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How to Care for Orchids

Six Parts:Selecting OrchidsWatering and FeedingPottingPruning and CareAir VentilationIndoor Orchid Varieties

Orchids have long been a symbol of love and beauty. Grown by enthusiasts for their sheer elegance and fascination, they're also favored as either a corsage worn on the dress, or as a wristband at many proms and special events. On many occasions, from weddings to conferences, sprays of orchids grace the tables as decoration.

With over 750 genera of orchids, over 30,000 hybrids and more introduced every year, there is a huge variety of orchids to choose from for the orchid enthusiast. While the true orchid enthusiast could (and should) spend considerable time poring through entire tomes on the growth and care of orchids, the first time grower needs to begin somewhere. Start by learning the basics of caring for orchids that are generally robust and easy to grow. Once you've grasped these basics, if you still find your passion for orchids intensifying, you'll be able to explore the more challenging orchid varieties as you gain confidence.

Part 1
Selecting Orchids

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    Find the right orchid for your home. The proper care of orchids starts with choosing plants that are suited to your particular environment. Consider the orchid's adaptability, ease of growing, ready availability, and their beautiful flowers. If you do find yourself wanting to extend beyond the easier varieties later, it's recommended that you do plenty of research into the specific needs of the more delicate and fussy varieties of orchids. Some things to bear in mind when choosing an orchid include:
    • Will the orchid have enough space when fully grown? Or will it need to be moved somewhere else? Some orchids can be massive when fully grown and are best placed in a greenhouse.
    • Can you provide the temperature requirements that the orchid needs? Orchids can be divided into three types by temperature requirements––cool, intermediate and warm, meaning that orchids require certain minimum night temperatures in order to grow successfully.
    • Do you have a greenhouse or conservatory if needed? Many orchids will thrive best in such an environment than simply sitting in the house or on a back porch. If you don't, prefer the orchids that like being indoors (see list below).
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    Buy flowering plants. The plants that already have flowers are a great buy, because it can take up to five years for a seedling to produce a flower. Unless you're exceedingly patient, or already have a greenhouse full of orchids, you probably don't want to wait that long.
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    Consider your growing conditions. Select an orchid based on the growing conditions in your home. This matters because each type of orchid has different requirements, dependent on the orchid's origins. Always read the label accompanying the instructions to make sure the plant is suitable for your home and garden conditions. Here are some common species of orchids that usually grow well in the basic home environment:
    • Phalaenopsis: Usually referred to as moth orchids, these are elegant orchids for indoor use. Their long sprays of colorful flowers stay fresh for months. Flowering begins in winter or early spring. This orchid generally needs less light than cattleyas (see next) and does well in most indoor conditions.
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    • Cattleya: These orchids are most easily recognized for their use in corsages and for having a flower that can last from two to six weeks. They usually flower once a year during spring or fall, but need twice the amount of light than moth orchids to do well inside the home.
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    • Dendrobium: These beautiful orchids produce long, graceful sprays of flowers that are typically white, lavender or a combination of the two, during fall and winter. Their flowers can remain open about three to four weeks, and they are one of the easiest plants to care for.

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    • Paphiopedilum: The popular name for this orchid is Lady's Slipper, because the third petal is modified to form a pouch that looks similar to a lady's slipper. The pouch functions by trapping insects so that they are forced to climb up past the staminode, behind which they collect or deposit pollen. The leaves are quite often attractive with green or mottled green and white colors. These orchids require bright light, but no direct sun. At home, an east, west or shaded south window is best (for the northern hemisphere). Foliage should be naturally semi-erect and firm, not drooping. Room temperature is ideal for their growth.
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Part 2
Watering and Feeding

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    Learn how to water your orchids. Orchidaceae are one of the largest families of flowering plants, and as such there are many sub-families, or variations, and they have different watering requirements. What might be parching to one species risks drowning another. Generally, water your orchids every five to 12 days depending on what type of orchid you have, what the temperature is, and the time of year — or more in summer, less in winter. While your nursery adviser or florist will be able to give you specific information, here is a general guide to help you determine the best watering course for your orchids:
    • Keep these varieties evenly moist (not wet) at all times:
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      • Paphiopedilum
      • Miltonia
      • Cymbidium
      • Dontoglossum
    • Keep these varieties evenly moist during active growth, but let them dry out between waterings when they are not:
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      • Cattleya
      • Oncidium
      • Brassia
      • Dendrobium
    • Keep these varieties almost dry between waterings:
      • Phalaenopsis
      • Vanda
      • Ascocenda
    • Take care to avoid wetting the leaves when you water your orchids. If they do get wet, gently dry them with a tissue or cotton swab.
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    Maintain the media. Remove the inner pot from the decorative one, place in the sink or in the bathtub. Add orchid food to a watering can or container, and completely water the base. Allow the water to completely drain before replacing it into the decorative pottery planter. Never allow it to sit in water, as it will kill the plant.
    • Note: Epiphytic (branch-growing) orchids are not planted in earth like the terrestrial orchid varieties, but in the shell of a coconut, bark or cork. Or, they can be grown in slatted baskets or on rafts of wood. Their roots grow from the top, and not the bottom as usually found in terrestrial plants.
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    Feed the orchid. In general, once a month is recommended for most fertilizers. Look for fertilizers that contain nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), plus trace elements like iron (Fe). Use fertilizer with a higher nitrogen percentage when new shoots are coming out, and fertilizer with more phosphorous and potassium later in the season. Do not overfeed orchids –– this can damage them.
    • If you're growing your orchid on bark, use a fertilizer that's significantly higher in nitrogen (in a ratio of 30(N)-10(P)-10(K)). The bacteria in the decomposing bark will consume a lot of nitrogen.
    • Water your orchid thoroughly before feeding.

