Shopping for Orchids

Buying Healthy Orchids

Blooming pink orchid on a green branch
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Buying an orchid can be as easy as picking up a plant on an impulse or as complicated as scouring specialty growers and websites for a rare specimen. In either case, it's a good idea to take a few steps to guarantee you're getting the healthiest plant possible, one that will hopefully survive long past its first bloom at home.

To Bloom or Not to Bloom

This is a good question. Most people like to buy blooming orchids because of the instant gratification that comes with bringing home such a beautiful plant.

The orchid can be set out on the table and enjoyed immediately.

From an orchid's point of view, however, buying a blooming plant is less than ideal. Flowering takes a tremendous amount of energy for the orchid plant. Many experienced growers know that phalaenopsis, in particular, can bloom themselves to death, meaning they will have spectacular blooms for a few years in a row, then just fade and die.

So to answer the question “to bloom or not to bloom,” you have to consider your intentions. If you want to maximize the plant's chances of living and adapting to your growing conditions, it's best to buy plants that are not in bloom. But if you just can't resist the display of blooming orchids at your garden center, go ahead. Just try to pick one with lots of unopened buds so you can enjoy the bloom longer.

Picking Your Orchid

Picking a healthy orchid is a good idea even if the plant is meant as a gift or just a tabletop display.

You want one with nice flowers, but there are other, more important factors to consider:

  • The wiggle factor. Gently grab the plant near the potting media and wiggle it a little. Epiphytic orchids (including dendrobium, cattleya, phalaenopsis, oncidium, and brassavola) are usually potted in a coarse mixture of bark nuggets, charcoal, styrofoam, and other inorganic and organic material. If the roots haven't firmly affixed themselves to the pot, you can gently lift the orchid from its pot and carefully inspect them. If it's firmly affixed to the pot, don't tear it out. You don't want to damage the roots. It's OK if a few roots are poking out of the top of the pot. If the orchid is potted inappropriately, but healthy, you can still buy it as long as you repot it at the first practical moment.
  • Healthy roots. The roots are the most important part of the orchid plant. Orchid roots are highly specialized organs that rapidly collect water and even perform photosynthesis. If the case of epiphytic orchids, they are designed to cling onto rough surfaces and anchor the plant high above the forest floor. A healthy orchid's roots will be light green when dry and dark green when wet. There should be a long, pointed and shiny green growing tip. The longer the growing tip, the healthier the plant. Dead orchid roots are shriveled and tan when wet and white when dry. A plant with dead roots will not survive.
  • Look at the leaves. This is a difficult topic to address because there is so much variation among orchids. Some have thin, pencil-like leaves, while others have fleshy, flat leaves. Some, like the ghost orchid, have no leaves at all and look like a small tangle of roots. In general, however, you should look for leaves that are thick, lightly colored and hard. The leaves should be slightly yellow-green, almost like a green apple. Leaves that are too glossy green mean the plant has likely been overfed and it will not bloom as well. The leaves should also be free from bugs, obvious blemishes and mushy spots. Finally, make sure the growing point is not destroyed.
  • Check the bulbs.There are basically two kinds of epiphytic orchids: those that grow from a single growing point (phalaenopsis, for example) and those that grow from a creeping rhizome (cattleya, for example). The plants with a single stem are called monopodial, while the plants with a creeping rhizome are called sympodial. Sympodial orchids send up a fresh bulb, or pseudobulb, every year with new leaves and blooms. If you're buying this kind of orchid, make sure the pseudobulbs are plump and fat.
  • Count the blooms. If you're buying a plant in flower, resist the urge to buy a plant with all of its blooms already opened. Long-lasting orchid blooms might last for a month or more, but if you buy a plant with unopened blooms, you'll enjoy the overall show for longer. Do not buy plants with yellow or shriveled blooms, however, as these will most likely fall off.
  • Get a name. This might sound unnecessary, but it's a good idea to make sure your orchid has a tag with a full name on it whenever possible. Don't buy plants labeled as "ORCHID" or "FLOWERING ORCHID." It's better to buy a plant with the full species or hybrid name whenever possible. This will allow you to learn more about that particular plant, and if you decide to start a collection, it's always nice to know what you're growing.

Acclimating Your Orchid

It's fine to display your new orchid on the table for a week or so when you first get it home, especially if it's in bloom. But keep in mind that no orchid will survive for long on a dining room table. Also, remember that the plant will be in shock when it first gets home. Orchids do not like to be moved, especially when they're in flower. You're most likely to lose unopened buds right when you take the plant home.

Ideally, the first few days in your home should be gentle ones. Do not expose the plant to direct sunlight, cold drafts or downdrafts from your vents, or get carried away with watering. This is counterintuitive to many people, but it's usually better to let an orchid dry out somewhat than drown. These plants like high humidity and regular moisture, but they have a limited tolerance for constant exposure to water, which can cause black rot and kill the plant.

When you're ready to move the plant from its display location, follow the tips specific to each species.