Orchids are a mass of contradictions. Their dainty blooms suggest a fleeting delicacy and they have a reputation for fussiness that scares many away. In fact their exotic flowers last weeks longer than most houseplants and specialist glasshouses and expert knowledge are not necessary for success.
The secret, believes grower Tom Price, lies in knowing what you’ve got. He blames too many impulse buys for orchids’ unfair image and believes that once you know what they want, they are no more difficult than any other plant.
“The worst thing you can do is to see an orchid somewhere and think ‘I like that’ and buy it,” he says. “If you cannot supply the right conditions, it is going to fail and will put you off the plants for life. Find out what it wants first.”
Tom, a member of Cheltenham and District Orchid Society, has been growing them for 22 years and has a collection that runs into nearly a thousand plants. On a cold, grey winter day, their vibrant blooms are a welcome sight and go some way to explaining why they inspire such loyalty among enthusiasts.
The biggest flowering plant family in the world touching every continent except the Antarctic, with more than 25,000 species and around 100,000 hybrids, orchids range from those with flowers the size of a matchhead to others with blooms eight inches across. They come in every possible colour – apart from blue, although some commercial growers are known to inject dye into plants to achieve that.
Tom’s collection spans the colour range: ‘Hsin Buu Lady’ has deep pink flowers with a beautiful velvety sheen, Phalaenopsis ‘Taida King’s Caroline’ has paler white and pink blooms while a Cambria type is two-tone chestnut and burnt orange and Dendrobium harveyanum has delicately fringed yellow flowers.
Some, the ‘jewel orchids’ are grown more for the foliage than their by orchid standards insignificant flowers. Looking at the intricately veined leaves in deep bronzed purple and emerald green, it’s easy to see why Tom says “they don’t all need flowers”.
Just coming into flower are pots of pleonie, which will produce a single bloom per plant before the leaves.
“They are a bit like the orchid version of a crocus,” says Tom.
The most commonly available orchids fall into three main groups – phalaenopsis, cymbidium and dendrobium – and are straightforward to grow, providing you follow a few simple rules.
Phalaenopsis need a night-time temperature of between 18-21C – keep them away from single-glazed windows – rising to 23-27C during the day and give them regular food and water as they have no pseudo bulb for storing these.
“You can water from the top, just don’t get it into the crown and water before midday so it has a chance to evaporate,” advises Tom.
When the flowers die back, cut just above the next node down on the stem and a second flower spike will grow and flower within two to three months. Like this, a plant can flower for several years but should be allowed to rest once the new leaves start diminishing in size.
“The plant is telling you it wants a rest.
Cut the flower spike off and reduce feeding and watering to once a month, instead of once a week.
When it comes to feeding, Tom recommends a ‘weakly, weekly’ regime, using quarter strength feed – high potash for any that are reluctant to flower and a general feed for the others.
Cymbidiums need a day-night temperature difference of 13C-25C when in growth from June to August to ensure flowering later in the year. Standing the plants out in dappled shade during the summer will help to ensure the right growing conditions. Give them plenty of light for the rest of the year and water when dry to the touch.
Dendrobiums are prolific when it comes to flowering. They enjoy a moist atmosphere while in growth, such as a bathroom, but should be kept on the dry side over the winter. The most commonly grown are the D. nobile types.
Get the conditions right and some orchids can flower for several years, a feat that few other plants can match. No wonder they inspire such devotion.
• Cheltenham and District Orchid Society holds its annual show on Saturday March 5 at Churchdown Community Centre, Churchdown, Gloucester. The show runs from 10.30am to 4pm and admission is £2 with free parking. There will be nursery and society displays, plants for sale, including alpines, advice and a re-potting service for orchids.
• More information about the society and growing orchids: https://sites.google.com/a/cheltenhamorchids.org/www/