Exotic, flamboyant, and overtly sexual, orchids can be fatally seductive when in bloom. Whether you succumbed to the great bargains on stunning new varieties at the orchid show or just couldn’t stop yourself when faced with Trader Joe’s rock-bottom prices, you may be the new owner of a blooming orchid. For the softhearted, there’s nothing worse than buying that luscious phalaenopsis (the ones that look like a flight of moths) or stunning cymbidium (the “classic” potted orchid around our parts), watching its flowers fade and fall at last (a month or two later for most), and then not knowing what to do to keep it happy. And many despair of ever seeing it repeat that fabulous display again. Here’s a guide to the easier-to-grow orchids. With a little care, you can with confidence hope to see the show repeated year after year.
Easiest to grow are the handful of species, and their myriad hybrids and selections, that happily grow year ‘round outdoors along the South Coast. Foremost among them are the cymbidiums. There are literally thousands of hybrids of just a few parental species and most take to our cool coastal climate extremely well. Their general requirements are for temperatures between 40-90 degrees Fahrenheit, although they will tolerate periods of temperatures as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit before being damaged. What they also require to bloom well, though, are nighttime temperatures lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit during the fall and winter to promote bud development. This means they are perfectly suited for outdoor culture. Couple this with a half-shady spot and a dash of balanced fertilizer and you have a recipe for success. Stand pots of cymbidiums under the shade of trees or on your partially vine-covered patio to achieve the right level of light and irrigate at weekly intervals unless the weather is particularly hot and dry. Dose them with a handful of time-release fertilizer once or twice a year (depending on release rate) or regular hits of a liquid product formulated just for orchids. Once plants have produced flower spikes, they can be brought indoors to enjoy the bloom period, but move them back out as flowers fade.
Cymbidiums, like many orchids, are naturally epiphytic in nature, clinging to tree trunks and branches with fibrous roots. Their growth pattern is typical of one of the two main types of epiphytic orchids. In this type (called sympodial), the stem of the plant grows parallel to its host producing roots along its length and enlarged leaf clusters called pseudobulbs from which a few leaves and eventually a flower spike arise. Although they can be grown in the garden just as they would in nature, most growers pot sections of the stem with its pseudobulbs in a very fast-draining organic material such as fir bark. The roots are capable of sucking up lots of moisture in a hurry into a spongy outer layer and then releasing it slowly to the inner layers.
The other type of growth (called monopodial) is characterized by an elongated stem that arises from a branching root system and is less common among the garden variety of orchids. One well-known species of monopodial orchids is epidendrum, sometimes called reed-stem orchids. These are extremely easy to grow and produce tall spikes (as tall as four feet) topped with clusters of tiny orchid flowers in hot pink, orange, and bright yellow. Most others are warm-climate species that do best only in greenhouses here.