In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
March, 2005
Regional Report

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This phalaenopsis develops regal sprays of flat, round flowers that flutter like moths in the slightest breeze.

Magnificent Moth Orchids

If spending the winter on some tropical island isn't an option for you, growing orchids is one way to create a tropical paradise right in your own home. For years orchids have been only marginally popular with houseplant enthusiasts, mostly because they're reputed to be delicate and demanding. The truth is, orchids are hardier than you might imagine, and if you can successfully grow African Violets and other flowering houseplants, you can successfully grow orchids.

Phalaenopsis, often called moth orchids, produce fragrant, long-lasting, intensely colored flowers on arching stems that rise above a cluster of succulent leaves. I think of them as the Queen of Orchids, regal in every way, and yet they are among the easiest to grow.

Roots and All
In their native habitat, phalaenopsis orchids survive by attaching their thick, strong roots to the bark of tree branches. The roots catch and hold falling forest debris and absorb the nutrients from the debris as it decays. It's normal for the roots of these plants to meander out of the pot in search of a tree to cling to. I think these aerial roots are part of the intrigue of the plant.

Phalaenopsis roots need a well-aerated potting medium to replicate their natural growing habitat. Chunked bark (available at most garden centers either as a garden mulch or packaged and sold as orchid potting mix) is the medium of choice. Chunked bark anchors the roots well, retains just the right amount of moisture, yet drains very quickly.

Flower Buds and Spikes
In late fall, flower buds form low on the plant and quickly grow into 2-foot-tall flower spikes, which open in early winter. Large-flowering forms produce 12 or more individual blooms on a single spike, with each flower lasting about three months. Individual flowers range in size from 4 to 6 inches in diameter, depending on the variety. Flower colors include white, lavender, peach, yellow, and magenta. Some flowers sport stripes and spots or contrasting throats and lips, making them appear even more exotic.

Feeding
For peak performance, phalaenopsis orchids need ample water and frequent applications of high-nitrogen fertilizer during their active growth period. Feed with a complete liquid fertilizer (18-18-18) every 10 days to 2 weeks from January through June, then switch to a low-nitrogen, bloom-inducing formula (0-10-10) from July through December.

Light Requirements
All orchids, including phalaenopsis, prefer bright, indirect light, but will tolerate filtered morning sunshine. Leaf color will indicate whether your orchid is getting just the right amount of light: medium-green foliage means it's happy; yellow-spotted foliage means too much sunshine. An east-facing window should provide just the right exposure for your orchids.

Repotting
Phalaenopsis orchids need to be repotted every other year or when the potting medium begins to decompose. Wait until flowering is finished, then unpot and tease the decomposed bark chips away from the roots. If you find brown, dead roots, give them a tug to remove them. If the root resists a sharp tug, it means the central core is still alive. Leave it alone and it will regenerate after the plant is repotted.

Keep the foliage above soil level, but any roots emerging near the crown of the plant should be covered with bark chips. (Leaves covered with bark invite rot.) I hold the stem of the plant in the center of the pot and fill in around the sides with pre-soaked, damp bark chips, pressing them firmly around the roots with my fingers. The pot should be large enough to accommodate the roots without crowding. If a newly potted plant is properly firmed, you should be able to pick it up by the leaves without having the pot fall off.

Because phalaenopsis likes lots of humidity, I set the pots on a gravel-filled tray. Water draining from the pots is kept well away from the roots, and as the water evaporates, it increases humidity around my orchids.

Phalaenopsis are an uncomplicated, lovely choice if you are new to the world of orchids.


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