For those of you who frequently forget to water your orchids, you’re not alone. For a long time, my orchids only got watered when I remembered to water them. Actually, part of the reason I love orchids is that they don’t have to be watered as often as some of the other typical houseplants. They can handle my forgetfulness and neglect.
Last month, I abandoned my orchids for a trip Yosemite National Park and a biotechnology conference. Before I left, I watered my orchids very well, but, after that, they were on their own for 2.5 weeks. None died, thankfully, but I do have some nice examples of what happens when you don’t water your orchids enough.
How much should you water your orchids?
That’s not an easy question to answer because it depends on a lot of factors:
How can you tell when a plant needs water?
After overwatering and killing a bunch of Phalaenopsis, my new rule of thumb is to stick a finger in the media. If the media is still damp, don’t water the plant.
Major signs of underwatering orchids:
1. Dried out pseudobulbs.
In sympodial orchids, the pseudobulbs are used to store sugar and water. When the pseudobulbs are young and healthy, they are plump and filled. When the plants are underwatered they draw from their water storage, causing the pseudobulbs to wrinkle. Once a pseudobulb wrinkles, it doesn’t unwrinkled.
2. Horizontal pleated leaves (wrinkles that go across the width of growing leaves)
Underwatered plants can develop horizontal crimping or pleating on newly developing shoots. If the newly growing leaf doesn’t get enough water while it’s developing, it forms these horizontal pleats (pictured below in the Oncidiums I abandoned). These don’t go away as the plant ages. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t hurt plant growth, although it probably doesn’t go over well with judges if you submit your plans in flower shows.
***Note: some orchids, like the Zygonisia pictured on the right, have naturally pleated leaves. These pleats run along the length of the leaf (opposite of pleats caused by underwatering).
Barb and I finished our week of flower fun with a visit to Longwood Garden’s for their annual orchid event. Here are some of the pictures I took there. Disclaimer: I’m an engineer and an amateur writer, not a photographer. I just really like taking pictures of flowers and I’m happy that I finally have something to do with at least some of the photos I take at gardens.
Flower Power beats the Winter Blues
Barb and I went to the Philly Flower show in early March. She didn’t speak this year, but wandering around the exhibition hall was exactly the break from winter that we both needed! This year’s theme was a 1960’s-inspired flower power and all of the colorful flowers would lift anyone’s spirits.
Waldor Orchids is always a favorite!
Waldor Orchids, orchid growers from Linwood, New Jersey, always does a stunning display each year and this year was no different! My photos don’t do it justice, so I’ll try my best to describe the display. The base was a flat pool died black with pedestals of orchids and bromeliads. The pedestal in the center rotated and some of the outer pedestals had mirrors. I believe their display was named Kaleidoscope and I think they definitely nailed it.
Barb works closely with Waldor Orchids for plant and potting materials for a lot of her classes. They’re a great group of people and fantastic orchid growers!
Barb's orchid won first place!
Barb entered two orchids in the Master Class competition at the flower show and one won first place! The other orchid was not a winner but we’re still proud of it anyway.
The Philadelphia Flower Show's first Youth Orchid competition is a big hit!
Barb’s Junior Flower Show contestants also had their orchids judged in the Philly Flower Show. She’s been working at two schools in Philadelphia with about fifty elementary and high school students to raise and show orchids. I was only tangentially involved in the project, but it was still incredibly exciting to see their orchids on display at the show! For more information about the Junior Flower Show, check out Barb’s page on it.
Taking your orchid care to the next level- altering orchid flower timing like professionals
I’ll admit the title might be a little misleading. “Professionals” is a bit of an exaggeration because professionals have degrees in horticulture and greenhouses with temperature controls and light regulation that make fiddling with flower timing eerily precise. This post is filled with Barb’s at-home hacks for altering flower timing when you don’t have fancy equipment.
Healthy orchids tend to flower at the same time every year. It’s crazy, I know, but weirdly true. If you buy a flowering orchid in March and raise it well, it will most likely flower again the following March. However, you can fiddle with the timing a bit, particularly after the bud spike has begun growing.
Getting back to orchids, this temperature dependence is the same reason we can alter bud spike development by changing the temperature. Cooling your orchid down will slow down bud spike development because the chemical processes that need to happen to create the bud spike slow down. Conversely, increasing the air temperature will speed up those reactions and get your plant to flower faster. The key here is to make small changes. Nothing too crazy. Sudden, drastic temperature changes will overstress your plant, possibly to the point that it drops the bud spike entirely.
