6 easiest orchids to grow, with longwood’s greg griffis
RIGHT ABOUT NOW, countless orchid plants in homes everywhere—plants perhaps gifted to their owners, or others we bought for ourselves on an impulse when in bloom last year—could be coming back into flower…but, um, maybe they aren’t.
Where did we fail?
Is it the wrong orchid for our conditions, or did we do wrong by the right orchid? Oh, dear.
I sought advice from Greg Griffis, the orchid grower for Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where the annual Orchid Extravaganza runs late January to late March. He gave me an Orchid 101, because I think it’s time we improved our track records.
Greg Griffis’s own orchid history is an inspiration: He first became aware of orchids in 2009. Studying Music Education at West Chester University, he lived close to Longwood, and attended the 2010 Orchid Show there, where he purchased his first plant. One plant quickly became 20. Greg was hooked.
He has since worked for Parkside Orchid Nursery, Hilo Orchid Farm in Hawaii, and at the start of 2015, found himself back where it all began: Greg became the orchid grower at Longwood. He also teaches the garden’s popular beginning orchid class.
The theme of our conversation was “6 Orchids Everyone Should Own”—a bold suggestion, I know, but I think we’re up to the task, gardeners. (One is Paphiopedilum spicerianum, in the photo at the top of the page.) Read along as you listen to the Jan. 25, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my orchid q&a with longwood’s greg griffis
Q. The orchid show at Longwood, the Orchid Extravaganza, takes place late January through late March, so thank you for making time to join me despite all the work on that. I believe I read that orchids were one the first collections at Longwood, since like 1922.
A. Yes, they were gifted by one of the relatives of Pierre du Pont—about 2,000 plants in the early 1900s.
Q. Wow. And today there are how many thousands of orchid taxa in the collection, and how many plants?
A. At Longwood we have about 6,100, and are somewhere in the range of 2,000 different taxa.
Q. So 2,000 taxa and 6,100 plants and you’re the Orchid Grower and that means you’re responsible; the buck stops with you.
A. That’s right.
Q. What kinds of things does getting ready for the show involve—it’s got quite lavish displays, not just bring out those orchids, right?
A. Actually our collection only feeds the collection display—which is on year-round. But for the show, we’re bringing in plants from all over the country. We have boxes coming on from Hawaii, deliveries from all over the plant just for the show. We actually just had plants arrive from Taiwan today.
Q. So you’re making archways, and hanging things—you probably won’t tell me ahead of time, but we’ll see soon on the website [or in person; get show ticket details].
So let’s zoom back down to the home scale. As I said in the introduction, things can go wrong when we bring home the wrong orchids (or any plant!) for our conditions—or when we treat a well-suited plant badly. Before we meet the six orchids we’re all going to buy after hearing this podcast, do you want to give us any general “before you adopt an orchid…” overall advice?
A. I think the first thing I like telling people is that orchids aren’t hard, they’re just different. Growing orchids requires a different mindset, especially when it comes to watering. People are used to growing plants that grow in soil that stay evenly moist all the time, where orchids like to dry out a little bit between watering, but at the same time don’t want to get desiccated. So that watering is probably the most important part of orchid growing.
Q. So that’s what I have to have in mind—and I’m sure some are slightly different in their watering needs—but it’s thinking differently from the way I’ve treated other plants.
Shall we go plant-by-plant, and you tell us more about how to grow orchids using the illustrations of your must-have plants?
A. We’re kind of going in order of ease of cultivation in your house.
Q. Oh, good. [Laughter.] So we’ll start with the simple ones.
A. Our first one is a Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid, the one you’ll find in your grocery store these days and is mass-produced. The plant in particular we’re talking about is Phalaenopsis ‘Sogo Vivien’ [above], a miniature Phal that’s very compact, so you can fit a number of these on your windowsill. They only grow from 6 to 8 inches in diameter, and they produce quite a few stems that are branched, and carry tons of flowers. It can look like a cloud of flowers above the plant.
