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Beginners Guide to Orchids

A Guide that will get you started on orchid care

Beginner’s Guide to Orchids

O

rchid is one of the most fascinating, beautiful and

peculiar variety among the They have always

flowering plants.

been considered difficult to grow. But given the right climatic and cultural conditions, they can thrive anywhere and will flower regularly.

These plants belongs to the Orchidacae family, with all the difference in size, shape, color, scent or lack of it. They are the most rapidly changing group of plants on earth with over 880 genera and 28,000 species.

Understanding Orchids
Orchids have been considered a plant difficult to grow because of lack of knowledge about these fascinating plants. Taking a closer look at the plant will help us understand it better and take away our hesitation to nurture them in our gardens.

Basic Characteristics
Orchids belong to the most diverse family of plants known to man. There are over 880 genera, 28,000 species and well over 300,000 registered cultivars currently documented. These numbers only begin to tell the true story behind the evolutionary success of modern day orchids. Orchids are the most rapidly

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Only one or two orchid seeds will ever germinate and survive on that perfect crevice or depression that is both moist and has the fungus present. its chances to survive in the wild long enough to bloom are slim. The fungi gathers water and minerals for itself and the seedling. Orchids produce seed pods with literally hundreds of thousands of seed that are released and scattered by the wind. Flowers are produced from the stem between the leaves. usually alternately from side to side. Orchid seeds must establish a symbiotic relationship with a special fungus to survive its first year of life. Monopodial orchids have a central stem which grows continuously from the tip. Orchids can grow according to two patterns: Monopodial and Sympodial. but produce new growth from the crown of the plant. In the older parts of the 2 . thus providing support to the plant. They have no pseudobulbs. The aerial roots have green chlorophyll underneath the grey root coverings.(genetically) changing group of plants on earth and more new species have been discovered over the last few thousand years than any other plant group known. Orchid Stem and Roots All orchids are perennial herbs and lack any permanent woody structure. and the seedling shares its sugars from photosynthesis with the fungus. Even then. which act as additional photosynthetic organs. These aerial roots attach themselves to any surface they meet. Monopodial orchids often produce copious aerial roots along their stems.

In time. One is used as a food reserve for wintry periods. Many times more than one growth at a time will be present. Sympodial growth is more common among orchids. The plant will hold pseudobulbs vertically and send out new growth horizontally between the pseudobulbs. In some orchids the velamen includes spongy and fibrous bodies near the passage cells. the pseudobulb will continue to support the plant and provide nourishment for growth and flowering. protected by a sheath. The growth begins at the base of the pseudobulb and is called a “lead. though not always. Most of these orchids have pseudobulbs which function as storage reservoirs for food and water. although they are part of the plant rather than a root. The buds are often. many terrestrial orchids do not need pseudobulbs. from which visible growth develops. Even without a leaf. Some sympodial terrestrials. They function very much like rhizomes on terrestrial plants. In warm and humid climates. a modified spongy epidermis called velamen has the function to absorb humidity.roots. This develops into a stem and leaves and eventually produces flowers. Sympodial orchids possess a rhizome which sends out a shoot. a new shoot develops and so on in a continuous cycle. It is made of dead cells and can have a silvery-grey. have two subterranean tuberous roots.” Both the shoot and roots will grow from this lead. These structures are named tilosomes. from the base of this growth. white or brown appearance. such as Orchis and Ophrys. and provides for the development of the other one. Leaves can last for several years and provide nourishment to the plant until they turn brown and die. 3 .

Orchid leaves often have siliceous bodies called stegmata in the vascular bundle sheaths (not present in the Orchidoideae) and are fibrous. or orbiculate. and very variable in size. The structure of the leaves corresponds to the specific habitat of the plant. At this stage it is often called a backbulb. or grow on sites which can be occasionally 4 . They are normally alternate on the stem. Their characteristics are often diagnostic. often plicate. orchids generally have simple leaves with parallel veins. exploiting the last reserves accumulated in the backbulb. Comparison of Sympodial and Monopodial Orchid Growth Pattern Orchid Leaves Like most monocots. A pseudobulb then takes over. and have no stipules. which eventually dies off too.With ageing. although some Vanilloideae have a reticulate venation. A pseudobulb typically lives for about five years. Species that typically bask in sunlight. Leaves may be ovate. the pseudobulb sheds its leaves and becomes dormant. lanceolate.

