Orchids: Removing the Veil of Mystery from These Jungle Natives

It is believed that the orchid craze of the 19th century began when a stunning plant arrived in England from Brazil in 1818. Named Cattleya labiata after horticulturist William Cattleya (1788-1835), its species name, labiata, refers to the flower's amazing lip.

During the indulgent Victorian times (1837-1901), wealthy English aristocrats were mad for exotic plants from foreign lands. Many sent their gardeners to risk their lives on dangerous sea voyages, hoping to achieve immortality by having a new species named after them. During this feverish period of plant exploration, shipments of orchids poured into major ports, including Liverpool, making the north of England the Mecca of orchid culture.

Gardeners responsible for the care and cultivation of these orchids devised elaborate ways of mimicking the hot oppressive jungle. Wardian cases and hothouses were some of the first strategies implemented. Unfortunately, these methods failed to allow proper air circulation, which left orchids susceptible to destructive pathogens.

Gardeners soon realized the extreme differences between the stagnant jungle floor and the cool, airy climate atop a tree canopy. In nature, epiphytic orchids attach themselves to a host, such as a tree or rock, and derive nutrients from the rain and decomposing debris that accumulates within their root masses. This discovery and understanding of an epiphyte's canopy life led gardeners to design temperature-controlled glasshouses that were both humid and well-ventilated.

Fortunately, the Southwest Florida gardener doesn't need a glasshouse to grow fabulous orchids. Our subtropical climate makes it easy to grow most orchids. With a little basic knowledge, even beginners can have success growing orchids in their back yard.

Looking at an orchid's structure gives you clues as to what it needs. All epiphytic orchids can be divided into two groups: sympodial and monopodial. Sympodial orchids have creeping rhizomes and swollen cane-like structures called pseudobulbs that retain water and nutrients. Cattleya, Dendrobium, Encyclia, Oncidium and Epidendrum are examples of sympodial orchids. When growing these orchids in pots, they should be allowed to dry between watering to prevent crown or root rot.

Monopodial orchids are characterized by having successive leaves arising from a central growing point. Phalaenopsis and Vanda are monopodiaI orchids. They lack pseudobulbs and should be kept moist to avoid dehydration.

For beginners, hybrids are the way to go. Because they are bred from parents with different cultural needs and flowering times, their care varies greatly. This variability in culture allows the novice orchid grower room for error.

The five most popularly cultivated hybrid genera on the market are Cattleya, Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum and Vanda. Cattleya and Dendrobium (sympodial) share similar cultural needs and flourish outdoors with little maintenance. Cattleya generally require high light to flower.

By contrast, Phalaenopsis and Vandas are monopodiaI. These orchids require filtered light and prefer moist conditions. Both can be grown indoors with great success and outdoors under shade. Vanda thrive in higher light conditions. Because they're native to high rainfall areas, Vanda require daily watering. They are generally grown in a slatted cedar basket to allow their long succulent roots to hang free.

Orchid potting mediums can seem confusing and complicated, but have no fear, there are many possible choices and they all work. The most popular one, found at garden centers, consists of bark, charcoal and perlite. It's suitable for most orchid culture. Orchid mediums are designed to swell and disperse water to the root system, yet dry out fairly quickly.

Another popular method is to grow orchids directly on driftwood or tree fern slabs. Orchids grown in this manner should be watered regularly. This growing technique was popular with the Victorians but is not appropriate for indoor culture.

When it comes to fertilizer, the mantra of successful orchid growers is "weakly weekly." This homophone means you should use a diluted solution of a balanced liquid fertilizer once a week during active growth, tapering down to once a month in the cooler winter months.

Hundreds of years of trial and error have demystified orchid care, making them a great addition to any Southwest Florida garden. Give them a try!