Exotic Orchids -November/December 2011

by: Hilary Newell

The fact that many species of native orchid wildflowers are protected under the federal endangered species act probably adds to the mystique of orchid culture. According to "Wildflowers of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island" there are at least six members of the orchidaceae family on Nantucket, the showiest being Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Blooming in May and June, this pink pouch-like flower can be found in pine or oak forests, and even on Coatue. I've seen them in Tom Nevers and in a neighbor's garden in the Miacomet area.

The Lady's Slipper has a solitary pink baglike flower on a single stem springing from two large oval leaves. When you spot one for the first time, you will stop dead in your tracks and stare at its unusual form. When I first spotted a large bed of them in the woods of central Pennsylvania, I had to get down on my stomach to look at these unusual flowers up close. Whether they were protected at that time I do not know, but I felt that they were very special and they shouldn't be disturbed. Sadly, when I visited the area years later, the woods had been turned into a development, and there wasn't even any greenery left.

As the subject of the non-fiction work "The Orchid Thief," the air of mystery surrounding the orchids has been brought further into the realm of public awareness. Food enthusiasts know that the common flavoring vanilla comes from the seeds of Vanilla planifolia, which is only one of about 180 species in the Vanilloideae sub-family of the orchid family. You think your family is complex? Once this viney plant reaches about 35 feet, individual flowers open for one day. Handpollination for commercial production ensures that the vanilla "bean" will form.

The majority of orchids available commercially are hybrids bred from certain wild species, but there is a large illegal demand for many species that has led to the depletion of natural populations, leaving numerous species on the endangered list. Orchid-smuggling and destruction of habitat are both contributing to the demise of orchid species from the wild.

Orchids have adapted to just about every environment on earth, hence the great diversity of the family. There are 25,000 to 30,000 different kinds of wild orchids throughout the world, and more than 60,000 known types of orchid cultivars created by orchid hybridizers. The American Orchid Society states that over 100,000 have been registered.

Maybe it's because of the exotic appearance of their blooms, or because of their peculiar growing habits, but orchids have certainly captured the human imagination. Orchid history is steeped in lust, greed and wealth. In fact, the name "orchid" comes from the Greek orchis, meaning testicle. One might think this refers to the suggestive flower shape of certain species, but it describes the tubers which are underground that store next year's food.
Orchid flowers can range in size from very tiny to larger than a human hand. Their flowers are highly structured with an elaborate morphology and they come in a wide (and sometimes wild) variety of colors. Wild orchids grow in just about every habitat from tree branches to rocky outcroppings. It is estimated that about half of the species of orchids are epiphytic, meaning they grow above the ground surface, often on plants or other structures, not as parasites, but deriving their water and nutrients from rain only. Some species are parasitic or semi-parasitic on the roots of oaks or birches under which they grow. Some are symbiotic with other plants, meaning each needs the other to survive.

It takes some orchids 10 years to bloom, while some hybrids others often bloom in a year. Such diversity makes a plant geek positively giddy.

There is great controversy among and between orchid specialists, collectors, growers and environmentalists. Collectors have been known to remove every orchid plant from a habitat, then burn the area to corner the market on that particular orchid. This "orchidelierium" was noted in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1960s, and the beginning of the environmental movement, that regulations came into effect to not only protect orchids in the wild, but to protect their habitats as well. In 1973, the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade and in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) was signed by 120 nations helping to ensure that no more species of orchids become endangered or extinct. This treaty basically says that any species of plant or animal that is endangered may not be commercially traded, and rare species that are not yet endangered may not be removed from the wild. Strict regulations are also supposed to ensure that no more orchid species become extinct. But orchid-smuggling continues for a couple reasons. Because the technology is not cheap, commercially-grown orchids are expensive, and it is often easier and less expensive to obtain orchids from the wild. Some orchid aficionados also find readilyavailable orchids to lack the exotic aura of wild orchids. If you are purchasing an orchid as a houseplant, be sure it is from a reputable grower, and not collected from the wild.

Purchasing orchids at a discount price could be contributing to habitat destruction or helping to place a species on the endangered list.

The wild orchid mystique has also contributed to the plant's reputation of being difficult to grow as a houseplant. But these orchids are different than the orchids we commonly see as houseplants. Economically, the tissue-culture production of hybrid orchids for houseplants has become very important in the flower world, especially in Hawaii, where orchids are a major export. Tissueculture propagation has greatly reduced the cost of many commonly-grown orchids.

Orchid societies exist nationally and in many individual states and orchid shows are pretty common. Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Mass. is well worth the visit for their orchid show each November. The Annual Cape and Islands Orchid Show at the Resort and Conference Center in Hyannis is a fun day-trip, too. In 2012, it will be held Jan. 28 and 29.

Orchid shows and informational seminars are a great place to learn the basics of growing orchids as houseplants. Each type of orchid requires specific light, water, potting medium and nutrients.
Once you understand what your orchid needs, it will reward you with blooms year after year. When it comes to watering orchids, the method is the same for most species. When you water an orchid, place the plant in the sink and let tepid water run through the media for about a minute. Be sure to let the plant drain completely. Use plain tap water, not treated water or distilled water. The medium has a big impact on how frequently to water, too. Generally, orchids planted in bark need more-frequent watering, as the medium dries rapidly. Those planted in sphagnum moss will need less-frequent watering, but the method remains the same.

