My friend Kevin sent me this fuchsia-colored moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) in October 2001, at a time when its beauty was sorely needed. It was a big, healthy plant in full bloom, and it continued blooming until May 2002. It then took a well-deserved rest until February 2003, and started over. It was wonderful but later I learned that I shouldn’t let it bloom so much.
A mature moth orchid blooms spring and, often, again in the fall; the flowers last for weeks. Just one or two blooming Phalaenopsis decorate an entire room for half the year. Moth orchids have become a bit of a decorator’s cliché because, like pearls, they go with everything.
The trick is to get quality plants. Not everyone agrees, but for me, while many mass-market plants do fine, mass-market orchids have not done as well for me as better quality plants. From what I know I believe that the mass-market orchids are often one-year olds that have been pushed too quickly into bloom, seriously weakening the plant. For the same or a little more money, you can get a healthy 2- to 3-year old plant that has been raised for long-term health from a reputable dealer.
The second key: do not over do it.
–Do not over-water your Phalaenopsis. Usually watering once a week is enough; the potting mix should be almost dry. If the leaves are shriveling, go to twice a week.
–Do not get water in the plant’s crown, it will rot.
–Do not over-fertilize. Use diluted fertilizer weekly (skipping a week once a month) when the plant’s in active growth. I use a flower fertilizer in early spring and a balanced organic fertilizer in summer and fall.
–Do raise the humidity (see Issue 38).
The third thing: do not let your orchid over-bloom.
–Ignore the common advice to force your Phalaenopsis to re-bloom by cutting back the flower stem. This will sap the plant’s energy. Do this only if you’re stuck with a cheap orchid that’s not worth keeping.
–Likewise, don’t let your orchid bloom for more than 6 week or so – if the flower hasn’t died naturally by this time, cut it off at the base. If you converse its strength, each year you should get more and bigger flowers.
Orchids need to be 10F cooler at night to flower, so put your Phalaenopsis near a window with bright light but shade from hot sun.
Natural growing conditions: Moth orchids are epiphytes, that means that they like to grow in tree crotches, high in the tropical forest canopy with their roots dangling in open air and their leaves dotted with filtered light. The tropical rains soak the orchid but then it dries out quick. It hangs downward so that water doesn’t settle in its crown.
picture: “Kevin’s orchid” a Phalaenopsis enjoying its filtered sun light.
Potting: Moth orchids like either a commercial orchid bark chip mix (medium texture) or plain sphagnum moss. The pot size should usually be between 3 and 6 inches. Only very large ones will need a bigger pot. Let the new roots run around outside the pot – they like it like that.
Pots: Most orchid pots have slits up the side to let more air into the roots and to help the medium dry out quickly. Many use terra cotta pots for Phalaenopsis; some use opaque plastic pots. A newer theory is to use clear plastic so that sun gets to the roots. This works for my Phalaenopsis and for my pocket book since I can skip the cost of a pot and recycle a clear plastic food tub instead. Just remember to cut plenty of holes in the bottom and slots in the sides for air and drainage.
Location: Filtered sun, fresh air, and the 10F night-time temperature drop are critical. Most of us keep our orchids at table level, so they’re easy to water. If you want to baby your Phalaenopsis, hang it from near the top of the window, where it feels more at home, with plenty of bright light, little direct sun, and the rising heat during the day. You would have to take it down to water and drain, which may be too bother. (I use a nice, stiff bent coat hanger as a hanger, so I can get the plant down easily.)
Phalaenopsis go great with ferns and African violets which like the same conditions (except the African violets don’t chills and drafts, so place them a little farther from the window.)