Orchid Answers

This is a list of some of the topics I most frequently get asked questions about. It is painstakingly researched (read: off the top of my head) and written (read: first draft). I am sure there are a few errors, and whomever brings them to my attention will receive lavish thanks and my eternal gratitude. If you are really, really nice, maybe even a plant.

What is an orchid?
Why are orchids the coolest plants on earth?
Can I grow orchids in my home?
What conditions do orchids need to grow?
Which orchids are easy to grow?

Surgeon General's Warning!
Tips on buying your first orchid
How do I pick a good plant?
Just what is a "species" anyway? (A non-taxonomist's view)

{short description of image}Questions? Mail me and I will give it a go. Comments also appreciated.

What is an orchid?

Orchids are widely considered to be the most highly evolved of all flowering plants. Since I am doing the writing here, I will continue to consider them as such. What makes something an orchid? There are two answers. The first, and most simple, is that an orchid is whatever the professional taxonomists tell you is an orchid. This is sufficient for most people. Technically, an orchid is a flowering plant that exhibits a unique reproductive strategy. All orchids have both the male and female reproductive structures fused into a single structure commonly called a "column". They also share some other floral characteristics, including (usually) a highly modified petal called a lip, or labellum. Think of it as a landing pad for bugs. These things are easy to see in most of the common orchids, although some orchid flowers are so small (or strange) that it can be difficult to tell. In that case it is best to go with the first definition. I'm sure that professional taxonomists have a more detailed definition of what makes an orchid an orchid, but since I'm not a taxonomist that will have to do. It is important to note, however, that even though the reproductive parts are contained in the same structure, orchids have evolved a highly efficient system of insuring that self pollination never takes place.

Why are orchids the coolest plants on Earth?

It is a simple thing, really. Orchids are the world's neatest plants for several reasons. First, many orchid flowers are, simply put, stunning. They come in almost every color, shape, size, and many of them last for weeks if not months on the plant. That is probably reason enough. If that doesn't suffice, there is the inherent mystique that comes with growing orchids. I routinely tell people "I grow orchids", and almost invariably the response is awe, bordering on envy. Almost everyone I meet seems to think orchids are exotic, rare, and extremely difficult to grow. The first item is often true, as is the second. What is difficult for people to understand is that they are some of the easiest and most rewarding houseplants that can be had. True, there are plenty of difficult or just plain recalcitrant varietys of orchids out there, and these are hard even for experts to grow. But the most commonly seen orchids are easy to grow and bloom indoors (this probably explains why they are most commonly seen!).

Perhaps the best reason that orchids are so fun to grow is the sheer variety to be had. It is estimated that there are 20 to 30 _thousand_ different species of orchids out there, growing on every continent except Antarctica. You might just have some growing in your backyard, as there are plenty of species in virtually every climate. It is a common myth that all orchids are tropical. With that many species to choose from, you can never run out of new plants to play with. Assuming you _could_ collect one of each, orchids are further glorified by innumerable hybrids between species (it might be possible to count them, but I don't think anyone has). These hybrids are often easier to grow and more showy than their parents.

Can I grow orchids in my home?

Absolutely! That is where I grow all of mine! It is a common misconception that orchids must be grown in greenhouses or special (and expensive) setups. This is simply not true. Many orchids make excellent houseplants. In fact, some of them are even easier to grow than many "run of the mill" houseplants. Why do they make good houseplants?

First, many orchids (in fact, most of the ones you will ever see) are tropical in origin. Your typical house is maintained at temperatures typical of tropical regions. People and orchids feel comfortable in just about the same conditions. You wouldn't let you house get down below freezing in the winter, and the orchids are going to appreciate that. You may assume that if you are comfortable, the plants will be too.

Orchids thrive on abuse. Really. The best way to kill most orchids is to over water them, over fertilize them, or move them around a lot. They don't require a lot of care, so they are perfect plants for busy people.

Orchids come in a wide variety of "flavors", so you can always find a plant to fit your conditions. There are plants that like full sunlight, perfect for big bay windows with southern exposure. There are plants that would prefer very little light, perhaps they could go in that north window where nothing seems to do very well. And anything in between. And there are plants to fit virtually any temperature range, so if that big bay window gets chilly at night, there is still a plant for you!