Certain other cultural tips apply to all orchids grown as houseplants. You can use a shallow tray of pebbles filled with water to increase humidity around your plants. Be sure the pot does not sit in water as this will rot the roots. Give your plants room for air to circulate around them, as crowding can lead to problems with insects and diseases. In general, when the blooms are finished, cut the spike down to the level of the leaves and continue to water and fertilize. No matter what kind of orchid you have, the best time to repot it is right after it has finished blooming. Never repot an orchid while it is in bloom.

Paphiopedilums are among the most popular commercial orchids, as the plants and cut flowers are sold throughout the world. The Pink Lady's Slipper, a close relative of the paph, is one of the most widely-smuggled orchids in the world. Paphiopedalums make excellent houseplants with their care, much the same as African Violets. The amount of heat and light they receive will influence watering. Paphs generally need more-frequent watering than some others because they have no pseudobulbs to retain water. Watering about every five days is usually sufficient, but they shouldn't dry too heavily. If your paph is planted in sphagnum moss, just water it when the top feels dry, being mindful to not let the sphagnum stay too wet. This group belongs to the "low-light" group of orchids. West or south windows may be too bright unless shaded by sheer curtains. An east window is ideal. If the plant is getting a reddish tinge on the leaves, you'll need to provide some shade, as it's probably getting too much light. If it doesn't re-bloom in a year, it's probably not getting enough light. This group of orchids also likes the same temperature as we do in the home. Sixty to 65 degrees at night and 75-85 in the daytime is just right, but remember that the temperature at the windowsill can be dramatically different than what the thermometer indicates. You can put your paph outside in the summer. Just protect it from cold night temperatures and too much mid-day light. The leaves will scorch, and this "summer burn" will affect the expected bloom.

Cymbidium orchids are known for their longlasting sprays of flowers, and in addition to houseplants, are used in wedding bouquets and corsages. They are available in standard or miniature form, with the miniatures performing better in warmer temperatures. These plants need a high light level, but not so much that the foliage burns. Protection from mid-day sun is good, but the cooler the climate, the more sun is tolerated. Seventy-five to eighty degrees in daytime andfifty to sixty at night are great until the plants have buds, then a more constant temperature, and more frequent watering are required. Cymbidiums also prefer moderate humidity, between 40 percent and 60 percent, or they will succumb to fungus on the flowers.

Large white sprays of flat flowers are what many people think when they hear Phaelenopsis. Indeed, the large white blooms are symbolic at weddings and celebrations of all sorts. But Phaelenopsis, also known as the Moth Orchid, come in a wide variety of colors, from pinks to
deep purples, and in my experience are the easiest orchids to get to rebloom. They are muchadmired with commercial growers and home enthusiasts. They will grow in a window with little or no sun, but in gray, wintery New England, they can tolerate lots more light exposure. Phaelenopsis should never completely dry out, as they have no water-holding structure like some other orchids. They should be watered thoroughly as described above, and not watered again until they are nearly dry. This depends greatly on your climate. In a hot summer location, you may need to water almost every day. In the winter, with gray days, it might be 10 days between watering. Individual flowers on this orchid can last for weeks, and a stem with multiple flowers will provide color for several months. When you consider the length of bloom time, the cost of the plant ($25 and up) becomes less significant.

Dendrobiums should be planted in a porous, well-drained media. Their "canes" are known as pseudobulbs and they are very efficient at storing water. B.C. Wolverton, who writes about fresh air, claims that Dendrobioum species actively remove the toxic chemicals toluene and xylene from the air. In full bloom, there can be dozens of fleshy, exotic, complex, colorful flowers on a plant. They are often crossed with Phaelenopsis, but require a little more of everything: more water, more fertilizer and more light. The creeping rhizomes will generally send up a new shoot of flowers each year, with some of these shoots further producing new plants.

Cattleyas are similar to Dendrobiums in that they are epiphytes. They should be potted in media that drains well – like bark – and they are used to drying down to the roots in between watering. This particular species is particularly sensitive to "soft water" and will suffer if they are watered with salt-treated water. They also prefer higher humidity and air movement. The humidity can be provided by setting the pot on a tray of stones and keeping the stones in water, thereby keeping the roots from staying too wet, and providing the humidity that the plant needs. There is no single description for a Cattleya flower, as there are so many forms and colors.

If it seems that there is an awful lot to know about growing orchids, you are correct. But you needn't know everything about them to grow some successfully. If you are a beginner, choose an orchid that you like, preferably with several buds that have not yet opened. Orchid flowers can last for months, so enjoy the blooms while you get used to the light, fertilizer and watering requirements of your plant. Be sure to find out the type of plant you have and do a little research. Once you find the right location and get into the right habits of watering and fertilization, your orchid can reward you with year after year of bloom. Be sure to purchase your orchid from a reputable source to guarantee that your plant has not been illegally removed from the wild. Go to an orchid show and get inspired to grow and learn more. It's a healthy habit that will give you lots of enjoyment.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett's Ocean View Farm, and is always on the lookout for interesting wildflowers around the island.






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