Orchids are popular! At one time indoor orchids were a specialty item found only at the florist shop and orchid nurseries.
Today, the orchid is mainstream. Over the last few years, more commercial growers have started to produce them in large numbers, driving the price down and making them much more of a consumable item.
According to the USDA 2015 Floriculture Crops Summary, orchids topped the “Potted Flowering Plants Sold for Indoor or Patio Use” category with $288 million in value. [source]
Many people think it is tough to grow orchids successfully, but this isn’t true and is likely due to a misunderstanding regarding how orchids grow. These plants (phalaenopsis orchid for example) are unlike most houseplants because they do not typically grow in soil.
Top “Tools” For Indoor Orchid Care
- Neem Spray Oil for Pest Control
- Orchid Mix for potting cattleyas, phalaenopsis, dendrobiums, paphiopedilums, oncidiums and all epiphytic orchids
- LECA Clay (another option) for potting epiphytic orchids
- Orchid Fertilizer for feeding
Instead, they attach their roots to the bark of trees and glean their water and nutrition from ambient moisture and rainfall. They make the most of this water by storing it up in their thick leaves.
For these reasons, keeping an orchid in soil and watering it like a houseplant is a bad thing to do and often results in a dead orchid.
In this article, we will discuss the best practices in indoor orchid care. We will also provide advice on choosing the right type of orchid to suit your setting and plant care habits and abilities. Read on to learn more about care for these tropical plants.
The popular moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) are some of the easiest orchids to grow requiring minimal care. As with many plants grown indoors lack of knowledge or over-enthusiasm can put plants in less than ideal growing conditions and jeopardize their health.
Here are 4 common indoor orchid care and growing mistakes:
- Planting Orchids in Soil
- Excessive Watering
- Overexposure to Sunlight
- Insufficient Humidity
What “Soil” Or Orchid Mix Can An Indoor Orchid Grow In?
Orchid roots should never be kept in standing water. They will very quickly rot and die. To successfully maintain an orchid indoors, you must provide the plant with a light, airy orchid mix like this or my preference LECA grow rocks or a mixture of coco coir or sphagnum moss, spanish moss (tillandsia usneoides), stones and bark. Layer these materials loosely around your orchid’s roots in a pot that provides for good air circulation.
Clay pots are good. There are also specially designed orchid pots with additional slits in the sides rather than only holes in the bottom. These slits help provide better ventilation to the roots.
You can keep your orchid in a standard plastic flowerpot, but you may want to drill some extra holes in the sides. Many people like to keep orchids in clear plastic pots to better observe root growth.
If frequent watering would be bothersome to you, or if you live in a very dry climate, you may opt to plant in a plastic container as it will naturally retain water for a more extended period of time. Just be careful not to over-water.
Indoor Orchid Care: How and When To Water Your Orchid
Many people wonder how often to water their orchids and tropical bromeliads, but there really is no set formula. Determining and maintaining the right balance in watering in your situation is essential. You must carefully observe your orchid and create a watering schedule that takes both frequency and quantity of watering into account.
Your orchid-growing situation is unique, and there are some factors you must consider when determining how much and how often to water your plant, such as:
- Air movement
- Potting medium
Keep a close eye on your orchids and bromeliad plants and watch for signs that they need watering. Poke your finger into the potting medium and see if it feels dry. Lift the pot. If it feels light, the medium is probably lacking in water. If your orchid is planted in a clay pot, the exterior surface of the pot will feel dry. Aerial (exposed) roots will appear white or silvery.
All of these are signs that your orchid is ready for a drink. Heed these signs. If you allow your plant to dry out too much, the leaves will become droopy and will not recover, even after you water it.
Each week I remove the plant from the clay pot, set the moth orchid in a bowl and water. The water runs out the bottom and collects in the bowl. I allow the plant to sit in the excess water for 15-20 minutes to allow the orchid mix or sphagnum moss to “soak up” all the moisture it wants.
Orchid Care: How to Water Orchids
When watering your orchid, water it freely. Use room temperature water that has been allowed to stand for at least 24 hours so that any chemicals will have evaporated.
Set the orchid plant in a sink or in the shower and pour the water through the plant allowing it to soak the medium and run through the drainage/aeration holes in the sides and bottom of the pot. Use a paper towel to wipe excess water off the leaves to prevent rot and promote proper ventilation.