Also Phalaenopsis schilleriana is a 5 . The leaves of the Macodes sanderiana. that is they live for several years. leathery leaves and the laminas are covered by a waxy cuticle to retain their necessary water supply. The leaves of most orchids are perennial. Shade species. on the other hand. thin leaves. while others. as in Catasetum. shed them annually and develop new leaves together with new pseudobulbs. show a sparkling silver and gold veining on a light green background. The cordate leaves of Psychopsiella limminghei are light brownish green with maroon-puce markings. The leaves of some orchids are considered ornamental. created by flower pigments. have thick.very dry. especially those with plicate leaves. (Paphiopedilum) is caused by uneven distribution of chlorophyll. a semiterrestrial or lithophyte. have long. The attractive mottle of the leaves of Lady's Slippers from tropical and subtropical Asia.

Some orchids. Macodes this kind of symmetry may be difficult to notice. Some orchids have single flowers but most have a racemose inflorescence. like in Cattleya. like most flowers of monocots. The orchid flower. The outer whorl has three sepals and the inner whorl has three petals. The flowering stem can be basal. As an apomorphy of the clade. Aphyllorchis and Taeniophyllum depend on their green roots for photosynthesis and lack normally developed leaves. that is produced from the base of the tuber. like in Cymbidium. Orchid Flowers Orchids are well known for the many structural variations in their flowers. or axillary. apical. meaning it grows from the apex of the main stem. Ludisia. as do all of the heterotrophic species. from the leaf axil. although in some genera like Mormodes. The Jewel Orchid (Ludisia discolor) is grown more for its colorful leaves than its fairly inconspicuous white flowers. has two whorls of sterile elements. such as Dendrophylax lindenii (Ghost Orchid). as in Vanda. 6 . orchid flowers are primitively zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical). sometimes with a large number of flowers.pastel pink orchid with leaves spotted dark green and light green.

while in Orchidoideae and Epidendroideae it is total. while the lip has taken the form of a slipper. The upper medial petal. retain only the central stamen. the others being reduced to staminodes. All of the other orchids. Apostasia and the Cypripedioideae have two stamens. Some orchids have secondarily lost this resupination. This characteristic. the central one being sterile and reduced to a staminode. Zygopetalum and Epidendrum secundum. but may be completely distinct. The filaments of the stamens are always adnate (fused) to the style to form cylindrical structure called the gynostemium or column. 7 . but this situation is now limited to the genus Neuwiedia. called the labellum or lip. e. g.The sepals are usually very similar to the petals (and thus called tepals). The inferior ovary or the pedicel usually rotates 180 degrees. Orchid flowers primitively had three stamens. In the primitive Apostasioideae this fusion is only partial. The stigma is very asymmetrical as all of its lobes are bent towards the centre of the flower and lay on the bottom of the column. thus becoming suitable to form a platform for pollinators. where they form a triangle. In Masdevallia all the sepals are fused. Orchid flowers with abnormal numbers of petals or lips are called peloric. called resupination occurs primitively in the family and is considered apomorphic (the torsion of the ovary is very evident from the picture). goes on the lower part of the flower. in the Vanilloideae it is more deep. is always modified and enlarged. the clade called Monandria. but its expression is environmentally influenced and may appear random. The normal form of the sepals can be found in Cattleya. so that the labellum. Peloria is a genetic trait. In Paphiopedilum (Venus slippers) the lower two sepals are fused together into a synsepal.

