The last of the blooms

Phalaenopsis Sonoma

The last of the blooms fell off my Phalaenopsis Sonoma last night, so I regretfully cut most of the spike off. I left a couple of inches, just in case it decides to send up more flowers off the old spike, which is not unheard of in these types of orchids. This is one of my favourite “Phals” — I bought it at an SOOS (Southern Ontario Orchid Society) meeting back at the beginning of December. December!! The blooms looked fresh and pretty for over three months. It sure puts my “Queen of the Night” and her six hour display (oh but what a flower!!) to shame.

Phalaenopsis are one of the most commonly grown orchids by home hobbyists these days. They’re so common, that many people who are “into” orchids turn up their noses at them (unless they’re “species”, which are the natural types found in the wild — as opposed to the domesticated hybrid varieties). I often see phals with white or purple flowers for sale in grocery stores or Home Depot, or in florists shops. Florists are notorious for overcharging for mass produced hybrids — I’ve seen them for sale for $60 or $90. Don’t pay more than $25 from a florist!!!  It’s kind of like buying a pure-bred puppy from a pet store — you can get much better value for your money if you buy straight from a breeder.  You can certainly spend $60 or $90 at a breeder (or “grower”, as they’re called), but you’ll go home with something far more interesting and unusual. Another good place to buy orchids is at orchid shows, or at  local orchid society meetings. In Toronto, the local orchid society (SOOS) meets on the first Sunday of each month at the Civic Garden Centre, and the sales tables are open to the public from 12:30PM to 2PM. You’ll find different kinds of orchids for sale at different times of year, mostly depending on what’s in bloom at the time.

Another favourite: Phal. Tapei “Gold Star” x Phal. Brother Victory “#1”.

Back to Phals. There is a reason they are popular with beginners — they can be hard to kill. They like warm rooms and a bright spot sheltered from direct sun — an east window is perfect. Like most orchids, they like lots of humidity, but unlike many orchids, they can adjust to the drier conditions of central heating. They are “epiphytes” — a sure-fire way to kill them is to plant them in soil like an ordinary houseplant. In the wild, they grow on trees in tropical rain forests. In the home, they’ll be happy in a medium that keeps their roots moist but also gives them lots and lots of oxygen. I’ve seen them grown in spagnum moss or in a bark mix prepared specially for orchids. I grow mine in leca — little clay balls that you can buy at a hydroponics store. In fact, the method I use is called “semi-hydroponics”. I can never seem to get the watering just right so this method is perfect for me. You can read up on it at the First Ray’s Orchids Web site. Ray is the fellow who developed this method of growing orchids — he’s a very decent fellow and very helpful.

A couple of tips about Phals. They’ll take a long time to die if you don’t water them properly, but die they will. It’ll be quicker if the roots are soggy and can’t get enough oxygen — they’ll rot. It’ll be slower if you underwater water the poor thing. If you have a heavy hand with the watering can, plant it in bark, and don’t let the pot sit in water. If you’re forgetful or sporadic about watering, use spagnum moss (not peat moss!!!), which stays moist longer. They like good air circulation, especially if conditions are humid.  If you really get into it, like I did, you’ll soon be installing a humidifier and a small fan in the room (growing orchids is addictive, what can I tell you???!).

Phals are what are called “heavy feeders”. Use a fertilizer mix specially prepared for orchids, or dilute 20-20-20 to half strength and fertilize every second watering. Water in the morning, so the leaves have a chance to dry off; if water settles in the crown, it could start to rot. In the wild, phals hang off trees and the rain falls right off the leaves…so don’t let pools of water collect on the leaves for any length of time. If your orchid is planted in bark, stick your finger in and make sure the bark hasn’t decayed to the point that it might as well be soil. It will happen, inevitably, and your ochids will have to be repotted every one or two years. Repotting is simple. Soak the new bark overnight. Pull the plant out of the pot, wash any vestige of the old bark or medium off the roots, and snip off any brown or mushy roots. Stick it in a clean pot, push new bark in around the roots, and tap the pot on the counter to get the stuff to settle. Presto!! Done, with a minimum of fuss and muss. Finally, when those wonderful blooms do come out, don’t smoke anywhere near them. Cigarette smoke will cause the flowers wilt and fall off. They don’t like being in a smoky room any more than I do!

More info on the care of Phalaenopsis orchids…