Q. So it’s been bred down from the basic species down to a more compact but very floriferous specimen.
A. Exactly. Today’s Phalaenopsis are easy to grow. Basically they just want to grow in a slightly shady location—like an east window is good to grow them in. And as I tell people: If you’re comfortable with the temperature, most of the orchids you’ll find commonly in the marketplace will be comfortable, too. So for a Phalaenopsis that’s between 60 and 80 degrees. Phalaenopsis like to grow on the moist side, so you don’t want them to dry out completely, but maybe when they’re about halfway dry—that’s when you want to water them.
Q. What kind of medium are they growing in that I want to water, so I can get a visual of what you’re describing?
A. They can be produced in sphagnum moss, a good-quality dense moss that is harvested and they’re packed in, so it acts as one unit. Sphagnum moss can be easy to grow in at home, because it’s easy to judge how dry it is. When the moss is dry, it’s lightweight, it feels dry to the touch—you can tell. I usually tell people to wait till the surface of the moss is just barely drying out before watering it again.
Or they come in a bark mix, which is what we grow most orchids in. Picture half-inch-size bark chunks mixed in, with maybe some charcoal or some perlite that the plant is planted in. In a bark mix, I think the easiest way to judge watering is by weight. What people do is they soak the plant down, really run water all the way through the pot until it’s soaked—and then feel how heavy the pot is. Maybe every day for a week until they think it’s just about dry again, so they can feel the different weights as it moves along from being wet to dry.
Q. I’ve had friends who grew orchids who kind of dunked their plants until they stopped bubbling—do you recommend that, dunking the medium, not the whole plant, I mean? Until it takes in some water and stops bubbling, then lifting it back out of the bucket or other container of water. Instead of watering from the top down.
A. And you can dunk them, too—some people do that for water conservation. But either way works fine, but the point is getting the media really wet when you water.
Q. And I might have a saucer under these but definitely not let them stand in water, or have “wet feet.”
A. You never want an orchid standing in water.
Q. So I can use a saucer to protect the surface in my house, but no reservoir.
A. And you don’t want to plant them in a decorative pot, either. Better to plant them in a plastic pot that you site inside your decorative pot.
Q. You use it as a cachepot. So what’s orchid Number 2?
A. It’s an Oncidium, Oncidium ‘Sharry Baby.’ The big deal about ‘Sharry Baby’ is that is smells like chocolate. It’s about a 1-inch reddish flower with white marking, and it smells like chocolate. It can be fairly strong, but never overpowering.
Oncidiums are the definition of intermediate: They like intermediate light, so an east window or slightly shaded south window will work just fine. They like intermediate temperature—again, if you’re comfortable they are comfortable, anywhere from 50 to 90 will do OK. They also like intermediate moisture.
Q. Give me a visual on the flowers.
A. The biggest part of the flower is the lip, and these are called the “dancing lady” orchids. It kind of looks like it has a big skirt.
Q. Color range?
A. In Oncidium the range is from white to yellow to purple to pink and red. The breeding these days has pushed colors all over the map. In the genus Oncidium and in the intergenerics, you can quite a lot of variability of color. ‘Sharry Baby’ is dark red with some white markings.
Q. These always attract attention when I am in the local nursery’s greenhouse. Now I’m going to put my nose in them and see if they smell like chocolate. [Laughter.]
A. I often tell people to smell anything they see in the marketplace, because even though it’s a small proportion of orchids that smell, most of what’s in production does have a fragrance.
Q. Number 3 on my list of things I am going out to adopt after I hang up from this call? [Laughter.]
A. What we call a Phalaenopsis type Dendrobium. This is the most common type. They have long-lasting flowers that come out from tall, skinny bulbs. This is often seen as an edible garnish, and is also the most common type of cut-flower orchid. They’re very attractive, and come in all types of colors, from green to purple to blue and white to pink. These like to grow bright, warm-to-hot, and on the drier side. They want to dry out more quickly between waterings.
Q. “They want to dry out more quickly between waterings”—which doesn’t mean we deprive it of a thorough watering when we do water it, does it?
A. Right. When you water, you always want to water thoroughly.
Q. That’s important, I think, because when people tell us “drier,” we can get the wrong impression.
A. And there is a point in saying that orchids love water just like every other plant, but it’s just that the amount of water and how much they stay moist that is different.
