WICHE: Orchids determined by the bloom

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There are many varieties to understand.

By Jeneen Wiche

Have you ever wondered what makes an orchid an orchid? Well, it is all about flower parts. In fact, most plants are categorized in the plant kingdom by their flowers.

For orchids, it is the fact that they have three sepals and three petals. Many flowers have green sepals that protect the flower inside, which cradles the bloom as it opens. You will understand this nuance if you ever have observed the slow transformation of an opening bloom. For orchids these sepals don’t stay green in color, rather they take on pastel shades of pink, yellow, lavender or white, blending in perfectly and masquerading as petals.

Of the true petals, the lower one is frequently modified; consequently it is referred to it as a lip. This lip is larger and sometimes speckled or stripped in order to attract the necessary insect for pollination. Its size allows for the insect to alight on the lip before it is coaxed inside by scent; once inside, the insect aids in pollination.

An orchid, by definition, is the common name for any plant in the orchidaceae family. The orchidaceae family is the largest in the world with an estimated 600 to 800 genera and 17,000 to 30,000 different species, plus countless manmade hybrids. Orchids are found all over the word except in desert regions.

Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Dendrobium, Oncidium and Cymbidium are popular orchid genera. They have similarities in flower form but are quite distinguishable: some are vines, some herbaceous but shrub-like, and some grass-like. The largest are found in tropical areas with vines as long as 50 feet and flowers a foot across; others have teeny-tiny blooms. They also have a range of cultural requirements. If nothing else, the family is diverse.

There are four primary considerations for orchids: light, water, air and temperature. I am convinced that I have been getting blooms on my phalaenopsis because I have modified the temperature component. I religiously leave the orchids outside in the fall so they can experience the shorter days and chillier nights that trigger their bud set. I also watch the watering.

Some orchids are terrestrial, content to have roots in soil, while others are considered epiphytes because the roots collect everything they need from the air. In the wild, epiphytes typically grow on trees, where they catch water trickling down the trunk; where weather patterns and day and night temperatures trigger bud set and bloom; and where gentle breezes keep the air fresh. Find out what the native environment of your chosen orchid is so you can recreate certain parts of the cultural puzzle to ensure good growth and bud set.

For example, the phalaenopsis tolerates moderate light levels and as a result is the easiest and most popular for the home. They like warm temperatures between 75 and 60 during the day and night, respectively.

In the fall of the year night temperatures in the 50s facilitate bud set, so leave it outside until it has some chilling time. Once back inside for the winter, the plant should be watered sparingly, allowing them to dry out between watering (water “weakly.” weekly is the orchid growers adage), use a dilute solution of fertilizer every other week and provide good air circulation.

Cymbidiums, on the other hand, are considered cool growing orchids and prefer night temperatures that dip into the 40s. They like highlight and are heavy feeders so they would not like the same environment as the phalaenopsis.

As I mentioned, orchid genera have different cultural requirements so check on the specifics when you purchase them. Failure, perhaps, is more a result of putting all orchids in one cultural category.


Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.