URBANA, Ill. – Most of us have limited experience with orchids, and may feel intimidated by their reputation as finicky plants. However, orchids are an amazingly diverse plant family, growing in deserts, mountains, marshes, northern woods, and Illinois forests, and should be given a chance, according to a University of Illinois Extension educator.
Not all orchids enjoy the temperature and humidity commonly found in homes; therefore, some may require special lighting and humidity control for indoor growing. “An orchid obsession is easily cultivated by many enthusiasts,” Sandra Mason says. “However, if you are looking for an easy-to-grow and elegant houseplant, moth orchids are a great option.
“Phalaenopsis or moth orchids possess dark, shiny green leaves adorned with showy flowers of pink, white, or yellow. Imagine a flock of fluttering moths dancing on an arching high wire,” Mason says. “Moth orchids are native to Asian jungles. In the U.S., we find them in stores fluttering next to the apples and lettuce or lumber and nails. Intensely and unnaturally blue- colored moth orchids also greet us at entryways to many stores. However, don’t get too attached to the blue color,” Mason warns. “These flowers have been dyed, and any future flowers will be white.”
According to Mason, moth orchids are not only easy to grow but also one of the easiest to encourage to re-bloom. 'Sussex pearl,' femme fatale,' or 'southern ruby' are just some of the 12,000 hybrid "phals" available. The flowers will last an amazing two to five months. “I had one flowering in my office for so long, visitors thought it was a wax replica,” Mason says.
Unlike other common houseplants, moth orchids don’t live in soil. They are epiphytes, so-called air plants. As Asian jungle natives, they cling with long thick roots to rocks and trees. Their moisture is gathered from rain, dew, and humidity and their nutrients from decaying leaves and other debris that accumulates among their roots. “This likely does not describe your living room,” Mason says, “but the conditions are fairly easy to reproduce by paying attention to light levels and watering practices, and using an orchid planting mix.”
Mason offers a few simple steps for growing moth orchids as elegant houseplants.
1) Orchids require bright light (but no direct sun) to bloom, such as an east or shaded west or south window. Too much light will burn the foliage and too little light will result in little growth or no blooms. Orchids taken outdoors in the summer should be placed in the shade of a tree or patio and should be moved indoors before the temperature drops below 50 degrees F. Moth orchids can also be grown under fluorescent lights.
2) Generally, orchids bloom when night temperatures are cooler than day temperatures. Moth orchids prefer 70 to 80 degrees F during the day and 65 to 70 degrees F at night.
3) Orchids appreciate high humidity between 40 and 85 percent; however, moth orchids are more forgiving than many orchids of the dry air in our winter homes. To raise the humidity, use humidifiers or fill a tray with pebbles, saturate the pebbles with water, and place the pot on the pebbles.
4) Orchids need thorough watering and regular fertilization during their growing season. Think “weakly weekly.” In other words, dilute a weak (low) rate of orchid fertilizer in water every week.
6) Don’t overwater. Some orchid labels recommend watering with ice cubes. This recommendation works well with gardeners that routinely overwater plants. However, ice-cold water is not the typical way a jungle plant would get water. Room temperature water is a more desirable practice.
7) The potting mix should provide good air penetration and fast water drainage. Commercially prepared orchid mixes are best, consisting of a combination of shredded fir bark, charcoal, and perlite.
“Moth orchids can provide years of elegant enjoyment, once we understand their basic needs,” Mason says.