What conditions to orchids need to grow well?

Any orchid is easy to grow if they are given the right conditions. The trick is to select one that will thrive under the conditions you already have in your home. It is much easier to pick plants to fit the growing area, than to modify the growing area to fit the plants. Of course, as people become familiar with the techniques of growing orchids and start to obtain more (see warning, below), they will eventually fill all available space and need to make new space, but that is a separate problem. So, in order to pick the appropriate orchids, we need to know what orchids need.

All orchids need several things. Light, water, nutrients, and air are among them. These things are all interrelated, and I will attempt to demonstrate that below. Temperature is another critical variable, but fortunately it is the easiest to address. Virtually all homes are maintained at temperatures that orchid growers would call "warm" or "intermediate". Very few homes are kept at a temperature we would call "cool". These temperature catagories are pretty broad, and refer to the lowest temperature that the plants like to grow at. Almost all orchids will tolerate high temperatures for brief periods of time, as long as they get cooler at night. Some orchids require periods of time at cool temperatures to flower. I have no idea what the official temperature ranges are, but let us assume that "warm" growers don't like to get much below 65 degrees F, "intermediate" growers go to 55-60 degrees, and "cool" growers like anything colder than that. Almost all orchids will tolerate brief periods of very cold conditions (let us say 10-20 degrees below the minimum), but these periods should be limited. Pick your temperature range. Most homes are kept in the "warm" category, but most "intermediate" plants will do well also.

The next thing to consider is light. Where are the plants going to live? You can select plants for almost any light level. Let us make three arbitrary light levels. "High" would be full sun or slightly less than full sun. Examples of this would be either outside (in the summer for us folks who get winter) or in a south facing window (in this hemisphere at least!). Few orchids like intense full sunlight, like one would get at high noon, so a little shade between 10-2 is probably necessary. "Medium" light is fairly bright, indirect sunlight. If you are picking windows, east windows, although they get direct light, get it in the morning when it is cool and are generally considered medium light. West windows, if they are shaded (a sheer curtain, or maybe a tree outside) would probably be considered somewhere between medium and high light depending on the amount of shading. Medium light is where african violets do well, if you grow these well, then that is where the medium light levels are. Low light is anything less than that. North windows, areas away from brighter windows would qualify. Anywhere where you would put a philodendron would probably qualify for low light. Pick the light level you have and let us consider the next item.

I'm going to call these miscellaneous factors, but they are all very important. Humidity, air movement, and water. They are all directly interrelated. In general, your plants, and you, are going to be more comfortable with a fair amount of humidity in the air. If you are running at 50% that is on the high end for people comfort and the low end for most orchid comfort. Air movement is very essential, stale dead air will promote the growth of various nasty things that you don't want. Note, that as you increase air movement you decrease humidity in most cases. As air movement increases, or humidity decreases, the amount of water you have to give a given plant will change. Scary, how all those things are related. If you start thinking about other variables, such as light or temperature, you will see that those are interrelated too! The more light you have, the higher the temperature, the lower the humidity, and the more water you have to give plants. It goes on like that. The key here is to know that these things are interrelated, and then to stop worrying about it. For a beginner, it is better to start with a good plant selection than to worry about changing the environment. As you get more plants you can start changing the environment. Just grouping several plants together will increase the local humidity, for example.

What orchids are easy to grow?

All orchids are easy to grow under their ideal conditions. Of course, we rarely have those conditions in our homes. The trick is to pick orchids that will grow under our conditions. I am going to present a few hypothetical growing areas, and suggest some plants to fit. For an explanation of all of those terms like "high light" and "intermediate" temperatures, see above.

Hypothetical growing area #1. A north facing window, with low light and intermediate to warm temperatures. Your typical north window in your typical house. If you are into plants, you probably have a few philodendrons here, maybe some other foliage plants. Move them to make space for orchids, they are more important. There are not many kinds of orchids that are foolproof for this area, unfortunately. There are a few that I highly recommend, all of them Paphiopedilums. These are the "slipper" orchids. Fortunately they come in a great assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Paph. Maudiae

This is a classic slipper cross, perhaps the most common Paph in existance. You can pick from several colors, ranging from ice green to darkest wine. Vigorous and free flowering.

