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Master Gardener Journal  


S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E



Growing Orchids: An Exotic Obsession

by Sherry Allen,
Master Gardener Intern


Orchids are stunning, to say the least. There are approximately 30,000 species of orchids, each offering something unique to the eye. They belong to the largest family in the plant kingdom, Orchidaceae.

Orchid
Photography: W. Stimmell

When discovered in the early 19th century, orchids were an immediate hit. Practically overnight there was such a demand for orchids, that collectors and nursery professionals hired plant explorers to search for orchids worldwide. People became obsessed with acquiring orchids for their collections, leading to the coining of the word orchidelirium, a frenzied desire to collect rare orchids at any cost.

Plant explorers had a dangerous task ahead of them, enduring dangerous voyages, cannibalistic natives, thieves, and a variety of diseases. They were often heavily armed--not only for protection against wild animals, but also other orchid explorers.

Plants, once found, were packed in crates and shipped to England, France, or the United States. Not many survived their voyage, however this did not stop the exploration for orchids. For over 100 years collectors spent great sums of money searching for new varieties, hoping to be able to name their discoveries after their friends and family. Many writers of the era portrayed orchids as being sinister--with a thirst for human blood. Because of their mystique, the public was fascinated with orchids and readily attended orchid shows. This fascination continues even today.

Orchids are one of the most advanced and specialized flowers in the plant kingdom. One of their unique properties is orchid mimicry. Certain orchid flowers imitate the appearance or odor of female insects, such as wasps or flies, in order to achieve pollination. This is called pseudocopulation. Yet another type of mimicry is pseudoantagonism. With this type of mimicry, the flower resembles an insect such as a bee. When the flower moves in the breeze it antagonizes male bees, causing them to attack and ultimately to become covered with pollen.

Because of their exotic nature many believe that orchids are difficult to maintain. According to the American Orchid Society, the Phalenopsis or Moth Orchid is the orchid of choice in America. Individual blooms can last for up to 3 months with the correct conditions.

When choosing an orchid, foliage should be clean with no blemishes or visible pests, and should be medium green or grassy green in color. Roots should be firmly planted in the growing medium. Flowers should be situated well above the foliage, attached to a spike, and there should still be unopened buds.

When choosing an area to plant your orchid, select a bright location with an eastern or shaded southern exposure. Orchids do best with steady temperatures, preferably between 55°F and 85°F. Higher temperatures can retard growth, and fluctuations in temperature can cause buds not to open.

In general, the watering frequency for an orchid growing in a 6-inch container should be once a week. Do not allow the plant to stand in water; let water drain freely through the container. A convenient way of telling whether or not to water is to insert a lead pencil into the growing medium. If the plant has sufficient water, the pencil will darken. Plants in a fir bark medium will need a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Plants in all other medium will need a balanced fertilizer. Fertilize weekly with a solution 1/4 to 1/2 the recommended dilution rate. Repot when visible signs of root growth are apparent and roots have outgrown the container, but only after the plant is finished blooming.

If you keep these few simple suggestions in mind, you'll find that orchids are just as easy to grow as any other houseplant.

References: Bond, Rick. 1988. All About Growing Orchids. Ortho Books.

Downs Wholesale, Phoenix, AZ

The American Orchid Society at http:www.orchidweb.org



Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated January 25, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092