This is important because copious watering washes away salts that tend to accumulate in the soil. Don’t use softened water because of its likely high sodium levels, which will damage your plant.
Watering With Ice Cubes?
Don’t water by setting ice cubes on the surface of the potting medium. Although people suggest this as the right way to water an orchid, this method makes no sense. Cold water from ice cubes is sure to be detrimental to the roots, and a couple of ice cubes will not provide enough water or flush salts from the potting medium.
Temperatures: If You Are Comfortable, Your Orchid Is Too!
Many houseplants need consistently warm temperatures to thrive. Orchids like a little variation and appreciate a ten-degree difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
This is especially important in the autumn and the winter because this is when orchids set their buds and bloom. Typical household temperatures of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and 55-65 degrees overnight suit them well.
You can tweak your household temperature to suit specific types of orchids. Here are the three orchid groupings and the temperatures they need to help them meet maximum potential:
- Warm-Growing: Phalaenopsis is a prime example of a warm-growing orchid that does not do well if the temperature drops below 60 degrees.
- Intermediate-Growing: Cattleyas like nighttime temperatures of about 55 degrees.
- Cool-Growing: Odontoglossums and Cymbidiums are used to overnight temperatures of around 50 degrees.
While ideal low temperatures for orchids can vary by a few degrees, it is important to note that all orchids suffer in temperatures higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Orchids Love Light
In addition to soil and water misconceptions, there’s a lot of wrong-thinking on the subject of light for orchids. Even though they naturally live in forests and jungles, they are not under-story plants.
They grow on trees, not underneath them. Often they grow very high up to catch a lot of sunlight. Infrequently flowering plants need the most light.
You will know that your orchid is getting enough sun if its leaves are a medium-to-light green with yellow undertones. The leaves should be stiff and upright. You can keep an orchid in the shade, and it will have dark green, lustrous leaves, but it will seldom (or never) bloom.
To get the most blossoms, orchids need a minimum of six hours of bright, indirect light daily. More is better.
In fact, orchids will enjoy as much sun as they can get as long as it doesn’t burn them. This is why indirect, bright light is best but not direct sunlight for most varieties.
The best location for indoor orchids is a south or east-facing window. North windows usually do not get enough light, and west windows are generally too sunny. Excess sun, burns, bleaches and kills the leaves.
Even with an eastern or southern window setting, keep a close eye on your plants as the seasons change. Reposition them as needed to get the right amount of sunlight.
In the summertime, you may want to move them farther away from the window or add a sheer curtain to provide some shade. In the winter, move plants closer to allow plants to get more light from the sun, but be careful not to let them take a chill.
Using Artificial Light Where You Control The Lighting
If you don’t have a good window setting, don’t let that stop you. Have you considered using artificial lighting? Some good choices include:
- Fluorescent tubes
- Cool-white bulbs
- Grow lights
Place your plants six or eight inches below the light source, and set a timer to provide 14-16 hours of light daily.
Artificial lighting works well for many types of orchids (e.g., paphiopedilums and phalaenopsis), but some varieties (e.g., cymbidiums and vandas) may find it inadequate on its own.
In this case, you might try setting up your artificial lighting in a window which also provides less-than-adequate light. The combination of the two may do the trick.
Fertilize Orchids Weakly, Weekly!
Light fertilizing will enhance blooming, but orchids really do not need a lot of feeding. During the spring and summertime, provide a light feeding every week using an orchid fertilizer. In autumn, cut that in half and provide bi-weekly feeding.
Be sure to use a fertilizer specifically designed for orchids, and dilute it to half (or even one-quarter) the recommended strength. Choose a fertilizer that contains no urea.
In the spring and summer use a product with a 20-10-20 formulation. In the fall, switch to a 10-30-20 formulation to promote blossom development. Continue with this through winter (December – April) when your plants should bloom.
Be careful to avoid buildup of fertilizer products. Water thoroughly first, flushing any salt buildup from previous fertilizing, and then fertilize very lightly. Once a month, skip the fertilizer altogether and just water copiously with pure, fresh water.
Orchids Need to Breathe
In addition to providing a light, airy potting medium for your orchids, you should also provide gentle air circulation. Both the roots and the leaves of your plants will benefit from gentle air movement preventing a stagnant, stale atmosphere. Use an overhead fan or a freestanding fan, set on low and positioned so that it does not blow directly onto the plants to provide a buoyant atmosphere.