in some species over a million per capsule.Pollen is released as single grains. As aforementioned. Cypripedioideae and Vanilloideae. a sticky pad which sticks the pollinia to the body of pollinators. Orchid Fruits and Seeds The ovary typically develops into a capsule that is dehiscent by 3 or 6 longitudinal slits. containing both cellulosic stands and mucopolysaccharides. Each pollinium is connected to a filament which can take the form of a caudicle. The ripening of a capsule can take 2 to 18 months. so that all orchid species are mycoheterotrophic during germination and reliant upon fungi to complete their lifecycle. Caudicles or stipes hold the pollinia to the viscidium. in front of the anther cap. like in Dactylorhiza or Habenaria or a stipe. like in Vanda. that comprise the great majority of orchids. carries and two pollinia. They lack endosperm and must enter symbiotic relationship with various mycorrhizal basidiomyceteous fungi that provide them the necessary nutrients to germinate. three-partitioned. more rarely. the ovary is always inferior (located behind the flower). like in most other plants. In the other subfamilies. the anther. with parietal placentation (axile in the Apostasioideae). in the Apostasioideae. It is three-carpelate and one or. 8 . a slender extension involved in the complex pollination mechanism. At the upper edge of the stigma of single-anthered orchids. while remaining closed at both ends. The seeds are generally almost microscopic and very numerous. After ripening they blow off like dust particles or spores. A pollinium is a waxy mass of pollen grains held together by the glue-like alkaloid viscin. there is the rostellum.

Reproduction Orchids have developed highly specialized pollination systems and thus the chances of being pollinated are often scarce. While leaving the 9 . peach or even tomato puree or coconut milk. while there is a report of one paphiopedilum that took fifteen years. The test tubes are put diagonally after that. the most typical position amongst the Asparagales. each time pollination succeeds thousands of ovules can be fertilized. in the steam because that secures sterile conditions. After the cooking of the agar agar. the mix is poured into test tubes or jars where the substance begins to jelly. The main component for the sowing of orchids in artificial conditions is the agar agar. Pollinators are often visually attracted by the shape and colours of the labellum. pineapple.As the chance for a seed to meet a fitting fungus is very small. Although absent in most species. germination typically takes weeks. In orchids that produce pollinia. which promptly sticks to its body. The flowers may produce attractive odours. The substance is put together with some type of carbohydrate which provides qualitative organic feed such as banana. on the point of the sepals or in the septa of the ovary. In cultivation. generally on the head or abdomen. it touches a viscidium. pollination happens as some variant of the following. nectar may be produced in a spur of the labellum. When the pollinator enters into the flower. The seeds have to be put in the dish above boiling water. only a minute fraction of all the seeds released grow into an adult plant. This is why orchid flowers usually remain receptive for very long periods and why most orchids deliver pollen in a single mass.

In some extremely specialized orchids. the pollinium has taken such position that it will stick to the stigma of the second flower. just below the rostellum. When the pollinator enters another flower of the same species. The caudicle then bends and the pollinium is moved forwards and downwards. Otherwise the anther may rotate and then enter the stigma cavity of the flower.flower. The only exit leads to the anthers that deposit pollen on the visitor. small paintbrush. Each type of orchid places the pollinia on a different body part of a different species of bee. The possessors of orchids may be able to reproduce the process with a pencil. Pollination happens as the insect attempts to mate with flowers. it pulls the pollinium out of the anther. as it is connected to the viscidium by the caudicle or stipe. Some orchids mainly or totally rely on self-pollination. Many neotropical orchids are pollinated by male orchid bees. The labellum of the Cypripedioideae is poke-shaped and has the function to trap visiting insects. shape and odour which attracts male insects via mimicry of a receptive female. pollinating it. which visit the flowers to gather volatile chemicals they require to synthesize pheromonal attractants. so as to enforce proper cross-pollination. like the Eurasian genus Ophrys. especially in colder regions where pollinators are particularly rare. the labellum is adapted to have a colour. 10 . The caudicles may dry up if the flower hasn't been visited by any pollinator and the pollina then fall directly on the stigma. or other similar device.