Paph. hybrids

Many other hybrids besides Maudiae are excellent. Ask the grower to make sure they will tolerate low light. Most of the hybrids with mottled leaves will do well.

Paph. species

Once again, the mottled leaved ones will do better than some of the others. Some good ones to try are sukhukulii and callosum. Once again, make sure you ask the grower which ones will do well for you.

Hypothetical growing area #2: An east facing window in your typical home. This would be medium light, intermediate to warm temperatures. Hey, aren't you in luck! This is a great place to grow orchids. Lots of cool things to try. In order of (supposed) ease of culture.


You will have more luck with hybrids than with species. Trust me. But the good news is that there is an infinite variety of hybrids to choose from in many very nice colors. Classics include the standard whites, white with a colored lip (usually red), pinks, and various patterned flowers (white with spots, pinks with spots, stripes, all sorts of cool things). Some of the newer hybrids are very nice yellows, with or without markings. Also fairly new are the "multifloral" types. These sacrifice size of flowers for number of flowers (lots!) and usually bloom on smaller plants. To pick one or two that would do the best for the absolute novice, I would pick something in a standard white, or one of the multiflorals. I'd give names of hybrids, but it really doesn't matter and would just make life more complicated.


Don't get flustered, this is just a Phalaenopsis type of orchid with a dose of a related genus, Doritis, thrown in. Depending on how much Doritis is involved, these often have spikes that grow very erect, rather than arching like a typical Phal. One of my very favorite Doritaenopsis (Dtps.) is Dtps. Talitha Klehm. Can't go wrong with this one.


Paphs are back. Most Paphs will do well under these conditions, including those listed in the previous section. You gets more to choose from though. You may wish to pick up a "multifloral" Paph. Multiflorals are just what they sound like, usually three or more flowers on an inflorescence. I can strongly recommend Paph. Prim-n-proper and Paph. Honey for ease of growth and bloom.


Oooh! Until recently an overlooked genus, these are some of the easiest plants to grow well. These are the new world slippers. Stay away from the species at first, and try some of the hybrids. An indestructible one would be Phrag. Sedenii. The first Phrag hybrid made, over a century ago, and still a good one.


Any of the cattleyas or cattleya hybrids (look for things like Lc., Slc., Potinara, Epicattleya...). You are best off asking a grower which ones will do well in your conditions, some require more light than others and some are tricky to get to flower.

Hypothetical growing area #3: A sunroom. High light, warm temperatures. I would really like an area like this, consider yourself lucky. First, lets make sure it stays warm in the winter, and since it is a sunroom you can boost the humidity up a bit. Lets aim for 60-80%?


Just like with Cattleyas, these have been hybridized extensively. Things in the "Vanda" group would include Vanda (of course!), Ascocenda, Ascocentrum, and a bunch of other stuff. These are plants that like a great deal of light (but not full sun). These are usually grown in baskets or mounted such that the roots are exposed, and as such need watering on a daily basis in the summer, and semidaily or so in the winter. Too many to choose from to make a suggestion, but try to stay away from species and get a good hybrid.


See above section for some of the intergenerics. Most Cattleyas will do very well in a sunroom. Ask a grower for a good one.


In the shadier corners of your sunroom, make sure you have a few Phals. These are much too easy to grow and much too attractive to ignore.


Once again, we are looking at some of the multifloral types, they will like to get as much light or more light than a Phal, and perhaps as much as a Cattleya.


Here we have to assume that the room cools down quite a bit in the winter. If it does (lows to 50 or so) Cymbidiums might be an ideal choice. Easy to grow if you throw enough sunlight, food, and water at them in the summer, and then let them get nice and cool in the fall and winter.


The Surgeon General has determined that orchids are highly addictive!

Well, not really. But be warned, once you get your first orchid, it is very hard to stop. It isn't such a bad thing, really, but it can put quite a strain on one's budget! Having one orchid is like having one potato chip, you just can't stop with one. Orchids have the added benefit of being less fattening and they stick around longer than potato chips.