Manage Humidity Levels
Orchids like high humidity levels of 50% or greater, but most homes do not maintain that level of ambient moisture, especially in the wintertime. Luckily, there are a few simple tricks you can use to raise humidity levels for your plants:
- Provide a substrate of pebbles in your plants’ saucers and keep a little water in the saucers. As the water evaporates, it provides humidity. Be sure that the pebbles elevate pots out of the water. Another option is to create a “humidity tray” to set the pots on.
- Keep your plants together as a group to make the most of the shared moisture levels.
- Run a humidifier next to your plants.
You may want to hang plastic curtains or otherwise, separate your “grow room” plant area from the rest of the house if your home is large, airy and hard to humidify. Keep a fan running gently in your plant room to prevent mold and bacterial growth. [source 1 | 2]
Top 3 Methods For Orchid Propagation
Orchids are robust when it comes to reproduction. If you take good care of your plants, they will multiply, send out babies (Keiki), produce seeds and give you lots of opportunities to grow more orchids. Although there are many propagation methods, here are the three most commonly practiced.
#1 – Division is a simple method which you can probably use every time you repot your orchid. Just split the plant and roots in half making sure that you have active, growing roots on each half. Repot the halves as individual plants so you will have one to enjoy and one to share.
#2 – You can take cuttings from both epiphytic orchids and terrestrial plants, but the method of cutting differs. With tree-growing orchids have aerial roots. Increase your collection by cutting the stem of the plant beneath a set of active roots. Place the “new plant” in a small pot with a light orchid mix growing medium to sufficiently cover the roots and stabilize the cutting.
For a terrestrial orchid like the Phaius, you would cut off a “pseudo-bulb” that has roots attached. The pseudo-bulb is an above-ground, bulb-like structure that typically has a couple of “eyes” where new growth will sprout. Plant the pseudo-bulb carefully in a proper orchid potting mix. Be sure to cover the roots, but leave the bulb and “eyes” exposed to light and air.
When using the cutting method, keep your cuttings lightly misted until new growth appears. At this point, you can repot the cutting and begin caring for it as an established plant.
#3 – Some types of orchids (e.g., Dendrobiums, Epidendrums, and Phalaenopsis) produce pups, plantlets or Keiki. These baby plants are miniatures of the parents. Allow them to mature while still attached to the mother plant and then cut the “umbilical cord” with a sharp, sterilized implement and repot the offspring as an independent plant. [source]
These are not, by any means, the only methods of propagation – tissue culture or cloning are others, but these three are the simplest and most effective for the average orchid hobbyist. Proper potting and repotting techniques are key to success. Below are two videos from the American Orchid Society and the Chicago Botanic Garden demonstrating when and how to repot your orchids.
When to Repot Your Orchids
How to Repot an Orchid: Phalaenopsis
Is Orchid Pruning Necessary?
Pruning in terms of shaping is not really necessary or desirable for orchids. When your orchid finishes blooming, cut back the flower stem (aka spike) for a tidier appearance and to help promote better blooming.
The Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis) sometimes blooms a second time from the original spike. To see if yours will, you can leave the spike where it is after the blooms drop.
Be advised, the spent stem may look a bit spindly, and the second set of blooms will not be as robust as the first. If your plant is immature or weak, it is better to cut the spike back and allow it to rest. [source]
You can also prune dead roots or roots that have been affected by root rot. Be sure not to prune healthy, active roots as this will have a detrimental effect on the plant. If you are unsure, spray the roots in question lightly with water. If they take on a greenish cast, you will know they are alive and active.
Remember to always use a very sharp, sterilized cutting implement when you prune the spike, trim away dead leaves or remove inactive roots. This will help prevent the transfer of bacteria and viruses. [source]
When pruning orchid flowers and orchid spikes we ALWAYS used a sharp razor blade for cutting each new flower or flower spike.
Also, NEVER HANDLE ORCHIDS if you smoke. ALWAYS wash your hands after smoking. Tobacco mosaic virus can spread by handling plants.