Speeding Up Flowering:
When it’s needed: If you need a plant to bloom earlier.
How it’s done: Barb had to do this recently because a plant she entered in the Philadelphia International Flower Show was not open the day before she had to take it down to Philly for judging.
The bud was nearly open, so to give it an extra nudge, Barb set the plant on a heating pad the night before. That photo on the right is what she woke up to the following morning! Some important things to point out: (1) The heating pad was on its lowest setting. The goal is just to warm up the plant a bit, not bake it. (2) The orchid is not sitting directly on top of the heating pad. Barb just flipped a dry tray upside down and set the pot on top. That way, she was only heating the air around the plant rather than cooking the pot and the roots. (3) This worked overnight because the bud was already very close to opening. Tighter buds and less developed bud spikes will require more time.
Slowing Down Flowering:
When it’s needed: If you have an orchid that is already flowering and you want to extend the life of those flowers. Or, if you want to slow down bud development to delay flowering.
How it’s done: To slow down flower development, just cool the plant down. Barb has a couple methods that she uses depending on how long she needs to stall development. For small changes, she just uses a bow window in her living room, pictured on the left. The glass surrounding the plant on three sides cools it down more overnight than sitting further away from the windows. Barb also turned a spare bedroom into another cool room for orchids. She partially closed the heating vents in this room and keeps the door shut so the room stays ~5F cooler than the rest of the house. The room still gets excellent evening sunshine. I’ll give you the same warning as with warming the plant up, you don’t want to make any drastic changes to temperature. Most orchids can stand temperatures down to ~50F, but they don’t like sudden changes, like from 70F to 50F in two minutes. If you are going to move an orchid to a cooler temperature, do it incrementally. For instance, Barb may inch a plant closer to her bow windows over the course of a couple days. Or she may leave the spare room’s door open to warm the room up before she moves the plant into the room. Then, she’ll slowly close the door to cool the room down while the orchid is in to allow the orchid to acclimate.
AOS Article Alert: March 2019
Discover the tasty and enigmatic Vanilla orchid in Barb’s latest article
How often have you had vanilla ice cream or added some vanilla extract to your favorite cake? Have you ever considered where that comes from?
The Vanilla orchid is one of the oldest orchids still around today. Because it’s so old, Vanilla orchids have some pretty unique features. Rather than the stacking leaf shape typical of other monopodials or pseudobulbs like sympodial orchids, Vanilla plants are vines that climb up trees or rocks in their native environment.
In this month’s issue of Orchids magazine, Barb tackles some of the most common questions and misconceptions about the Vanilla orchid. She takes readers back in time to the Late Cretaceous when the Vanilla orchid first arose and moves through the millennia to cover the full history of how vanilla became an internationally popular spice. In her article, Barb covers Vanilla’s natural habitat and how it grows. She also discusses its unique flowering and pollination requirements and how those drive the price of natural vanilla extract up so high.
Barb also identifies the dangers Vanilla orchids are facing with their bee pollinators heading for extinction. What will happen to these ancient orchids if their pollinator dies?
To learn more about the future fate of Vanilla orchids and pick up some fun new tidbits of orchid trivia, check out Barb’s March article in Orchids Magazine.
AOS members can see the magazine here: http://www.aos.org/about-us/orchids-magazine.aspx
If you’re not an AOS member, consider joining! https://secure.aos.org/join/membership.aspx
Picture this: You’re walking down the aisles of competition entries at your favorite flower show. You pass so many beautiful orchids that it leaves you in awe. Phalaenopsis with dozens of pale yellow blooms spilling down along graceful budspikes. Cattleyas like fireworks of yellow, red, and pink bursting from a massive group of pseudobulbs. They’re beautiful…and maybe you can’t get it out of your head that some of your orchids look just as nice.
But you’d never consider entering an orchid into a flower show. You’re just an amateur and you definitely can’t enter that $8 orchid you picked up from a home improvement store three years ago.
But why shouldn’t you?