Tips on buying your first orchid

How to buy your first orchid

If you have been following along, you probably have a good idea of what kind of plants will grow where you have space to put them. For one's first plant, I have a few more suggestions. In general, you can't go wrong with Phalaenopsis. If you have to have only one orchid, and it is your first orchid, go with a Phal. They have the added advantage of being very common and relatively inexpensive. If Phals are not your thing, then by all means buy something that you like. For a first orchid, it is probably best to stay away from species orchids, and buy hybrids. Species are typically more finicky than hybrids which are (by definition) composed of two or more species. See Just what is a "species" anyway? for more information on species. The most important thing to do is to pick out a good, healthy, and vigorous plant.

Well, how _do_ you pick a good plant, anyway? It all starts with finding a place to buy the plant you want. Perhaps you know what kind of orchid you want, perhaps you don't. That isn't a problem. A good place to start is a local orchid show. There is one virtually every weekend, and one will be near you, most likely, eventually. Check out the "AOS (American Orchid Society) Homepage" for a schedule. Once you are at the show, you will see many many many orchids in bloom. This is the fun part! Just wander around and see what you like. It helps to bring a pencil and paper. Go in knowing where you have space for a plant, and what the growing conditions are for that space (see above). If you have been reading the whole (long) dissertation on this page, you should be familiar with what types of easy to grow orchids will fit your conditions. When you see one of these in bloom (everything should be labelled) make a note of what its name is, also note who is exhibiting it (every display has an owner) Or just wander around and see what colors and markings are possible for the plant you want to buy (Phalaenopsis come in many many different colors). This is your opportunity to see what well grown specimens look like, and what your plant will look like!

Now you are armed with information. You know what you like, and you have seen enough examples to know what good ones look like. If you aren't sure what good ones look like, look for ribbons or awards and see which plants match. The beauty of an orchid show is that experts have gone around before you even got there, and judged each plant in the show against all the other plants in the show. There is some stiff competition, of course, and nobody brings poor flowers to a show. You also know who grew the plants you liked. Now, and only now, is a good time to go to the sales area. There is almost always a sales area, where commercial growers (and often the host society) have set up tables and are hawking their wares. Try to get to the show early on the first day, that way the vendors will still have blooming plants available. Visit the show first! Know what you like! Don't get distracted in the sales area and end up buying something that won't do well for you. Discipline! Easy to say, hard to do. But this is your first orchid, and you should go home with something that does well for you.

Now you are in the sales area. What do you see? There will be several tables with a wide assortment of plants. On each table is likely to be a wide range of sizes of plants. You will see blooming plants, plants that are near blooming size, and seedlings. Now life becomes more complicated, but you have your list or your mental picture of what you want and you are all set. Go to a table that has blooming plants of the type you like. Say hi to the nice person standing behind the table. He/she is your best friend. Really. This is the person who knows what plants are on the table and probably the person who grew the plants. If they don't know what they have on the table, go to a different table. Try to go into the sales area when it is not crowded, so you can get some one on one time with the grower. Tell this person that you are buying your first orchid and that you are interested in this type. Let us say you want a yellow Phalaenopsis with red markings. Say that. This helps the grower immensely, and they will then show you all of the yellow Phals that they have. Take note of the price, thank the kind person, and go to the next table and repeat the process. Eventually you will find the plant you like, at the price you like, and then you get to take it home and enjoy it.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? And easy it is. Every person who sells you a plant is going to try and make sure you get the plant you want, and that you have all the information you need to grow that plant. They are in the business of selling plants, and if you don't do well with your first one, you certainly aren't going to be buying another one, at least from them. If at any time you get the impression that a grower is trying to sell you a crappy plant, and doesn't really care if you do well or not, then move on. There are plenty of growers out there, and good ones stay in business and the bad ones don't. Don't help the bad ones stay in business any longer than they rightly should (which is about 20 minutes). Fortunately almost all of the growers I have ever met are of the good category.