Part 3

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    Understand the differing needs of terrestrial and epiphyte orchids. Many orchids are epiphytic (tree- or branch-growing) and require very different growing media than terrestrial orchids; indeed, orchids are commonly killed by being planted in soil when they're not a soil type orchid. Epiphytes have thick, fleshy roots used to attach themselves to trees or bark and to absorb water and nutrients; others have aerial roots that will grow unattached. Epiphyte orchids grow best in soilless mixtures or attached to pieces of bark or cork. Epiphytic orchids require a growing media with extremely good aeration and drainage.
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    Provide suitable growing media for your orchids. Common growing media includes fir bark, coconut husks, sphagnum moss, tree fern fibers, perlite, or a mixture of any of those. However, the growing medium will depend on the orchid type––terrestrial orchids should have a medium formed mainly of loam with equal parts of such substances as sphagnum moss, damp peat or sharp sand. Epiphytic orchids should have a growing substance that consists of equal parts of sphagnum moss, finely ground bark, vermiculite and moist peat. It's easiest to buy readily mixed media suitable for the orchid type, and always know the specific needs of the variety of orchid you're growing, as these can vary quite a bit.
    • Commercially prepared orchid potting mixes are available or a mixture can be prepared containing chopped tree fern fiber, volcanic stone, charcoal, a little peat, fir bark or combinations of these.
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    Repot as needed. You will need to repot on occasion, both to refresh the media, and to account for growth. Spring is the usual time for repotting orchids. Here are some things to consider:
    • Orchids planted in bark should be repotted every 18 to 24 months, in general.
    • Select the pot size based on the size of the root mass. Orchids tend to prefer smaller pots. With a pot that's significantly larger, the orchid will expend most of its energy rooting, and show no real new growth or foliage for months, so keep the containers small. All orchids prefer being somewhat root-bound with their roots protruding from the top of the media (or aerial roots should simply hang free). However, as plants produce more new canes or spikes, they can eventually outgrow their pot.
    • The pot will affect how you water. An orchid potted in a porous pot such as clay (good for orchids) will need more frequent watering than an orchid in a plastic container.
    • Always use a pot with a drainage hole. Sitting in water will rot the roots and the orchid will become mulch.
    • In larger pots, media in the center may take much longer to dry out––a condition that will harm your orchid. To alleviate this, use broken clay pots in the bottom of the container to increase drainage.
    • If using a clay container, enlarge the drainage hole or make additional holes on the sides (near the bottom) of the pot.
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    Replant the orchid according to its type. Carefully replant your plant into a slightly larger pot or suitable container, using the suitable porous media suggested above. Always ensure good drainage.
    • For a terrestrial orchid: Remove the plant from the original pot. Carefully tease off the old medium. Place the plant into the clean pot, sprinkle in fresh medium around the roots. Firm into place using a dibble or small stick. Leave a small space between the compost and rim to allow watering space. About 12mm (1/2") space is adequate.
    • For an epiphytic orchid: Remove the loose, old medium. Cut away dead roots and discard them. Hold the orchid upside down and pack new medium around the roots to create a firm ball. Turn the orchid right side up and place back into the chosen container. A repotted epiphytic orchid should not be watered for about one week after, as this allows the roots to re-establish. Water sparingly after this, to ensure the new roots are not damaged.
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    After repotting, keep the medium appropriately moist. This is especially important from late spring through summer.