Barb wrote an article for the American Orchid Society’s Orchids magazine this month that demystifies orchid competitions. She first started entering orchids into the Philadelphia International Flower Show 9 years ago. Her first entry was a Baldan’s Kaleidoscope Phalaenopsis that absolutely refused to stop flowering. After nearly a year of continuously flowers, Barb finally took the hint and figured why not? It took a bit of work to enter the orchid and prep it for the competition, but the day before the show opened, we drove that orchid down to Philly for the competition.
That Phalaenopsis turned out to be Barb’s first blue ribbon - in the Novice class, of course. But, it was still an incredibly exciting experience. It wasn’t even my orchid and I was thrilled to see people—complete strangers—taking pictures of her winning orchid.
I entered an orchid of my own a few years later and got my first blue ribbon. Since then, Barb and I have entered a couple other orchids with some hits and some misses. We don’t do it competitively, but if we have an orchid that looks nice when the Philly Flower Show rolls around, we’ll enter it.
We’ll admit that it can be overwhelming and confusing to enter an orchid into a show, so take a minute to check out Barb’s article for some inspiration and tips for being a competitive orchid enthusiast.
Along with some words of encouragement, Barb’s article addresses topics like:
Keep an eye out for her article on the mysterious and alluring Vanilla orchid in next month’s Orchids issue!
The Enigmatic Blue Orchid
The buzz around blue orchids has been pretty hot for several years now. Blue is a rare flower color in any plant and the Holy Grail of flower colors for most orchid breeders. So far, no naturally blue-flowered orchids have been discovered or bred—at least, nothing as vibrantly blue as these orchids on the right.
The blue color in these blooms is actually just a blue dye that was injected in the bud spike before the flowers developed. The plants that are most often used for this technique have naturally white flowers to make the dye more vibrant. There’s nothing unhealthy or dangerous about this technique; you just have to understand that if that plant blooms again, the flowers will be white.
How can you tell?
How does it work?
Plants send a lot of fluids and nutrients to developing blooms. By injecting the dye into the bud spike, the dye gets sent along with those nutrients and water into the flowers. If the host orchid naturally has white-colored flowers, there are no extra pigments that can contribute to the color of the flower, so the dye colors the flowers very brightly.
You may have tried something similar with carnations as a kid. I know I did. It’s even simpler than dying orchid blooms because there’s no needle required. All you do is cut a light-colored carnation flower and put the stem in some water. Add a couple drops of your favorite food dye and let the carnation go. As it takes up the water/dye over the next couple days, your flower will gradually turn the color of your dye.
In this second post leading up to transplanting orchids, I thought I’d cover a less commonly recognized problem for orchids—water quality. I, personally, never put too much thought into this topic until recently. If you’re like me, you probably think that if the water is good enough for you to drink, it’s good enough for the orchids, too. Well, that’s not always the case. In this post, I’ll cover a couple things you might want to check and keep in mind when watering your orchids.
This table is just a quick overview of the topics covered in this post. For a more detailed discussion, read on!
1. Public vs Private Water Systems
2. Water Decontamination
Public and private water systems have varying methods of purifying and decontaminating water before human use. For drinking water, some methods include:
While filtering and UV-sterilization don’t have as big of a role in plant health, chlorine can be an issue. As I said earlier, the treatments done to our drinking water are regulated at the level of human health. While the water is safe for us to drink, it may not be good for our plants.
3. Hard vs. Soft Water
If you’re a homeowner, you’ve probably heard of hard and soft water before. Hard water contains fairly high levels of calcium, while soft water does not. The calcium in hard water tends to cause scale build up in water pipes that damages the pipes over time. As a result, public and private water facilities will often manually soften the water by exchanging the calcium ions for sodium ions.
At the concentrations we’re talking about, neither the calcium nor sodium ions are a health issue for humans, but they can cause problems for houseplants.
As I discussed above, there are fertilizers designed for hard water (that provide less calcium to make up for the calcium already present in the water). However, the sodium can become a problem because it is not considered essential to plant growth and can become toxic.
Orchids, especially, are sensitive to excess salt build up, like sodium chloride.
What to look for: Is your water hard, naturally soft, or manually softened?
The Rhythm of Life
I don’t know about you, but twice a year, Day Light Savings always messes me up. For at least a week after we fall back or spring forward, I’m a wreck—I can’t focus, I’m more tired than usual.
Part of the problem is because that 1 measly hour change messes with the human body’s circadian rhythm. You may have heard of that term before, in Latin circadian roughly translates to “about day”, meaning this rhythm is about ~24hrs long.
