How to care for orchids
Orchids grow all over the world, except Antarctica - but the most dazzling are in Asia and Australia.
- In the wild, many orchids are epiphytes or lithophytes and grow attached to trees or in rock crevices where they will absorb water and nutrients from the rain, air and plant litter.
- When taking them out of their tropical or sub-tropical jungles, and especially if you want to grow them indoors, you become their source of food and water.
- To grow them indoors, plant orchids in a free-draining medium that doesn't offer much in the way of nutrients but gives the orchid support. Don't worry if the roots want to escape their pot. That's what they do naturally.
- Most orchids thrive in warm, humid conditions. And, while indoors is generally warm enough for them, airconditioning and heating dry out the air. To combat this you need to create a humid mini-climate for them - add clean pebbles to a shallow tray, fill with water and put your potted orchid on top.
- Expose them to bright but not direct sunlight when you grow them indoors. Outside, choose a warm, shady, sheltered spot. Different types of orchids have different watering and feeding needs, so check with your local nursery.
Types of orchids
Tree orchids (Dendrobium sp)
These showy clusters of flowers on long stems look lovely in a north-facing garden under dappled light. Hang them in a tree or grow in a pot of orchid mix. Or, put the pretty little natives (D.kingianum x speciosum) on rocks. They require heat and moisture when growing in summer and autumn, and cooler, drier conditions when growth is finished and flowers shine in winter or early spring.
How to care for tree (Dendrobium sp) orchids
- Water regularly but gently in summer and autumn
- Feed regularly with a fertiliser formulated for orchids.
Boat orchids (Cymbidium sp)
Large sprays of big, bold, waxy flowers emerge from long strappy leaves in winter or early spring .Many are Australian natives so are quite cold tolerant and often flower in summer. As they are semi-terrestrial they thrive best in containers with an orchid mix, or a rich but very loose organic mix. They're best grown outdoors but, if you're prone to frosts, bring them indoors in winter where they can get indirect light form the north or west.
How to care for boat (Cymbidum sp) orchids
- Water frequently in spring, summer and autumn and in winter just keep the soil damp.
- Feed with a weak orchid fertiliser every couple of months.
Environmental needs of cymbidiums
Some cymbidiums are epiphytic and grow on trees. Others are lithophytic and grow on damp rocks. But most are semi-terrestrial, meaning outside their natural environment they must grow in a special medium in pots. Their roots operate as a support structure, rather than a straw for nutrients, and need a very open medium so their roots can breathe between watering.
Royale Orchids nursery recommends:
- 70% coir or coconut husks, to retain moisture
- 20% perlite, to ensure good drainage
- 10% pumice/scoria/gravel/ash/bark, to ensure good air flow.
Corsage orchids (Cattleya sp)
Looking like they're grown in a lolly shop, these showy, fragrant, frilly flowers are best known for the classic corsage or buttonhole bloom. As slow-growing epiphytes, you can grow these outside attached to trees in a warm, sheltered position with bright, indirect sunlight, or mounted on a board.
But if you get frosts, put them in pots in an orchid-growing medium and bring indoors in winter. The flowers last for weeks and can surprise you by blooming twice a year.
How to care for corsage (Cattleya sp) orchids
- Water about once a week. Don't let it sit in water or its roots may rot.
- Feed with a weak solution of orchid fertiliser monthly in spring and summer - if it's too strong it will produce foliage at the expense of flowers.
Moth orchids (Phalaenopsis sp)
Their large cascades of moth-like flowers have made them the most popular indoor orchids in recent years. But often they get tossed with the flowers fade. Instead, save them for another year but cutting off the flower stalks at the base and putting them in a spot that mimics the tropics - warm during the day and much cooler at night, as well as maintaining humidity.
How to care for moth orchids
- Water regularly and don't let the roots dry out.
- Feed regularly with a fertiliser formulated for orchids.
Dancing ladies orchids (Oncidium sp)
The arching sprays of these dense gatherings of flowers have been compared to a flutter of butterflies. They like a warm, humid but shady spot with just a couple of hours of sun a day. Grow in a pot of orchid mix or wrap around a tree. If indoors, let light come from the north or east.
How to care for dancing ladies orchids
- Water weekly or when roots are dry, but don't overwater.
- Feed every 2-3 weeks with orchid fertiliser, as they are quick growers and get hungry.
Lady slipper orchids (Paphiopedilium sp)
These are enchanting in your garden or home - and you can probably get a slipper with colours and patterns to suit our interior decor, coming in freckles and stripes and a spectacularly wide range of colours. Most are terrestrial, so put in a pot of orchid mix. They thrive in subtropical and temperate regions in a sheltered, shady, humid spot. Inside, gie them a well-lit spot.
How to care for lady slipper orchids
- Water once a week.
- Feed monthly in spring and summer with orchid fertiliser.
Cockleshell (Encyclia sp) orchids
Establish the right conditions and this fascinating orchid with its purple clam-shaped flowers will bloom all year. These epiphytes are best grown in temperate climates, in bright, indirect light. If you can't get it quite right you'll still have these fragrant flowers from late spring to early summer. Grow in orchid mix or mount on a board to attach to a tree trunk or a tree fern.
How to care for cockleshell orchids
- Water once a week
- Feed with orchid fertiliser monthly
After the flowers drop from the orchid you have three choices: leave the flower spike (or stem) intact, cut it back to a node, or remove it entirely. Remove the flower spike entirely by clipping it off at the base of the plant. This is definitely the route to take if the existing stem starts to turn brown or yellow. Withered stems won’t produce flowers. Removing the stem will direct the +plant’s energy toward root development, which makes for a healthier plant and increased chances for new bloom spikes.
How to mount an orchid on a tree
Imagine a beautiful epiphytic Cymbidium 'White Rabbit' dangling from a tree in your garden or nestled in a stump on your balcony. It can be done! But it's not possible for all cymbidiums.
So use northern Australian cymbidiums, which are epiphytes and spend their lives hanging from trees, deriving all the moisture and nutrients they need from the air, rain or plant debris such as leaf litter.
Popular varieties among home gardeners include the giant boat-lip orchid (C. madidum), grassy boat-lip orchid (C. suave) and channelled boat-lip orchid (C. canaliculatum).
Simply find a fork in a tree or stump, pack it out with sphagnum moss, press the base of the orchid into it and tie it with soft twine or old, cut-up pantyhose. After a couple of months, once the orchid's roots have 'taken', remove tie.
It's illegal to remove orchids from the wild, so make sure you only purchase them from licensed growers.