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Hamptons Life

Nov 5, 2018 11:28 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Out With The Old, In With The Orchid

Nov 7, 2018 10:03 AM

We’re getting close to the holiday season and once upon a time people would fill their homes with poinsettias, Christmas cacti, kalanchoe and florist cyclamens. All in full bloom to fill their interior spaces with color at a time of the year when days are short, nights are long and yet we seek signs of joy, life and brightness.

Maybe it’s time for some new holiday plants. Maybe it’s time for some plants that flower for weeks or months on end and require little care and have few demands.

There is just such a plant and you probably never considered it for the holidays. The funny thing, however, is that had you asked for this plant in a garden center 20 years ago or even suggested that it was easy to grow, you would have been thought a bit weird or even eccentric. But much has changed in the world of this plant, and now you can buy them in just about every garden center, plant shop, big box store and even in some drugstores. Welcome to the new age of the orchid.

Once thought to be one of the more exotic plants and very difficult to grow, orchids were expensive and, for the most part, relegated to those who had greenhouses or “plant rooms” in their homes. High humidity was the first prerequisite and just the perfect amount of light was required. And, if you wanted your orchids to rebloom, well, you had to be a green thumb of the highest order. Not any more.

A few years ago our son gave my wife an orchid for her birthday. I have no clue where he bought it but based on the bar code on the 4-inch plastic pot, I think it may have come from a supermarket or Home Depot. I cringed at the long-term outlook for this single-stemmed phalaenopsis (also called “phals”) but after all, it’s the thought that counted and the flowers were indeed strikingly beautiful. My wife thanked him and marveled at the flowers then quickly handed it over to me with the words, “This is your job.” I rejected the new assignment, saying I could never take responsibility for a mass-marketed plant that was doomed for the compost heap.

I can’t ignore a plant though and even though it was relegated to the second-lowest tier on a plant stand to the side of a south-facing window—yes, they like bright light but not direct sunlight—it wasn’t totally ignored. Every once in a while, I’d give it some water, but with some regularity it would fall on the floor, the anchoring bark nuggets would fall out of the pot and I’d stuff it back into its pot and replace the nuggets.

The plant was determined to survive in spite of me. It flowered for weeks and weeks. Well, actually, it was months, and eventually the chartreuse flowers faded and one by one fell to the floor. There was a ritual that I’d learned from other orchids that I’d grown. When the last flower dropped, I got my trusty Felco pruner out and cut the flower stem back to the third internode. That’s the third ring around the stem above the pot. This is the spot where phalaenopsis are known to send out new stems when pruned properly.

The lonely orchid sat on its second-tier perch for months. It continued to fall, I continued to pot it back up and it maintained its spot as a relegated orphan. I threatened to trash it more than once—but you know how it is. I could never throw out a plant that still had signs of life. And it did.

Then, lo and behold, one day while I was tending my other plants I looked down to this second-tier orphan and there just at the third internode where I had pruned the original stem, there was the signs of a bump, a glimmer of something that wanted to happen. And, sure enough, it did. The bump turned into a sprout and the sprout turned into a shoot and the shoot turned into a stem. A few weeks later, the stem had first one then two then three then six swelling buds. About two months after the bump appeared the buds began to open one by one until about two weeks later the new foot-long stem had a half dozen new flowers open in a display that made my heart rise and my horticultural ego swell.

But in reality, I’d really done nothing other than prune the orchid at the right time and remembered to give it some water once in a while. The orchid’s genetics and need to survive certainly were more powerful than my neglect and lack of care. And as the plant bloomed, and as it continues to bloom nearly 30 months after my son gifted this inexpensive little orchid to his mother on her birthday, I have a new and different outlook on the orchids being sold in garden centers, big box stores and even some drugstores.

These phalaenopsis come is a wide range of colors and sizes and at this time of the year they sell off the shelves and tables really quickly. With prices starting around $10 and going up into the hundreds, there is a phalaenopsis for just about everyone and maybe two, three or more to color up your holiday decor.

A few growing tips to help you along: These plants don’t need lots of heat nor do they need lots of humidity. We keep our house around 60 degrees at night and 68 during the day though the phalaenopsis will tolerate 70 to 80 degrees during the day. Keep them away from windows though. They don’t need a lot of light. Most people think orchids need shade and that’s not the case. They will not do well in direct sunlight but put far to the side of a south window or facing and east or west window should be just fine. The leaves should be an olive green and if there are tinges of red this means there is too much light.

Another misconception is that these orchids like to be “moist.” In fact, they like to nearly dry out between waterings. I may give my little phalaenopsis an ounce or two of water every week and no more and the bark nuggets and moss in the pot retain just the right amount of moisture allowing the rest to drain out of the pot. Make sure the plant never sits in standing water, and good drainage is critical. Hot and dry air from a heating system should never blow on one of these. Try to water in the morning and never leave the leaves wet at night. The plants will need more water in the summer months and less in the winter. Feed sparingly once a week with an organic plant fertilizer that is balanced like 2-2-2.

To get them to rebloom, watch the individual spikes. As a spike drops all its flowers, look for the internodes or rings on the stem. Starting from the pot, count three nodes up and with a pruner make a clean cut just a quarter inch above the third node. And since you’ve done such a good job, the plant should flower again in about three to four months. Repotting is done every two to three years and we’ll cover that in another column. Time to shop and, of course, keep growing.

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