and plants will display abnormalities of growth. and it becomes a deeply satisfying activity. hot. British orchid growers failed in the early 1800′s when they attempted to grow tropical orchids under dark. Some species of orchids may flower two or three times a year and some flower annually. vitamins and enzymes essential for plant life. growing orchids is relatively simple. or may not reproduce normally. chlorophyll. Macronutrients Nitrogen is a major component of proteins. If given the right climatic and cultural conditions. cause yellowing of the leaves and stunt growth. hormones. but because most of them are epiphytes (tree dwelling plants) their culture is different from that of other types of plants.Tips for Beginners Orchids have always been considered difficult to grow. They succeeded only when they realized that most tropical orchids grew at higher. cooler elevations and in the upper branches of trees where they got considerable light and perfect drainage. Tropical orchids are no more difficult to grow than other plants. Phosphorus is necessary for seed germination. The following is a brief guideline of the role of essential and beneficial mineral nutrients that are crucial for growth.Growing Orchids . It is essential for flower and fruit formation. Deficiencies can reduce yields. Once the cultural needs of these fascinating plants are understood. 11 . deficiency symptoms. Too much can delay flowering and fruiting. and steamy conditions. photosynthesis. they can thrive anywhere and will flower regularly. Nitrogen metabolism is a major factor in stem and leaf growth (vegetative growth). Eliminate any one of these elements. protein formation and almost all aspects of growth and metabolism in plants.

with small amounts of peat. strong trees. or the leaves will burn. orchids need the maximum light available. Do not place them in full sun. osumda fiber. do not place the plants on the ground. especially at night. Soil Potting mixes for tropical orchids are loose mixtures of organic material such as fir bark (not pine bark). Moisture In watering orchids. placing the orchids in a room with relatively cool temperatures will help guard against dehydration. but holds some moisture. cork. Also. In the home. Placing them outside under the shade of tall trees during the summer months is very beneficial. chains. Orchids usually need repotting only once every two to three years. or other structures. 12 . most orchids require some shading to prevent the leaves from overheating. tree fern. Temperature In the home. The object is to have a mix that drains well. Most orchids in fir bark based mixes will need watering no more than once every 5 to 7 days. Most orchids are actually most happy at temperatures below the comfort level of humans. it is best to soak the potting mix thoroughly and wait until the surface is relatively dry before watering again. however. Most commercial orchid growers supply ready-to-use orchid mixes in small quantities. or charcoal added. Orchid greenhouses are usually maintained at 55-65 degrees at night.Lighting In the greenhouse. Pot hangers can be used to suspend the plants from tree branches. for insects and slugs (snails) can enter the pots and damage the plants. however. perlite.

Water One of the big mistakes that people make is over watering their orchids.Fertilizer All plants can be fertilized safely with a water-soluble urea free fertilizer such as Growmore 20-10-20 about once a month. Some growers like to increase the humidity around their orchids in the home by using “humidity trays” or trays of wet gravel around or under the plants. Always water before fertilizing and remember that it is best to under-fertilize rather than to over-fertilize. Odontoglossum and Paphiopedilum varieties like to be kept with the soil a bit moist even between wanterings while the Ascocenda. People assume that since they are tropical plants they need a lot of water and this is not necessarily the case. You may want to water more frequently in the summer and a little bit less in the winter. Some orchid growers prefer to mix water-soluble fertilizers weaker than indicated on the package instructions and to use them every second or third watering. The Cymbidium. orchids cannot use as much fertilizer as they can use in the greenhouse. Vanda and Phalaenopsis prefer to have their soil become dry in between. The amount of watering necessary depends on the temperature any type of orchid a general rule of thumb is to water once a week. Miltonia. Pots should not touch the surface of the water. over watering can kill them. While they do appreciate the humid environment. With the lower light and drier conditions in the home. 13 .

