If you’ve been intrigued yet intimidated by the orchids you see displayed in your local grocery store, fear not, for you too can successfully nurture one of these elegant beauties.
With nearly 30,000 species, the orchid family (Orchidaceae) is one of the largest in the world. Orchids are found in nearly every climatic zone but the majority of orchids are epiphytes, or air plants, which grow attached to trees or bushes in tropical forests. Flowers appear in nearly every color.
The variety of sizes of these often bizarre-looking plants is awe-inspiring.
“There’s a huge range,” said Joe Grienauer, owner of Emerald City Orchids and President of the Northwest Orchid Society.
“One with the whole plant smaller than your fingernail… and the biggest that has a flower spike 20 feet tall,” said Grienauer.
According to the North of England Orchid Society, orchid cultivation began in England in the 19th century as “plant hunters” were dispatched all over the world in search of rare species. Seafarers returned home with exotic plants to supplement their income, and the North of England became a hot bed of orchid culture. The ensuing orchid fever, dubbed “Orchidelirium,” gripped Europe as people scrambled to collect more orchids.
Because only a fraction of orchids brought back to Europe via ship survived, only the wealthy could afford the necessary greenhouses needed to nurture the plants back to good condition, in addition to paying the high price orchids commanded at auction.
Fast forward to today and thanks to propagation technology you can find orchids at your local supermarket or nursery for a modest price. The most common is the phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, which produces tall spikes of large blooms.
“Phalaenopsis last a long time and are easy to take care of,” said Grienauer. “It’s a great thing to start with.”
Grienauer said because there are so many varieties of orchids, there is always more to learn about them.
“You learn to grow a few well, then you move on to different types,” he said. “It will wrap you up sometimes. It’s easy to get addicted. “
“I think it’s because (orchids) appeal to the senses,” he said. “They are striking and beautiful and some of them smell really good. When you get the plant to flower there’s a satisfaction with that, it’s got its own positive reinforcement.”
Grienauer said because of their origins in tropical areas, orchids have an exotic element to them.
“(They) make you think of a faraway place,” he said.
How to get started
Orchids are fairly simple to grow. Grienauer said there are two things that commonly kill orchids.
“First is letting the orchid sit in the sun,” he said. “They like bright light but no direct sun.
The other thing is roots sitting in water. A grocery store orchid often comes in a porcelain cache pots with no drainage.
“It needs a lot of water when you water it but it needs to drain,” said Grienauer. “Imagine what it’s like when they’re growing in trees… a tropical rain comes, it’s a heavy rain and then a breeze comes by and you kind of dry out. They have to dry out a little between waterings.”
Try something different
You can easily pick up a blooming orchid at your local grocery store, but if you want to try something more unusual check out Olympic Orchids.
“Most of the ones we sell are not blooming,” said owner Ellen Covey. “It’s much more fun to watch the orchid grow and bloom than it is to watch the flowers die.”
“People have an innate need to nurture something and watching it develop,” she said.
Olympic Orchids specializes in species, compact and miniature orchids.
“We sell something for everybody,” said Covey.
Covey said her business has expanded since COVID-19 self-isolation began.
“Everybody wants to grow plants and it’s comforting for them to have something green in the house,” she said. “Having something to take care of has great health benefits.”
As the American Orchid Society says, “trying to own only one orchid is like trying to eat one peanut,” so your first orchid may be just the beginning.
Orchid seeds are about the size of a particle of dust.
The vanilla orchid is the original source of natural vanilla.
Every state in the United States has orchids.
The American Orchid Society offers an Orchid Source Directory. They also offer culture sheets that you can print out singly or print all of the pages to make your own basic culture booklet.