Oct 16, 2010

Orchid Care 101

Orchids (Orchidaceae spp.) grow naturally in tropical environments like a rain forest. They are a  large group of flowering plants with over 22,000 known species, and are perhaps the second largest group of flowering plants in the world. Some orchids even grow on rocks near rivers or streams where they receive constant moisture. Orchids also grow dangling from the branches of trees. Over time, these beautiful plants have adapted to warm, humid places. The easiest way to care for orchids is to try mimicking these conditions as closely as possible in your home. 

They have a reputation for being difficult to care for, but given the  right conditions, and assuming their needs are well met, they can live for years just like any other exotic houseplant. What most people don’t realize is that orchids love water and humidity. Because of this, orchids need a good draining mix and lots of air circulation – both down in the roots and around the entire plant. Orchids DO NOT grow in potting soil – this would most assuredly kill them! Instead, they are grown in a light, airy bark mix and clay, terracotta or glazed pots. Orchid pots have holes throughout the pot, in order to let the plant's roots breathe.

Most orchids love bright, indirect light (but not full sun). A southern window is the ideal location for most orchids, except Lady’s slipper and Moth orchids, which prefer less light (East or West facing windows are best). Place your orchids back a bit from the window to avoid direct sun.

Northern light would not be good for any type of orchid – In order to grow well they must have lots of bright light. Consequently, a northern exposure does not offer this important requirement. In case northern light is all you have, you can successfully grow orchids using only fluorescent lighting.

Although many orchid tags state “just three ice cubes every week” is enough water for your orchid, this is not true! Don’t believe it! The fact is, orchids need more water than just three measly ice cubes can provide.

That said, overwatering is probably the number one reason orchids (and in fact all houseplants) die. The second reason (magnified if the plant is already being overwatered) is lack of proper light. While watering your orchid isn’t an exact science, learning the needs of you particular plant will help you to better meet its watering needs. All orchids have slightly different needs. Even so, your best bet is to drench the plant and let it dry out slightly before the next watering. In general, it’s good to water your orchid every 7 - 10 days.

There are two good ways to water your orchid. The first is to bring it to the kitchen sink. Run it under water until the bark (or whichever growing media you have for your orchid) is thoroughly saturated. Drench well. It should drain freely – the last thing anybody wants is a soggy, wet orchid mix! These beauties need a steady supply of moisture. However, be careful not to overwater. It’s better to forget a watering than it is to water too much.

The second way you can water your orchid is: submerge the plant pot into a stock pot or bucket of room temperature water. The water level should come up to just above the lip of the pot. Leave the plant there for about 10 minutes. Take the orchid out of the bucket and allow it to drain thoroughly.

One symptom of underwatering is wrinkled leaves. If you notice the foliage wrinkling, try watering your orchid a bit more next time.

Symptoms of overwatering include yellowing foliage. If you notice this symptom, it means the roots are slowly rotting; the plant can’t handle too much water! Let it dry out thoroughly before you water again. However, yellowing leaves can also indicate underwatering, so try and keep track of how often (and how much) you water. I’m not asking you to measure the water out, just keep it in mind!

Checking the Moisture Level
Use a pencil (point side down) in the media to check the moisture level of the orchid. Leave it buried for about 10 minutes. If the pencil is dry on the end when you check it, you need to water the plant. If the pencil is moist, wait before you water again.

Orchids love humidity since it reminds them of their natural growing conditions. There are several ways you can boost humidity around your orchid:

1. Use a humidity tray. These can be purchased specifically for orchids, African Violets, and other humidity-loving plants. Or, to save a trip to the plant shop – create your own humidity trays using a plastic drip tray filled with glass gems, stones, bark, or even sea shells. Set the orchid onto the stones, and then fill the tray to just beneath the bottom of the plant pot. Change out the water every two weeks and keep an eye out for empty trays… The more often you fill the tray, the better your orchid will do!

2. Mist your orchid whenever you water, or more even frequently if you live in a hot, dry place. If your home has very dry air, try misting daily

3. Use a humidifier in the same room as your plant. This will boost the ambient humidity around your plants, and they will reap the rewards! Leave it running whenever you feel your plants need a humidity boost
Use something like this tray filled with gems and shells (above), which also works well for African Violets. Of course, for your orchid you will surely need something a lot larger than what's above!

4. Group your orchids close together, even on the same humidity tray. The plants will benefit from the moisture expelled and take it in through their leaves

A Specialized Plant Part
Some orchids have a feature on the base of the plant called a psuedobulb, which stores water (exactly like cacti and succulents store water in their leaves). These orchid types love water. When you water, just drench the plant. Before you water again, allow the orchid to approach some level of dryness. This is very important, since psudobulb orchids will utilize the water they already have stored. A psudobulb is exactly like the hump on a camel’s back. Remember this fact the next time you water! (Keep in mind: some orchids don’t have a psudobulb, so it’s a good idea to look at the base of your orchid to see which type you have)

Media and Fertilizer
Orchid growing media is usually composed of some combination of: Fir bark, perlite, and charcoal. Occasionally you’ll see coconut husk fibers included in the mixture. Orchid planting mix/media will drain very generously. Fir bark is very low in nutrients, so your orchid will need to be fertilized with a balanced fertilizer (such as 20-20-20 or 10-10-10) from time to time to maintain its beautiful blooms and foliage. When fertilizing an orchid, please remember: a little goes a long way! Use a water soluble fertilizer every other time you water – even in the winter! Shock! You won’t hear me say that very often! Be sure to fertilize monthly in the wintertime.