Orchid Genera for the Novice Novice orchid growers should start with members of the following genera. so if you want to keep things simple. and which ones are easy to grow. you only need to concern yourself with the name of the genus. Most plants within the same genus will require similar growing conditions. or Moth Orchids.Which Orchid Plants Are Easy to Grow? We have seen what orchids are and how to take care of them. Phalaenopsis Orchids Phalaenopsis. Often when a spike is cut after its blooms are gone. and Oncidium. are one of the easiest orchids for beginners to grow. don’t worry about the species or variety at this point. thus extending the blooming season. flowers that may remain open for six weeks or longer. as well as one that is commonly found in stores. Paphiopedilum. since these are relatively easy to grow orchids: Phalaenopsis. The obvious question is which of these orchids can I grow at home. 14 . a secondary spike will develop on the old stalk below the original flower head. As a novice to the world of orchids. Members of this genus have multiple large. showy flowers on each spike. Dendrobium.

but are adaptable to co nditions more comfortable for human habitation in temperate zones (15 to 30 °C). They have no pseudobulbs. Flowering is triggered by a night-time drop in temperature of around 5 to 6 degrees over 2 to 4 consecutive weeks. Keep them in pots with a lot of drainage. Some Phalaenopsis species in Malaysia are known to use subtle weather cues to coordinate mass flowering. At temperatures below 18 ° C watering should be reduced to avoid the risk of root rot. thick and fleshy. One of the 15 . elliptical leaves a year. but still a bit moist and never allow the potting media to become bone dry. Water when the potting media is just approaching dryness. they are typically fond of warm temperatures (20 to 35 ° C). Keep the potting media fairly moist but not wet. usually in the fall. An erect growing rhizome produces from the top one or two alternate. which is considered quite a long time. basal leaves drop off at the same rate.000 to 20. Do not let water flow into the center of the plant or it can potentially die from crown rot. They bloom in their full glory for several weeks. The raceme appears from the stem between the leaves. Phalaenopsis shows a monopodial growth habit. The plant retains in this way four to five leaves. If very healthy.000 lux. Phalaenopsis prefer to be potted in medium fir bark. If kept in the home. They can also be potted in sphagnum moss or mounted. they can have up to ten or more leaves. Caring For Phalaenopsis: In nature.Phalaenopsis is a genus of approximately 60 species of orchids. Phalaenopsis requires high humidity (60-70%) and low light of 12. they usually last two to three months. The abbreviation in the horticultural trade is Phal. The older.

The first sign is a light green "mitten-like" object that protrudes from the leaf tissue. is easily recognizable.most numerous blunders that new growers make is to rot the roots. the so-called Venus Slipper orchid. They are relatively easy to coax into bloom if you provide the plant with the right temperature range: mottled leaves need warmer conditions than do solid green leaves. Phalaenopsis roots are quite thick. Light is quite vital to the well-being of the phalaenopsis orchid. Plant may be fertilized with a 1/4 diluted strength balanced fertilizer three times out of four waterings. 16 . Overwatering and poor drainage cause the roots to deteriorate. Being careful to water when you feel the soil is dry through and through is the safest thing to do. Keep it in indirect light near a southern window but not under direct sunlight. and the green point at the ends signifies that the root is actively growing. Paphiopedilum. Paphiopedilum Orchids Paphiopedilum is a genus in the orchid family (Orchidaceae) of approximately 91 species. Most have a single flower per stalk. therefore killing the plant. Phalaenopsis grown in poor dark areas tend to grow floppy dark green leaves and rarely flower. the spike enlongates until it begins to swell fat buds. but there are varieties with multiple flowers. The flower spikes appear from the pockets near the base of each leaf. In about three months. It is okay for them to climb out of the pots.

