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De-mystifying the orchid.

Orchids are the most beautiful flowers in the world! For more than a hundred years, they have bloomed on the windowsills and in the greenhouses of people from all corners of the earth and from all walks of life. Yet they remain a mystery to many. People have long regarded orchids as the "flowers of millionaires," commanding a king's ransom and living out an existence as brief and fragile as a breath on frosty air. Such legends add romance, but they are far from the truth. Although some top prize-winning orchids carry budget-breaking price tags, healthy, strong orchid plants may be purchased for the price of a long-playing record; and any orchid, when grown well, will prove to be a companion for life. The real truth is that everyone can grow orchids!

What is an orchid? First of all, orchids are not parasites, like mistletoe, that penetrate the bark of trees on which they live, extracting nourishment in this fashion. In nature most orchids are epiphytic; that is, they live on rocks and trees which serve only as support, while their specially designed roots wander about on the surfaces, taking moisture and nourishment from little pockets of humus and debris. Some orchids are terrestrial, their roots, like most plants, structured to grow in the ground rather than high in a tree or on some rocky ledge. The roots of most terrestrial orchids rarely penetrate deeply into the ground, however, preferring to ramble just underneath the cover of dead leaves and vegetation. As a result, orchids are rather independent plants, requiring only support, normal light conditions, and a reasonable amount of water and humidity. Most of us can supply these requirements far more easily than we might believe.

Certain orchids do inhabit the dank, steaming jungles deep in some Amazon River backwater--but if you live in the country in Oregon or Massachusetts, or practically anywhere, you may find terrestrial orchids blooming during the summer months. Orchids can and do live everywhere except in regions of perpetual snow or intense arid desert. You will find that your first orchids, if chosen with certain guidelines in mind, will seem to go out of their way to adapt to the conditions of your home or greenhouse.

Orchid flowers possess a bewildering display of colors, and their shapes and forms range from the sublime to the startling. Contrary to popular romance, no orchids are carnivorous, although a few have evolved such intricate pollination mechanisms that their flowers resemble flies and bees. The vast majority of orchids is uniquely beautiful, however, ranging from the flamboyant purple blossoms so popular as corsages to tiny, chaste white flowers that, when viewed through a magnifying lens, reveal the intricacies of a snowflake.

Orchids have a fascinating history, filled with exciting tales--some true, some not-so-true, a few tragic, but most delightful and heartwarming. They have intrigued housewives and kings, 19th-century scientists and 20th-century businessmen. One word of warning, though. Once you enter the world of orchids, you may not ever want to leave!

General Rules of Orchid Culture

Orchids, like other plants, can be grown successfully if their cultural requirements are met. There are many different kinds of orchids. You cannot hope to grow them all because a few will demand light conditions or temperatures that your particular climate may not be able to provide. You can grow a great number, however, if you follow two general principles. First, choose an orchid whose cultural requirements fit within the possibilities your growing area can provide. In other words, do not try to grow orchids that demand full, intense sun for 12 months out of the year if you live in gray, wintry New England. Second, adjust the climate of your growing area to meet the cultural requirements of the plants you can grow. Shade-loving orchids, such as Phalanenopsis, may be grown in sunny Florida, but you will have to provide additional artificial shading during most of the year.

Orchids in the Home

While a greenhouse remains the best way to grow orchids, people throughout the world have flowered orchids successfully in the home through a variety of methods. A windowsill, an area in the cellar under fluorescent lights, a sun porch, or a room bordered on three sides by picture windows can be transformed in an adequate facsimile of a "home greenhouse."

Orchids can be grown on the windowsill if there is adequate light, humidity, and temperature control. A bright window with a southern exposure is preferred. Direct sunlight should be broken with shading made from a fine-mesh curtain, cheese-cloth, or plastic sheeting. A northern exposure yields the poorest light and should be avoided--although phalaenopsis may be grown there if some supplemental lighting is provided.

Humidity--If the paint or wallpaper on your walls can take it, an indoor humidifier run at regular intervals throughout the day will benefit both the orchids and you. In addition you might place your plants on a wire screen or metal rack over a large, flat tray filled with gravel kept continually wet. The normal evaporation will create some humidity in the immediate area of your orchids. You may find it necessary to mist your plants often, remembering, however, that a plant kept soaking wet invites fungal and bacterial disease. If you are able to enclose the entire area in glass or plastic sheeting, still allowing for some air circulation, you will find it easier to maintain a proper humidity without resorting to constant sprayings. Remember, however, that you cannot increase the humidity by overwatering your plants, and you will certainly run the risk of losing the roots of your orchids if you do overwater. Humidity and proper watering are two separate problems. You must solve them independently.

Ventilation--A small fan may be turned on either continuously or at frequent intervals, placed at a distance from the plants. A window left ajar in all but the coldest of weather, again at some distance from the plants, may be adequate to provide proper ventilation.

Watering--A proper watering procedure will depend upon your particular plants, the potting medium in which they are growing, and your own unique growing conditions. Refer to the section on growing the different genera for more specific instructions. A good guideline to follow for terrestrial orchids is to keep them moist but not wet. This may entail watering once or even twice a week in fairly dry weather. Epiphytic orchids must be allowed to approach dryness before they are watered again; consequently, one watering is usually adequate. Observation, however, rather than adherence to a strict schedule is the key to success in watering correctly.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:growing orchids in your home
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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