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Orchids for Your Valentine
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Orchids are exotic, elegant, and romantic. That's what makes them the
perfect gift for your special someone on Valentine's Day.

Orchids come in all colors except black (although there are orchids that are
almost black), in all sorts of beautiful and bizarre shapes, and in a wide range
of sizes. Although most garden centers carry reasonably priced, easy-to-grow
varieties (mostly tropical species), in the natural world there are more than
20,000 species of orchids, growing in every type of habitat from tropical rain
forests to the tundra and semi-arid desert, and on every continent except
Antarctica. Orchids grow in all 50 states, even Alaska!

Choose the Right Species of Orchids

Since many homes are quite dry in winter, particularly those with forced-air
heat, you’ll want to choose species that tolerate such conditions.  Not all
orchids grow in rain forests; some grow in areas with seasonal dry periods.  
Some of the more common are found among dendrobiums, oncidiums, and
the corsage orchid (

More uncommon for dry climates are Brassavola and some Aerangis orchids.  
Generally those that grow best in dry, indoor air include ones with seasonal
growth, hard leaves, and “pseudobulbs” (a swollen stem area the plant uses
for storage).   Using a humidifier near plants, or placing them on a tray of
pebbles, kept moist, will help most any orchid in dry indoors.

Tips to Buying a Healthy Orchid

When buying an orchid, the plant should be securely rooted in the pot and
have lustrous flowers and firm, succulent leaves and pseudobulbs.  For those
“epiphytes”— that grow naturally on the sides of trees, that get their
nutrients and moisture from rain and air, which are the ones you’ll find
growing in bark — fresh, white roots with green root tips also are a sign of a
healthy plant.  As with other flowering plants, buy orchids with some buds
still left to open.  Make sure flowers and leaves don’t have spots, which
could be from poor culture or even disease.

Orchids: Cool, Intermediate & Warm

Orchids are commonly grouped as cool, intermediate, and warm, based on
the plant's optimum night requirements (45 to 50 degrees F, 55 to 65 degrees
F, and above 65 degrees F, respectively).  For warm homes, consider the
Dendrobium, moth orchid (
Phalaenopsis), or Vanda orchids.  The moth orchids
grow under similar conditions to African violets, making them one of the best
choices for growing indoors.

Those for intermediate temperatures, such as Cattleya and its hybrids, may
need more humidity to grow well than is usually possible indoors.  
Cymbidum and Oncidium, while taking cooler temperatures in winter, also
need high humidity and high light to grow best.

Some orchids may not bloom if the nighttime and daytime temperatures are
the same. Consistently warm temperatures are good for leaf growth, but may
suppress flower development.

Most orchids require relatively high light intensities and should be grown in
an east or south window. However, a few will grow well under low intensity
fluorescent lights. Insufficient light is the most common reason orchids don't
flower. If there is too little light, the leaves become a deep, lush green. With
too much light, the leaves turn yellow-green.

Watering Tips

Orchids vary in their water requirements.  The tropical orchids, which mainly
are epiphytes, should be grown in a very porous potting medium such as
coarse fir bark or lava rock. Place these pots in the sink and run lukewarm
water through them for about 15 seconds, then allow to drain for about 15
minutes. Terrestrial types, rooted in soil, require a well-drained  growth
medium.  One of my favorite orchids, which is easy to grow in soil indoors in
the north and lasts for many years, is the Jewel orchid (
Ludisia). Another
popular terrestrial orchid, easy to grow indoors, is the lady slipper

Watering and fertilizer frequency depends on orchid, and the medium in
which they are potted. Most orchids growing in bark cannot survive
prolonged drought and should be watered often. However, some require a
"dry season" of six to eight weeks during which watering is reduced but not
stopped. This "dry season" must occur immediately after the current growth
matures and is often necessary to initiate future flowering. Some
Dendrobium and Oncidium orchid species are in this group.

Orchids are affected by many of the same pests and diseases as other
houseplants. Insects such as mealybugs and aphids can be controlled with
water rinses and insecticidal soaps.

If you want to buy a potted orchid for yourself or for a gift, check online for
local orchid growers or societies, or visit your local florist, greenhouse, or
garden store.  These can be great sources of information, as is the
Orchid Society.

Cut Orchids are Also Nice!

If all this culture sounds too much for you or your Valentine recipient,
consider a cut-flower orchid you can find at florists.  Protect it from cold on
the way home, and from cold drafts once home.  Keep away from direct sun
and heat sources.  Cut Cattleya should last for one week.  Phalaenopsis,
Oncidium, and Paphipedilum should last one to two weeks as cut flowers.  
Longest lasting orchids as cut flowers, often from 4 to 6 weeks, are
Cymbidium orchids.