Common Orchid Pests To Watch Out For
Orchids are subject to myriad pests when kept incorrectly, but if you take good care of your orchids, you are unlikely to have many problems. The three most common pests you may encounter when collecting and tending these interesting plants are:
Scale and mealybugs are closely related, small insects, and they can be a problem for orchids at any time in their growth cycle.
When in the immature stage, these bugs crawl over plants leaving “honeydew“ (excrement) which attracts ants. When they mature, they tend to stay put or even become fixated on a plant as they settle in to suck the juices out of it.
If mealybugs or scale bugs have infested your plant, you may see small, soft, white, slightly fuzzy bugs crawling slowly over the plant and/or hard structures (hiding places) on the undersides of leaves and/or around root bases. Female scale lay their eggs under these armored structures.
If left to their own devices, they will cover the plant and exude a dark, sooty honeydew. They’ll eventually just suck the life out of the plant. This is why it is so important to get rid of them the moment you see them.
Start by giving your plants a good misting with a mixture of dish soap and water and/or dabbing individual insects with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Aphids are the nymphs of a gnat-like flying insect. These insects lay eggs which subsequently hatch into armies of tiny, soft-bodied green or reddish crawling insects which suck the life out of plants and attract ants with honeydew, just as scale and mealybugs do. [source]
What Kind Of Orchid Should You Buy?
There is no plant family more diverse than the orchid family, and many different types can make very enjoyable houseplants.
Orchids come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. From thimble-sized orchids bearing mosquito-sized blooms to twenty-foot-high orchid plants bearing plate-sized blooms and many variations in between.
These plants have also adapted to numerous environments with a vast array of growth habits.
With 20,000 natural species and tens of 1,000’s of hybrids and more being developed every day, there are undoubtedly many types of orchid that would do well in your home environment. [source]
Although there are some finicky orchids, most of them are rugged and adaptable. The main thing is to choose the right type for your setting, understand its needs, observe the plants closely and make adjustments as necessary for success.
Start on the right foot by selecting an orchid potted in a proper growing medium. In today’s modern growing environment nurseries who specialize in orchid growing use top-notch airy growing mixes.
Remember that most orchids are epiphytes that grow on tree bark. There are only a few terrestrial orchid species, which grow in the soil. There are even fewer lithophytic species, which live their lives clinging to rocks.
You are unlikely to come across terrestrial or lithophytic orchids, but if you are puzzled, look for these identifying factors. Epiphytic orchids have aerial roots. These are roots that are exposed to air. When they are alive and active, they have a greenish cast when lightly sprayed with water. Active roots should not be pruned or cut off because they gather moisture and nutrients for the plant.
Epiphytes may also have swollen stems, which are called pseudo-bulbs. These stand upright from a rooted, horizontal stem. Food and water are stored in the pseudo-bulbs. For this reason, these plants can get by with sporadic watering.
Orchids with pseudo-bulbs are termed “sympodial,” a botanical term which loosely translates from Latin to mean “combined stem with a little foot.” Some of the best-known sympodial epiphytes are:
There are also epiphytes such as Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis) and Vanda which do not have pseudo-bulbs. They grow upright on a single stem which bears both leaves and aerial roots.
This type of epiphytic orchid is termed “monopodial,” a botanical term which loosely translates as “single stem with a little foot.“ Monopodial orchids have no way of storing nutrients and water, so they may need more frequent watering than sympodial orchids.
Even though it might seem that their lack of food and water storage capacity would make them difficult to grow, the fact is Moth Orchid is quite hardy and does well in the average household.
Generally speaking, if you can grow an African Violet, you can grow a Moth Orchid. This is probably why this variety is the most popular and most readily available.
Moth Orchids and Lady Slipper Orchids are both good choices for locations with lower light settings. Other good choices for low light areas include Jewel Orchids (Ludisia spp.) which are grown more for their foliage than their flowers.
Good choices for a medium light setting include miniature Cattleyas, Oncidium and Pansy Orchids (Miltoniopsis).
Cattleyas are also good for a high or bright light setting, as are Dendrobium, Phragmipedium, Vandas, Ascocenda and Brassia.
Maintaining The Right “Orchid Environment” Ensures Success
No matter what kind of orchid you choose, setting up a consistent and supportive environment will contribute significantly to your success. Before you make your choices, survey your home environment and go through this handy checklist.
