Orchid Intimidation

Fear Not

I used to find orchids intimidating to grow. Their dust-sized seeds are fairly unique in not having any food reserves so — in the wild, at least — need the help of a fungus partner to get growing. And some orchids (epiphytes) spend their lives nestled in trees so need a special potting mix when grown in a pot. Orchids have above-ground structures called pseudobulbs. And many, especially those that call humid, tropical forests their homes, demand exacting environmental conditions that are very different from that found in most homes. Whew!

So I steered clear of growing any orchid for many years — until a local orchid enthusiast gave me a plant. After a couple of years, that plant, around this time of year, sent up a slender stalk which was soon punctuated with eight waxy, white flowers, each an inch across. For two months, those flowers greeted me each morning with their beauty and their delicious fragrance. Every year since, that plant has greeted me for weeks in midwinter.

Odontogl . . . a Mouthful

My orchid has no common name so needs to be referred to by its botanical mouthful, Odontoglossum pulchellum. (Even orchid names are intimidating, especially so because different genera have often been hybridized, and the resulting hybrid combines the generic names of the parents. So a hybrid with Brassavola, Laelia, and Cattleya in its parentage would have the name Brassolaeliocattleya. Now that’s a mouthful!)

Name notwithstanding, my Odontoglossum pulchellum has been easy to grow and get to flower. Odontoglossum pulchellum orchidThe plant spends summers outdoors in semi-shade near the north wall of my house, and winters indoors on a sunny windowsill. I water it perhaps twice a week, unless I forget.

Sounds like your run-of-the-mill houseplant, doesn’t it? So much for orchids being difficult.

The only special treatment my plant gets is a special potting mix. Odontoglossum pulchellum is an epiphytic orchard. Commercial potting mixes are available for epiphytic orchards but I make my own by mixing equal parts of my standard (home made) potting mix with equal parts wood chips. Nothing special about the chips; I just scoop them up from the pile that I use mostly for mulch that an arborist kindly dumps next to my woodshed every year.

Every spring I divide my orchid plant into 2 or 3 new plants, potting each new plant into its own pot with fresh potting mix.

More Orchids?

Odontoglossum pulchellum is an orchid that tolerates being treated like your average houseplant. And this is one of the most important points in growing orchids in a house: choose a sort that thrives in such an environment. Other orchids that will grow in the average home include phalaenopsis, paphiopedilums, and mini-catts, which are dwarf hybrids involving Cattleya (the corsage orchid).

Ideally, for flowering at least, certain conditions must be met. Most orchids enjoy bright light, which means setting the plant at an east, west, or south windowsill. From spring through autumn, light from a south window is too intense and may scorch foliage, so plants need to be protected with a thin gauze curtain, or moved to other windows or semi-shade outdoors.

Most orchids — again, for flowering — enjoy a ten to fifteen degree temperature difference from day to night, which is no problem in winter if you heat with a wood stove or already turn the thermostat down at night to conserve fuel. In the summer, the plant needs to be outdoors or else in a room that is not air-conditioned.

Even those orchids adapted to a home environment benefit from increased humidity. I raise the humidity around my plants by perching the flowerpot above a water-filled tray. Clustering plants together is another way to raise the humidity near plants, and also creates a visual lushness.

Once correctly sited, many orchids do not require inordinate amounts of care. Water requirements vary, but species with thickened pseudobulbs (bulbous stems), such as my Odontoglossum, get by with the least frequent watering. Orchid roots are susceptible to fertilizer burn, so the rule in feeding is to do it frequently and lightly. As with other houseplants, some orchid species take an annual rest, and at such times watering and feeding should commensurately diminish.

Since “mastering” the growing of one orchid, I have acquired another kind.Pink rock orchid This orchid is Dendrobium kingianum, which does go under the more user-friendly common name of pink rock orchid. I have also gotten this one to flower — but not every year.

Nothing To Do

If the garden, indoors and out, has no need of my attention at any time of year, it is now. I probably shouldn’t even be writing anything about gardening because pretty much nothing is going on. So I’ll make this brief.
Lack of light, warmth, and/or enough cool temperatures are keeping plants quiescent or dormant. The bonsai weeping fig, the Maid of Orleans jasmine (Jasminum sambac), the rose geranium, and other

Bonsai weeping fig, biding its time, for now

houseplants aren’t waiting for warmth. They’re indoors. These tropical plants never experience true dormancy; they’re quiescent, just sitting and waiting for better growing conditions, in this case more light.

My amaryllis bulbs aren’t waiting for brighter days. They’re now leafless, so can’t see the light anyway. Like the above houseplants, the amaryllis bulbs are now also quiescent, in this case from lack of warmth. Yes, it’s warm in my home, but not in the basement where the potted bulbs have been residing. I’ve brought the first pot of amaryllises upstairs where warmth — and water, the lack of which also has kept the bulbs purposely quiescent — can prod the bulb awake.
What about lack of enough cool temperatures to kickstart plants? That’s the case, now, with trees and shrubs outside. These plants are dormant, held back not by lack of warmth or water but by their internal physiology that needs to be switched before they’ll respond to good growing conditions.
No petals will unfold nor buds expand into young shoots until these plants are convinced that winter is over. That recognition comes after the plant experiences a period of cool — not frigid, temperatures — in the range of about 30° to 45°F. Winter’s “over” for these plants after about 1,000 total hours of exposure to cool temperatures, although the amount can vary among kinds of plants, even varieties of the same kind of plant. Also, a spell of midwinter warm weather can have the effect of removing hours from the “chilling bank.”
So what’s a gardener to do now? Nothing.
Okay, not everything green is just biding its time. Some tropical flowers take the opportunity to blossom this time of year, even if the plants might be otherwise quiescent.  Hence, we have holiday poinsettias and Christmas cactii sporting their red, pink, or white blossoms.
Not that poinsettia and Christmas cactus flowers will blossom willy nilly. As with trees and shrubs outdoors, these tropical flowers can be prodded to blossom with certain environmental conditions. They don’t know from cold, except that it damages them, so what they need to flower is a change in photoperiod. For late December blossoming, poinsettia needs 6 weeks of 15-hour-long nights uninterrupted by any light at all. Even a table lamp or a flashlight.
Christmas cactus behaves similarly, with an additional wrinkle. If temperatures are cool, in the 50’s, daylength (or, more properly, nightlength, because it’s the length of dark period to which the plants are responding) is immaterial. Plants will flower. If temperatures are warm, in the 70’s, daylength is similarly immaterial. Plants will NOT flower. With temperatures in the 60’s, plants will flower only after a period of 11-hour-long nights.
After a number of years of annual bloom, my poinsettia died, last summer. I got rid of my Christmas cactus many years ago to prevent its infestation of scale insects from spreading to other houseplants. I’ll eventually replace both but for now, there’s still nothing for me to do, gardenwise.
One plant that responds to some environmental condition, but I’m not sure what, is my orchid, the botanical mouthful Odontoglossum pulchellum. Every winter, sometime between the end of December and

February, my potted plant sends up thin flower stalks along which sprout white flowers whose thick petals look as if they were carved from wax and from which drifts a delicate fragrance. Blooms persist relentlessly, for weeks. The plants only flower in winter, but I’m not sure what exactly brings on the flowering.

After petals finally fall, the plants can take a rest, so need very little watering. The same goes for poinsettia and Christmas cactus plants. By then, of course, it’s late winter so seeds need to be sown and seedlings transplanted indoors, trees and shrubs need pruning, and there’s plenty of other stuff to do, gardenwise.