Part 4
Pruning and Care

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    Maintain the blooms. Peak blooming time starts from late winter, primarily February and March in the northern hemisphere. Blooms normally last from four to twelve weeks. When the blooms fade, cut off the spike 12 inch (1.3 cm) (12mm) above where it projects from the foliage. Also trim off any dead leaves and tissue, including old flower stems, old leaves, anything rotting, dead roots, etc.
    • In the event of fungal rot or disease, cut a little past the infected tissue to help stop the progression of the infection.
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    Don't prune an orchid like a shrub. If you cut part of an orchid leaf, the rest of the leaf may die, and cutting into a live pseudobulb will severely damage your orchid.
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    Use sterile tools while cutting an trimming orchids. This will help prevent the spread of diseases from plant to plant. It's recommended that you soak the tools in bleach between uses, or use a disposable razor blade.
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    Watch for new growth. This will be in the form of a new cane growing from the base of the old ones. Under correct conditions, the new cane can be larger than the mother cane before it is ready to bloom again.
    • Cool nighttime temperatures help to initiate blooms. With proper care in accordance with the variety's particular needs, the orchid plant should grow and bloom annually.

Part 5
Air Ventilation

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    Keep the correct temperature. 65–85ºF (18–30ºC) is best. For brief periods, they can withstand temperatures ranging from 60–100ºF (16–37ºC) but they dislike sudden temperature changes. Cold temperatures will cause the leaves to turn yellow and eventually drop off. If this happens, remove the yellow foliage and continue caring for the plant normally.
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    Ensure proper air circulation. Having good air circulation can make all the difference for the health of your orchid. This will help your orchid heal if you do experience a fungal or pest infestation that must be treated. Air circulation is also a big part of the prevention of these types of infestations by keeping the leaves and flowers dry.
    • In the summer, open windows so that the natural airflow will circulate the air. This promotes water evaporation and lots of fresh carbon dioxide. A gentle breeze will also help orchids handle bright sunlight without scorching the leaves.
    • In the winter (or in the summer, on still days), use an oscillating fan to gently stir the air. Move it around occasionally so that one spot isn't being over-blown.

Part 6
Indoor Orchid Varieties

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    The following list shows the orchids that can generally handle growing indoors, albeit with some careful placement, additional lighting and temperature control:
    • Brassolaeliocattleya "Norman's Bay"
    • 'Cattleya bowringiana
    • Coelogyne cristata
    • Cymbidium devonianum
    • Cymbidium "Touchstone"
    • Dendrobium nobile
    • Epidendrum cochleatum (also known as Encyclia cochleata)
    • Laelia anceps
    • Maxillaria tenuifolia
    • Miltonia clowesii
    • Paphiopedilum callosum
    • Paphiopedilum "Honey Gorse"
    • Pleione formosana
    • Vanda cristata


  • One of the fastest ways to kill an orchid is to let it sit in a waterlogged pot. The frequency of watering depends on the type of orchid, media, light conditions, container characteristics and temperature.
  • Fertilizing: Orchids require regular fertilization to grow and flower properly, but too much fertilizer can quickly damage plants. Water-soluble types of fertilizer specifically formulated for orchids are available at most garden centers and are easy to use.
  • Apply soluble fertilizers monthly, according to the rates recommended on the label. A dilute fertilizer solution can be used to water plants weekly during the growing season. Each month, use plain water to rinse any accumulated fertilizer salts out of the pot.
  • After flowering, when the foliage growth stops, reduce water and fertilizer applications until new leaf production starts again.
  • Orchids growing in bark require fertilizer with a higher ratio of nitrogen, such as 30-10-10 or 15-5-5. Mounted orchids and those not planted in bark grow well with even formula fertilizer ratios, such as 20-20-20. A "bloom-booster" type formulation can be used in the autumn that has a higher phosphorus formulation (the middle number), such as 10-30-20.
  • More frequent watering may be required for plants in clay or small pots and those growing in open bark mixes. In these cases, watering twice per week is usually satisfactory. Orchids rest after flowering; watering should be reduced at this time.
  • In general, when orchids are actively growing, water once per week and allow them to dry slightly before the next watering. At each watering, apply enough water so that some drains from the bottom of the pot.
  • Water is especially critical for phalaenopsis, because they do not have organs (pseudo bulbs) for water storage. Do not let phalaenopsis completely dry out. Water thoroughly, and do not water again until nearly dry throughout the container. Do not allow water to remain on the leaves or in the leaf axils, as this may readily lead to disease and death.


  • Diseases that are commonly a problem on orchids include leaf spots, petal blight, and different fungi such as black rot. Another common problem is the failure to flower, which is typically due to poor growing conditions, especially inadequate light and/or fertilizer.
  • Common insect pests include mealybugs, spider mites, scales and thrips. Scales are usually attached to the underside of the leaves, and heavily infested plants should be discarded.
  • Orchids are susceptible to a number of insect and disease problems.
  • Physically removing the scales and then controlling the immature stages with chemical sprays may help lightly infested plants. Snails and slugs can feed on buds, blossoms, leaves and tender stems.
  • Viruses are currently an incurable problem and can be hard to differentiate from fungal infections. Getting a second opinion from a professional is always a good idea if you are unsure. If your orchid has a virus, dispose of it immediately and disinfect your pot thoroughly if you plan to reuse it.

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