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Bringing orchids down to earth: the sky's the limit for growers of the world's most heavenly flowers.

No other flower is quite like the orchid. The very name evokes visions of tropical jungles, fragile beauty, extravagance, mystery, even intrigue. However-not that we want to lessen the romance of this exotic flower-anyone with a thumb green enough to grow an African violet can just as well grow an orchid and have beautiful blossoms on hand to give as Mother's Day corsages or as gifts to friends.

Despite orchids' fragile appearance, they have as strong a will to live as you have to make them live. And with a little tender loving care, they will display beautiful flowers on a regular and predictable schedule.

Although orchids in the wild require five to ten years from seed to blossom, the modern techniques of tissue-culture production have shortened the time for blooming. Many new orchids can be produced in short order from just a few cells of a selected plant. But don't plan on being listed in The Guinness Book of World Records for growing every orchid in nature's portfolio. The orchid family is the largest among plants: approximately 800 genera, more than 35,000 known species, and probably that many or more hybrids.

Orchid species have been found from the arctic tundra to the tropics, in rain forests, in bogs, on sand dunes. A few in Australia even grow underground. Some species thrive at sea level; others survive equally well at 14,000 feet. Although orchids are grown primarily for their exotic flowers, one variety, the vanilla orchid, is important commercially as a source of vanilla flavoring.

Assuming you're more interested in the flower than in making your own vanilla, where to begin? Your choice will be between epiphytic and terrestrial varieties. Most tropical orchids are epiphytic-that is, rather than growing in soil, they attach to trees or other support systems by means of aerial roots. Orchids that grow in colder climates are terrestrial: they grow like most other plants rooted in the soil.

Whatever species you choose, you must provide conditions it requires to grow well and flower. Basically, orchids are classified by the temperature range in which they grow. The cool-growing require daytime temperatures of 60 degrees to 70 degrees F. and night temperatures of 50 to 55. Warm types like day temperatures of 70 degrees to 85 degrees F. and night temperatures of 60 to 65.

Orchids have two distinct ways of growing, either upright or horizontal. In general, orchids that grow horizontally prefer the high light of very lightly shaded south-facing windows; the upright variety will thrive in the slightly lower light of east-facing windows. Your orchids will let you know whether you are giving them the light they prefer. If the light is too intense, the leaves will turn yellow and you may even see some burn spots. If the light is inadequate, the leaves will become unnaturally dark green, growth will be stunted, and flowers won't form.

If you don't have a window with good light, you can grow most orchids under four 40-watt fluorescent tubes turned on for 16 hours a day. The tops of the plants should be about six inches away from the lights. Position the orchids that grow horizontally in the center, where the light is highest, and the upright growers at the ends, where the light is lowest.

Should you be short on growing space, you can choose from thousands of miniatures. The new Toyland miniature delivers a first-rate performance for the home grower. It never outgrows a four-inch pot, and its nearly white, silver-dollar-size blossoms cover the plant for nine to ten months of the year. In the few months that Toyland rests, you can enjoy its mottled white foliage.

Although orchids prefer rather high humidity, most of them are accommodating enough to survive the moderate humidity of the ordinary home. You can easily increase the humidity by placing the plants on a tray of moist pebbles. All orchids need good ventilation year-round. Be sure to adjust them slowly to protect them from the direct sun if you give them a summer vacation on a patio. Otherwise, they may get sunburns.

You will have to revise your thinking about watering and potting when you grow the epiphytic orchids. The spongy roots will rot if the potting medium is not allowed to dry out slightly between waterings. They will grow best in mixtures of redwood-, fir-, or pine-bark mulch with sphagnum peat, perlite, and a long-lasting fertilizer. Terrestrial orchids, on the other hand, are watered like any other houseplant because they are potted in typical soil mixtures.

You won't have to repot orchids often-they like to grow potbound. If newly potted, they should be watered sparingly at first. Established plants should be drenched at each watering, foliage and all, with a quarter-strength solution of 30-10-10 liquid fertilizer or the equivalent. Just be sure not to overwater them, and never let them sit in water. All orchids should be allowed to rest for a month or more, depending on the species, when their flowering displays are over. During that period, water them sparingly and don't fertilize them.

A word of warning: once you purchase your first orchid and experience the fun of knowing them and the ease of growing them, you won't want to stop. Orchids are indeed the most irresistible of all plants we can grow in our homes.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Henke, Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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