For your first plant, it is generally recommended that you buy a blooming sized plant in good health. Why? Well, this way you get to enjoy it. Not to sound gloomy, but virtually everybody kills or greatly abuses their first orchid. It is a learning experience. A bigger plant is harder to kill. Also, if you buy a plant in bloom you know exactly what you are getting, and will not be disappointed. Those little seedlings are tempting at 2.00-5.00 a pop, but for your first plant that is probably not a good idea. Expect to pay 20-30 dollars for a good sized blooming Phalaenopsis, maybe more for a very select plant or very large plant. Remember that these flowers are going to last for a month or two, and you will get your money's worth even if you subsequently kill the plant.

Plant selection made simple

This section is for the person who is perhaps a bit more experienced, knows what they like, and wants to add good plants to their collection. This has probably happened to you. You want a yellow Phalaenopsis, you want a good one, and you walk into the sales area and there you see a hundred of rather nice looking ones. How on earth do you choose? This is further complicated, because you have the opportunity to buy seedlings and other unbloomed yellow Phals. Let us start with the blooming stuff. And we will stick to Phals, although the principles translate exactly.

Picking blooming stock

There are three factors that go into selecting a blooming plant. Flower quality, size of plant, and health of plant. Of these, unless you see something you really really have to have, stay away from unhealthy plants. That is an automatic disqualifier. Examine plants carefully, look for nice foliage free of blemishes (or only having very old blemishes) and non wilted. Wilting leaves signal root problems and poor growing. In general, each new growth should be as large or larger than the one immediately preceeding it. For Phals, each new leaf should be (when mature) as large or larger than the one immediately below it. If you see leaves getting smaller then that is also a sign of an unhealthy plant. Always examine plants for signs of pests or pest damage as well. Never buy plants with pests! Size is important, but only in the sense that a larger plant will cost more than a smaller plant. If you see very small plants priced equivalently to larger plants, this may be a sign that they are overpriced or harder to grow (some growers charge based on how long plants have been on the bench, in this case, small plants would represent the slow growers). Size is probably the least important factor in plant selection, but if you see two similar flowers, on nicely grown plants, you may wish to select the larger of the plants. Might as well get your money's worth.

Flowers are the most important factor. You are growing this plant for the flowers, and you want to select the plant that has the flowers that most appeal to you. Are you going to get a blooming plant off of a vendor table and then turn around and get an AOS award on it? Probably not, if it were that good it would be in the show or on the stud bench reserved for breeding. Don't try to pick an award winner. It isn't worth your time, and trust that the growers know their plants well enough not to sell them blindly. If there is an award winner on the sales table, it will be priced accordingly and probably beyond your budget. Pick something you like, not something you think judges will like. Some things to consider:

Selecting unbloomed stuff

Here is where the fun is! When you are selecting from a table of nonblooming seedlings, you are in new territory. With one exception. Mericlones, stem-props, or divisions of previously bloomed plants should be identical to that bloomed plant. Usually, only superior flowers (some with awards, although there are plenty of great non-awarded plants) are selected for propagation, and you are safe buying them. The grower should have a blooming "sample" or a photograph of the flower, and you should get exactly what you see. To pick out the best plant of Phal. Orchid World "Joe" FCC/AOS (that is made up.. at least the clonal name) is simple. You pick the healthiest plant, and you pick the biggest one of the size you can afford. Not much challenge in that.

You also have the opportunity to buy unbloomed seedlings grown from seed. Each one of these will be different. Sometimes a "classic" hybrid is remade, and you know what to expect. Usually, the person who made the hybrid knows what they are looking for and has a good idea of what will come out (at least in terms of color and/or form), so even novel hybrids have some degree of predictability. So if you want a yellow Phal and you buy a new hybrid that has never been bloomed before that is supposed to be yellow, it probably will be. But, if you have your heart set on an exact color, marking pattern, or size, you are best served buying the blooming plant or its clone. Buying seedlings is kind of like playing the lottery, but you can increase your odds by doing your homework. It takes a long time to know just by looking at a cross what to expect, however. These are going to be the cheapest plants of all the ones I have discussed. Blooming plants are more expensive than seedlings, obviously, and mericlones are priced according to the quality of the original plant. But with seedlings, you have the opportunity to get your own, unique, and possibly very nice plant. Of course you also have an equal or better chance of getting either a sort of nice plant or a complete dog... Select here on size of plant, cost, and health of plant, as usual. If you know what the parents look like and can select based on that, then you are probably beyond this discussion.

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