits so water will literally run through the pot. Orchid potting mixture is usually composed of several chunky ingredients, including pine bark, charcoal, and even polystyrene foam. To repot your orchid, follow these steps:
- Remove the plant from the plastic pot that it came in and carefully remove as much of the moss as you can.
- Inspect the health of the roots. Healthy roots should be white and firm, with a small green growing point. Cut away any shriveled, rotten, or blackened roots with a sterile, sharp cutting tool.
- Set the plant into the new pot and fill in around it with potting mixture. The plant should be firmly situated, but it will not be completely anchored. Eventually, new roots will grow through the potting mixture and attach to the pot itself, which will then anchor your plant.
- Once the orchid is repotted, find it a good spot. An east-facing window with a few hours of mild morning sun is ideal.
- Provide necessary humidity and catch run-off water by putting the plant into a wide, deep tray and filling the tray with gravel.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Unfortunately, these delicate flowers are also appetizing for many common plant pests, including aphids, fungus gnats, mealybugs, mites, scale, 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 the 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.
How to Get Orchids to Bloom
Your orchid should bloom at least once a year if not more, though types vary in blooming preferences. So it's disheartening to see a flowerless orchid that once beautifully bloomed. The key here is how to get orchids to rebloom. Orchids prefer the perfect light, medium, and humidity. Some orchids are stimulated to bloom if the temperature goes down for a few nights, such as the phalaenopsis orchid, which is luckily one of the most popular plants sold as houseplants.
Common Problems With Orchids
If you see signs of distress, such as shriveled or yellowing leaves or dropping buds, move the plant and keep tweaking your conditions. Once an orchid finds a happy spot and falls into a routine, the plant should regularly throw out new roots and leaves or canes and reward you yearly with a beautiful bloom.
Leaves Shriveled and Wrinkled
Shriveled and wrinkled leaves indicate that the orchid is not getting enough water, even if it's being adequately watered. That may be because of unhealthy roots. Roots should appear plump and white or green. If roots are healthy, that means the plant is being underwatered. If roots are unhealthy, or there's a loss of roots, use a sterile, sharp cutting tool to eliminate bad roots, and repot in new medium.
Leaves Turning Yellow
Your orchid may be experiencing root rot which is turning the leaves yellow. Repot the plant in new medium.
If you see buds dropping from the plant before they bloom, the plant is stressed for any number of reasons. This is when you will need to investigate the orchid's environment and move it to a happier space. Look for the following possible issues:
- The plant is being underwatered or overwatered.
- The orchid is experiencing swings in temperature because it is near a heating vent, air conditioner, or some other draft.
- The plant is sensitive to nearby chemical fumes (paint or gas, for example).
- The orchid is sensitive to nearby plants or fruits producing the gas ethylene.
- The orchid is in a low-humidity spot.
- There's a possible pest infestation.
Are orchids easy to grow?
They are easier to grow than you may think, as long as the plant lives in the right conditions.
When is an orchid considered to be rare?
An orchid is designated as rare if its natural habitat is no longer viable or if it has a highly unusual pigmentation. For example, the ghost orchid is considered rare and endangered, but you may be able to purchase this and other hard-to-find orchids at specialty florists.
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.
Information P. Research Guides: Orchids: Potting and Dividing. The New York Botanical Garden. Mertz Library.
Orchid Pests and Diseases. Home Remedies. American Orchid Society.
What’s wrong with my orchid? American Orchid Society
Are orchids short-lived? American Orchid Society.