#1 – Choose Your Setting
Will you be able to observe your orchids well in the proposed setting? Orchids are so lovely that it’s a shame to keep them sequestered in their own room where you can’t see them regularly, but that’s not the only reason for keeping them in an easy-to-see setting.
Experienced orchid growers will tell you that observing your plants plays an essential role in their health and well-being. That’s why it’s helpful to put them in a location where you can examine them easily and make care adjustments the moment you notice a problem.
#2 – Determine The Amount Of Lighting You Can Consistently Provide
To test your light levels go to the area where you plan to keep your orchid on a bright, sunny day. Hold your hand about half a foot above a plant or other object and look at the shadow it casts.
If the shadow is faint, then you have a low-light setting. If the shadow is dark and distinct, you have a high-light setting. You will need to choose your orchids accordingly and/or adjust by adding artificial lighting.
#3 – Check Your Light Exposure
Remember that an unobstructed southern exposure is best for most orchids; however, some varieties do well in high or medium light settings in western windows or partially obstructed southern windows. If all you have is a northern window, try adding some artificial light for better results.
#4 – Can The Location Provide Temperature Drops
Determine whether your proposed orchid setting will provide enough nighttime temperature drop to encourage blooming in the type of orchid you are considering. Remember that a ten-degree difference in temperature is usually preferred. If you can leave the window cracked a bit at night, this could be all that’s needed to provide that drop.
#5 – Think About How Often You Want To Water
If you are haphazard at plant care, you may forget to water, make your orchid choices accordingly. Go with a sympodial variety that can store its own water for a while.
Once you have evaluated your setting, do a little online research and/or consult with an expert to determine which varieties would be best for you. Check to see if you have a local orchid club or society. This may be your very best resource for local orchids that are proven, performers. [source]
Opinion: For most homeowners, a Moth Orchids which come in a wide array of colors, and flower patterns is the perfect starter orchid.
How To Choose An Orchid
Once you’ve done all your homework, evaluated and prepared your site and identified some good, reliable, local orchid dealers you are ready to embark upon your quest for the first or newest additions to your collection. Here’s what to look for when you go orchid shopping.
#1 – Look for a supplier who keeps a neat, clean establishment. Don’t just look at the plants for sale. Ask to look at the greenhouse or growing area to see the condition of the source plants.
Talk orchids with the supplier (or nursery staff person) to determine whether the individual or establishment is knowledgeable. Get a feel for the person or the business just as you would when purchasing or acquiring anything you plan to bring into your home.
You want to do business with individuals and businesses who strive to provide high-quality products at honest prices. You don’t want to bring potentially diseased plants into your home, and you certainly want to avoid wasting your money.
#2 – Look for plants that are in correct proportion with the container. The plant should be well-supported and the roots well-contained within the growing medium. Plant leaves should be turgid (upright and stiff), blemish-free, pest-free, and a healthy medium green color.
#3 – Look for flowers that are brilliant in hue and affect, which will coordinate nicely with your decor. The blossoms should be well above the leaves, plant fungus-free and unblemished. They should emanate from a strong spike that is well supported. Ideally, the spike should have just a couple of blossoms and lots of buds so you can enjoy flowers for the longest possible time. [source]
Should You Collect Orchids From The Wild?
Surprisingly, orchids grow wild in a vast array of settings. Many are native to the United States and Canada. In fact, orchids make up approximately ten percent of all species of plants.
Even though native plants always perform better than imported plants, it is not a good idea to collect native orchids from their natural settings.
Native orchids perform a valuable function in the environment by providing pollen for a wide variety of beneficial insects and birds. They also act as an important link in essential interactions between fungi species, trees, and soil. Even though we may not think of fungus as being desirable, it is a very important aspect of the natural world.
Unfortunately, today orchids in the wild are on the decline because of habitat loss. Although orchids were once found in widespread abundance, they now live in small and fragmented groups. The fact is, some species of orchids may die out before we even know that they exist.
It is only natural that people who love orchids would want to have rare and unique specimens, but it is vital that we leave the wild ones where they are and collect responsibly through legitimate seed acquisition and sharing of nursery grown specimens.
According to the American Orchid Society (AOS), it is critical that collectors purchase only plants propagated seeds or clones. The AOS further encourages orchid lovers to propagate specimens from their own collections to share with fellow enthusiasts. [source 1 | 2 ]