By Jamie Hamblin
University of Georgia
Most household orchids, however, last only six months because they don't get proper care, he said.
"Today, my mother has orchids living happily in her kitchen that I gave her in 1974," Thomas said. "They really do live a long time once you learn how to grow them."
Orchid boomFortunately, science has made it possible for us to enjoy exotic plants in our homes at relatively little cost. And with proper care, they can thrive there for a lifetime.
"Because of recent advances in tissue culture techniques, botanists can easily grow 10,000 orchids from a single plant," Thomas said.
Now, countries like Taiwan and the Philippines profit by exporting millions of their cloned native flowers annually. Georgians today can enjoy the exotic plants by buying orchids from local nurseries or even supermarkets.
Orchids commonly found on the market, Thomas said, can be categorized into three general groups:
- Phalaenopsids have large flowers with moth-like patterns. They can bloom most of the year.
- Dendrobiums, while they look similar, shed their blooms in fall and winter.
- Cattleyas have large, colorful blooms and are commonly known as "the corsage orchid."
Most people have brief introductions to orchids -- in a corsage, for instance. Thomas made a much more intimate acquaintance, first seeing their beauty while shoveling horse manure in a commercial greenhouse.
As unpleasant as that might seem, Thomas said he learned a valuable lesson there. "Soil is the most important factor when caring for an orchid," he said.
The ideal soil characteristics vary with the type of orchid. "Phalaenopsids require evenly moist conditions for growing," Thomas said. "Therefore, a heavy soil is ideal, something high in organic matter like peat moss."
Problem with potsOne problem with ornamental pots, he said, is that there's little or no drainage, which hurts an orchid's roots because of the lack of air.
Thomas addresses the problem by filling a larger pot with 2 inches of gravel, placing the plant atop the gravel layer and then surrounding the plant with moss. This allows the surplus water to drain out into the gravel layer, leaving the roots with ample oxygen.
On the other hand, cattleyas need completely different growing conditions. These flowers are conventionally used to growing on trees with very little soil. So they grow best in drier soils that allow for exposure to air, such as gravel mixed with pine or fir bark.
"The conditions used to grow phalaenopsids would kill cattleyas in a few weeks," Thomas said.
Easy does itSoils aside, phalaenopsids and cattleyas both prefer very dilute fertility levels.
"Use an eighth of the recommended rate for houseplants," Thomas said. "Orchids in the jungle are never fertilized, so they're not able to deal with a high dose of fertility. It kills the roots."
You can tell when your orchid needs water by sticking your little finger into the soil, Thomas said. If it feels dry, give the plant a little water.
"In the summertime, orchids will do great outside in the shade," Thomas said. "Never put orchids in direct sunlight."
For more information, visit the American Orchid Society at www.orchidweb.org/aos.
(Jamie Hamblin is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)