Have you ever tried to grow Phalaenopsis? Kevin Wigley gives us the low down on what to do and what not to do.
When the word ‘orchid’ gets mentioned by most people, the Phalaenopsis or ‘Moth Orchid’ is the one that springs to mind. They are available from almost anywhere – supermarkets, garden centres, motorway service stations, priced either ridiculously cheaply or insanely expensive depending, seemingly, on how close to Mother’s Day it is. The archetypal Moth Orchid is the tip of the iceberg, and ambassador of a family of extremely diverse plants numbering at least twenty thousand species and around seventy thousand hybrids and cultivars. Impressive, isn’t it?
As a genus, Phalaenopsis contains around sixty species, mostly growing in hot jungles of Southeast Asia.
The Phalaenopsis hybrid itself comes in a range of sizes and colours, patterns and textures, with some varieties even being delightfully scented. There are around thirty thousand hybrids with between five hundred and one thousand new ones being added every year. Some of these hybrids are registered and named, most are not and are grown for the ever hungry throwaway pot plant trade.
How do you keep them alive? Luckily, Phalaenopsis are some of the easiest orchids you can grow and despite them being sold to be discarded after blooming, they are tough, forgiving plants. The main things they really don’t like are cold and wet. Remember they come from hot, humid places and they don’t grow in the ground, but in trees, hanging in the lower branches and clinging on with their thick, silvery roots exposed to the air. If you look in the pot of your newly acquired beauty, you’ll see that it is growing in chunks of bark. This is to allow maximum airflow around the roots. You’ll probably also notice that the pot is crowded with roots which are climbing over the sides. This is totally normal, and doesn’t mean an immediate trip to the potting shed. In fact, the plants perform much better left undisturbed for as long as possible. They should only be disturbed if either the potting medium has begun to compost, or the plant has well and truly outgrown its container. If in doubt, leave it alone.
As a rule of thumb, if your plant has greenish coloured roots (you’ll be able to see because it will most likely be in a transparent pot), it probably doesn’t need water. Also, look to see whether there is condensation on the inside of the pot. If there is, there is enough moisture in there. A third test is to pick it up and feel the weight. A well watered plant will be quite heavy. If you decide it does need water, the best method is to dunk it into a bucket of tepid water and hold it there for about 30 seconds while the air bubbles come to the surface. Be careful that the chunks of bark don’t float away! Once the potting mix and roots have absorbed all they can, allow the plant to drain properly and don’t water again until it is almost completely dry. This holds true for all Phalaenopsis, no matter which variety it is.
Phalaenopsis orchids really require very little in the way of feeding. Being adapted to growing in the low nutrient environment of a tree trunk has its benefits. You can provide a specialist orchid feed if you wish to, but always remember that less is more and never put feed on a dry plant. A small amount mixed in with the water at drink time is more than sufficient. Or mix it into a spray bottle and apply to the surface every so often. It’s that simple. You’ll most likely get equally good results if you don’t bother to feed at all.
Regarding temperature, Phalaenopsis are warm or hot growing plants and need a minimum temperature of 15-18C. They will tolerate being a little cooler for a short period if they are kept on the dry side, but this is not recommended. Generally speaking, if you’re happy, so are they. There is a good reason that Phalaenopsis have become by far the most popular orchid to use as a houseplant. They are very well suited to the temperatures we like to maintain in our houses, and appreciate even conditions. In times past, before central heating was invented, Cymbidium and Odontoglossum were much more popular but now these types are totally unsuited to our warm houses. As regards humidity, Phalaenopsis do appreciate humidity but they don’t demand it. They have thick, fleshy leaves and roots that hang on to moisture, and the plastic pot it grows in holds a good amount of humidity around the roots. Just make sure you don’t do anything too silly like placing it near a heat source such as a radiator.
As I mentioned earlier, Phalaenopsis grow on lower branches of trees in their native habitat. This means that they are not exposed to any direct sun. We should remember this when finding a spot for our new favourite pot plant. I won’t lie, it’s a delicate balancing act. You want to provide the brightest possible light for your plant without burning the foliage. That way, your plant will bloom frequently but won’t look bleached by the sun. Some varieties helpfully develop a reddish purple coloured suntan which will tell you when they are getting plenty of light. Pale, floppy growth indicates too little and your plant is unlikely to bloom.
So, after weeks of majestic splendor, the blooms on your beloved Phalaenopsis have finally withered and died. What do you do now?
You’ll probably notice that the flower stem is still green. If so, look closely and you’ll see the scars where the blooms have dropped. Before the first bloom scar you’ll see a small scale like bract. Behind there is a live ‘eye’ which can produce more blooms. Cut the bloom stem a couple of centimeters above this node before the tip of the stem starts to go brown. On most varieties (but not all), this will encourage the plant to put out a branch on the existing stem which will produce flowers of its own in a couple of months time. There won’t be so many, and they won’t be quite as big, but better than nothing, right? If the stem dies back completely, cut it off as low as you can without damaging anything green. Although they don’t have seasons as such where they come from, most Phalaenopsis do have distinct growing and blooming phases which may or may not overlap each other. This isn’t overly important to most people, but it is worth knowing that Phalaenopsis bloom from nodes between the leaves, and in order to get more blooming nodes, you need more leaves. The answer here? Mostly patience. Your plant will send up a new bloom stem when it is good and ready, most likely after it has produced a new leaf. That said, there is a trick you can pull which may speed up the process slightly. It’s very simple. Put the plant in a cooler (not cold) position for around four weeks. Once you see a spike starting to form, its safe to put it back in its original position, and the extra heat will encourage the spike to grow faster.
This may all sound complicated but mostly the plants just need you to water them, give them light and warmth and leave them to get on with it. Hopefully, the tricks and cheats I’ve described here will keep your plant alive and blooming for many years to come.