Dendrobium inflorescences are loaded with blossoms and are also long lasting. Most naturally grow in humus layers as semi-terrestrials on the forest floor. or occasionally lithophytic. abbreviated as Den in horticultural trade. These plants can often be split when mature. growing on a tree. so it is important to research the cultural needs of a specific paph. All paphs need a fresh environment and benefit from good air circulation and frequent repotting. especially if growing species. Dendrobium Orchids Dendrobium. The species are either epiphytic. especially among the Chinese paphs some of which encounter winter temperatures near freezing.Paphiopedilum (sometimes colloquially referred to as "Paphs") are considered highly collectible by growers due to the curious and unusual form of their flowers. The rule of thumb for paphs is to repot them every year. They 17 . Paphs benefit from high humidity. growing over a rock. usually after flowering or in the spring so they can establish themselves before hot weather sets in. it can be cut from the parent plant and will frequently flower after one year of growth. in rocky outcroppings or in trees. There are exceptions to these general guidelines. is a large genus of tropical orchids that consists of about 1200 species. Caring For Paphs: Most paphs are intermediate growers and do well in medium to medium-high light. When an offset has produced several aerial roots. since small additional offset plantlets are frequently produced. Most paphs should be kept evenly moist year-round.

Oncidium is a genus that contains about 330 species of orchids from the subfamily Epidendroideae of the orchid family (Orchidaceae). white and pink. Caring For Dendrobium: specific species. partially blocking the small petals and sepals. as is the lip. Plants grow in a variety of temperature ranges and lighting ranges which is dependent on the species. Since this is a large genus with different species originating in a wide variety of climates.have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. The petals are often ruffled on the edges. Caring For Oncidium: Oncs grow in cool to warm 18 . The lip is enormous. Plants can usually be mounted. it is helpful to know the growing requirements of the particular species you select. these hardy plants generally flower well even under adverse growing conditions. Oncidium Orchids Oncidiums. commonly referred to as the "dancing girls" orchid. from the high altitudes in the Himalayan mountains to lowland tropical forests and even to the dry climate of the Australian desert. Still. are also easy to grow. Abbreviated as Onc in horticultural trade. The flowers of the Oncidium genus come in shades of yellow. red. Plants Care depends on generally require a reduction of watering or with holding of water during the winter due to dormancy period.

Water the plant right before the potting mix starts to dry. 19 .conditions with moderate to bright light. Plants should be potted in a well drain medium such as medium fir bark.

Tips for Choosing a Healthy Orchid Plant Orchids are found in a variety of climates. so choose an orchid that closely matches the growing conditions of your environment. A nursery may also have an experienced orchid grower on staff. These are covered with a layer of white tissue. temperature range. This means assessing your light sources. it is still best to purchase one from a plant nursery where the plants will have most likely received specialized care. The roots of the plant you select should appear firm and healthy. These will be the easiest types of orchid plants to grow and your success will encourage you to develop more skills as an orchid grower. called velamen that acts like a sponge and protects the root from heat and water loss. not dried up or rotted. Orchid Leaves and Roots Wherever you end up shopping for your orchid. be sure to give the plant a good once-over before you purchase. available space. and humidity. who can help you choose the best orchid for the temperature and light level in your home. Ariel roots are also often visible above the growing medium. Orchid roots are relatively thick and fleshy for storing water and nutrients. 20 . Armed with this information. do a bit of research to find out which orchid plants match your environment. Although you can find orchids at supermarkets and home supply stores these days.

and if the orchid has multiple spikes. Orchid Spikes and Blooms When orchids bloom. fleshy leaves. avoid plants that have yellowing or black-spotted leaves. or thin elongated leaves. most produce one or more flower spikes. like Oncidium. depending on the type of orchid. which could indicate stress or disease. you can go ahead and start your exploration into the world of orchids. and the blossoms will soon wither and die. The blossoms open over the course of weeks. Choose a plant with multiple flower spikes and mostly unopened blooms. the plant may bloom for months. Empowered with the information that you have acquired here. Regardless of the leaf type. ________________________ 21 . The gorgeous plants that are in full bloom at the store are nearing the end of their colorful show. like Phalaenopsis. Orchid growing is one of the most satisfying hobbies in the world and that is why it has remained so popular for more than 100 years. These spikes are typically each an inflorescence composed of several flower buds that open first at the lowest point on the spike and progressively bloom to the tip (similar to how gladiolas bloom).There are many leaf forms. An orchid may have thick.