Types of Orchids
There are many kinds of orchids available for you to choose from. If you have eastern or western facing windows where you already keep plants, your best choices are the Moth or Slipper Orchid variety (since these prefer less light). If you have a southern or western window, look for any of the other plants listed below. Florescent lights are also available if you don’t have a South, East or western exposure to take advantage of.

Buttonhole Orchid
(Epidendrum spp.)
Blooms: Clusters of small flowers
Light: Bright light is best
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Cactus Orchid
(Epiphyllum spp.)
Blooms: Large, bright flowers
Light: Medium to bright light is best
Water: Keep this plant barely moist at all times (slightly wet); water less than other orchids

Corsage Orchid
(Cattleya spp.)
Blooms: Big, frilled blooms used to make corsages, hence the name.
Light: Bright light is best. Direct sun in the morning is okay, with just a bit in the afternoon
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Clamshell Orchid
(Encyclia spp.)

Blooms: Clusters of numerous small flowers

Light: Bright light is best

Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Cymbidium Orchid
(Cymbidium spp.)

: Long lasting flowers, grass-like foliage

Light: Bright light is best

Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Dancing Lady Orchid
(Oncidium spp.)

Blooms: This orchid’s flower actually looks like a little dancing lady in a dress, hence its name. The plant can produce up to 100 small blooms at once! Colors include red, white and yellow. The flowers have the scent of chocolate!
Light: Bright to intense light is best. Protect from direct sun if placed outdoors in the summertime
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings. Can have pseudobulbs.

Dens, Spray Orchids
(Dendrobium hybrids)
Blooms: Attractive flowers last for weeks at a time. Yellow, red, pink, or violet colors.
Light: Bright to intense light is best.
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings. Keep in mind their cane-like stems store water! Some varieties also have pseudobulbs.

Jewel Orchid
(Ludisia discolor)
Blooms: Maroon colored leaves with silver veins
Light: Medium light is best
Water: Keep plant evenly moist (drench, then water again just before the media dries out on top)

Moth Orchid
(Phalaenopsis spp.)
Blooms: Flowers last 6 weeks or longer and come in colors of white, pink or yellow, with a network of colorful veins throughout the petals. The flowers are moth shaped, hence the name
Light: Medium to bright; less light than most other orchids. Place the plant in an eastern or western exposure
Water: Allow media to go dry (about 1 inch below the surface) between waterings

Odontoglossum Orchid
(Odontoglossum spp.)
Blooms: Dramatic arching flower spray
Light: Bright light is best
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Lady’s Slipper Orchid
(Paphiopedilun spp.)
Blooms: The blooms include a pouch which looks like a slipper, giving this orchid its name. Blooms can last for 8 weeks, sometimes more. Strap-like leaves with large, waxy flowers. Comes in pink, brown, or white colors.
Light: Needs less light than most other orchids, on the moderate side. An eastern or western exposure will do nicely. Protect from direct sun if placed outdoors in the summertime
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Spider Orchid
(Brassia spp.)
Blooms: Spider-like flowers with graceful stems
Light: Bright to intense light is best
Water: Allow media to go slightly dry between waterings

Tailed Orchid
(Masdevallia spp.)
Blooms: Showy tailed flowers
Light: Medium to bright light is best
Water: Keep plant barely moist at all times

Vanda Orchid
(Vanda hybrids)
Blooms: Large long lasting flowers
Light: Bright to intense light is best
Water: Allow media to go dry between waterings

This post was made especially for one of my readers, Joe's Blog, who asked me a question about her orchid. Thanks for reading! And to all of you, good luck caring for and selecting your orchids! Have an awesome day =)


  1. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!
    T H A N K Y O U !!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Always happy to help a fellow plant lover....you are most welcome!! Viel Glück mit ihrer Orchidee Anlage! ;)

  3. Hi Eirinn,
    how nice your blog!
    have much to learn here!
    from São Paulo

  4. Hello Denise, thank you very much! I am pleased you are here. Welcome!

  5. Great thread hon ~ filled with great info!

  6. I was given a dying orchid and I hope to revive it with all your suggestions. Thanks Eirinn :)

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  13. I have an orchid which quit blooming so I cut the stem off, but it has many tuber things all outside the soil. Is this normal, should they be cut off, or does it need repotting?

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  16. What's the answer to august question? Mine too has quit blooming and have tuber things coming out all over plant looks good but no blooms, indirect east morning light. Susan

  17. Thak you sooo much

  18. Wow nice Post..
    Yes for take care an orchids flower you have to used an Orchid Pots which helps an orchids flower to grow.it helps in containing an water which is one of the most important ingredients for orchids..

  19. Wow,love your blog. Ask for your advice, my orchid had just started to show it spike by one when someone broke it.I have just replotted it and I wonder will it bloom again.

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