Although we still don’t understand all of the details of circadian rhythms, here are some things we do know:
Circadian rhythm in plants:
The most visible way that plants demonstrate their circadian rhythm is by tracking the sun with their leaves or flowers. In fact, the first time this motion appeared in scientific reports was in the 1700s, so we’ve know about it for a while. Even today, we don’t understand exactly how plants control their circadian rhythm.
Sunflowers are excellent for observing this solar tracking. What’s absolutely wild about these flowers is that they reset themselves at night. They follow the sun from east to west during the day, but overnight they reset back to face east for the next sunrise. This demonstrates that, although they may follow the environmental cue of sunlight, that’s not the only driver. Without sunlight at night, they still somehow move back to face east (not south or north) and they are reset back to east before the sun rises again. Check out this video to watch sunflowers in action: https://www.nature.com/news/video-sunflowers-move-to-internal-rhythm-1.15548
Circadian rhythm in orchids:
The most obvious example of circadian rhythm in orchids that I’ve observed in my own plants is flower scent. Have you ever bought a plant that the grower swore smelled beautiful, but every time you smell it, there’s no scent? Try smelling that flower at different times of the day—including the middle of the night. The chemicals responsible for the scent are expensive for the orchid to make. Most orchids won’t waste the energy or resources to make those chemicals if their pollinator isn’t active. It’s like calling your night-owl friend at 6am. Why bother when you know she’ll be asleep and won’t answer? You have a better chance of her answering if you wait for a time when you know she’ll be awake.
For instance, I have an oncidium that only has a scent in early afternoon while my mom has a brassolaeliocattleya (Blc.) that has the most beautiful, powerful scent…at 2am. The difference is that my oncidium’s target pollinator is probably most active in the middle of the day, while the Blc.’s pollinator is likely nocturnal.
Biomes – an area of land with specific environmental conditions that is home to animals and plants adapted to those conditions
The greatest diversity of orchids are found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. These are areas with a lot of rain and warm average annual temperatures. Epiphytic orchids are almost exclusively found in these biomes because their roots grow out into the air where they have no soil or media to moderate temperature or protect them from water loss. Meanwhile, cooler climates are home to terrestrial orchids that can survive harsh winters with their roots and rhizomes safely buried under ground.
Rainfall and temperature are the most common environmental factors used to define biomes.
These environmental factors are largely controlled by where on the planet the biome is located. Tropical biomes are found right along the equator, while subtropical biomes are a bit further away from the equator.
For a more information, check out the charts below!
Because most scientific articles and texts are published using metric units, I spruced up this graph to include imperial units (inches and Fahrenheit) so my fellow Americans could follow along. (Figure adapted from Whittaker, R.H. Communities and Ecosystems. New York: Macimmilian, 1975; and Rickefs, R.E. The Economy of Nature. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000.)
This graph, called the Whittaker Biome Model, breaks down common biome types over a range of temperatures and rainfall levels. For instance, from this graph we can estimate that a tropical rainforest receives 80-160 inches of rain per year with an average temperature of ~70-85°F.
This graph also tells us a little bit about the organisms (plants, animals, insects, etc.) that live in those areas. For instance, an epiphytic orchid might grow well in a tropical rainforest or a tropical seasonal forest because the temperatures stay warm all year round and both receive sufficient rainfall. However, a grassland or desert would be too dry for an epiphytic orchid while the taiga and temperate deciduous/coniferous forests would be too cold.
Sometimes there are overlaps between biomes that would make this graph very confusing, so not every biome is represented here. For example, this graph doesn’t identify subtropical rainforests, but we can still talk about them in terms of their rainfall and temperature. Subtropical rainforests are characterized by receiving a lot of precipitation, at least 30 inches. They also tend to be cooler than tropical rainforests, although the temperature rarely goes below freezing. Orchids living in subtropical rainforests will be more tolerant of cooler, drier conditions.
This map of the planet is colored for biomes, rather than countries. If you look carefully you’ll notice that there are lateral bands/zones of particular biomes. From equator to poles, it goes: Tropical rainforest – tropical grassland – desert – temperate forest – taiga – tundra. This makes sense because we know that average annual temperature decreases as we move away from the equator.
Jen Schmidt is a PhD graduate from Cornell University who, with the help of her mother (Barb), is turning into a crazy plant lady at a young age.