Q. This is a Phalaenopsis type Dendrobium—and the flowers are long-lasting, yes?
Q. Generally speaking, that’s one of orchids’ charms for the impulse purchase—to bring home instead of cut flowers, or for gifting—is that they do have such a long shelf life.
A. Phalaenopsis can last anywhere from three to five months.
Q. It’s pretty amazing. Now who’s next?
A. We’re going to cover our Cattleya group with a related genus called Brassavola, and Brassavola nodosa is the ‘Lady of the Night’ [below]. It has white flowers, and they’re a little thin, but they have this big, white splayed-out lip, and they’re fragrant at night, especially if you live in a place that gets really nice warm summers or is semi-tropical, people often have big plants of these. At 8 o’clock at night during the summer when it’s really flowering, or really anytime of year that it flowers, it’s very fragrant.
Q. Were Cattleya the corsage-type orchids?
Q. Does Brassavola look like that?
A. Brassavola doesn’t look quite like them—it has got a much thinner shape. But the advantages are that it grows easily and fast, and blooms easy. It likes bright light and warmth, and can handle drying out a little more. So this is a good plant to put outside in summer—not in full sun, but a little shaded. Keep it from drying out too much and it can perform very well.
A. Next comes one of my favorite genus, which is Paphiopedilum, the lady’s slippers. Ours is Paphiopedilum spicerianum [photo at top of page]. It’s quite an interesting flower. It has green petals and a green pouch, and a white dorsal sepal with a pink stripe down the middle.
Q. You’re talking all that botanical talk now, Greg. [Laughter.] I’m teasing you, Greg. Does this one have mottled green leaves or are the leaves green or what?
A. The leaves on spicerianum are usually green. Sometimes you might see a little maroon striping or stippling along the edges. It’s kind of a bizarre0looking flower, but the nice thing about it is that it’s easy to grow. If you want to know the secret to growing Paphs, here’s the secret:
They want to be evenly moist all the time—never sopping wet, and never completely dry. Now how you do that, that’s the trick.
Q. [Laughter.] Now are you going to tell us the trick, because that’s making me nervous, like I can’t handle this plant: “evenly moist.”
A. The good news is that orchids are generally forgiving, as long as you’re not too rough on them. This is something that I judge by weight. I’ll feel that pot when it’s soaking wet, and I’ll feel it when it’s dry—and somewhere in the middle of that, when I am feeling like it’s halfway wet and halfway dry: That’s when I want to water it again.
Q. You’re going by weight. It’s the same way I pick winter squash at the farmstand, the one that’s heaviest for its size. You learn to feel things. Gardeners need to learn the relative weight by size of the pot with the particular medium in it.
A. And that doesn’t have to be a particularly intimidating thing. Most orchids if you water them once a week will be happy; that will do. But the more you get that weight down, the better your results will be.
Q. And lucky Number 6?
A. We went with a Cymbidium, and most commonly in the marketplace, what you’ll find is a cold-flowering Cymbidium. What you’ll find is that people have these big plants with grassy leaves, and they’re like, “I got it, it was beautiful—and it’s never flowered again and I don’t know why.”
Q. I know, I think I had one and it was fabulous when it came to me and not so fabulous later. I think I didn’t do the right thing about giving it the cool it needed at a certain time of year. Do these need to rest or something?
A. What they really need is a colder winter to tell them that it’s time to flower. Unfortunately you’re usually not told that when you buy one of these. So what you basically should do: It’s a good plant to put out in the summer, and then leave it till just before the first frost, even when the nights are down in the 40s. That’s just fine for it, and those cold temperatures will tell it to flower.
A. Then you don’t want to pull it in to a really hot environment. A lot of people will keep these on a porch that maintains an above-freezing temperature in the 40s, or another room that’s a little cooler if your house is in the mid-60s; that’s OK too. You want to leave them out till they get that beginning of a cold season, so that they know it’s time to flower.
Q. That’s interesting. I grow some big old pots of Clivia, and I make sure that they get that signal. I grow them in a mudroom. Of course with those I’m depriving them of water as a secondary trigger at that time of year. They really need that to say, “OK, it’s time to begin going about our other business now.” That would be a good spot for the Cymbidium.
A. They aren’t hard to grow. Just keep them moist all the time; they’re semi-terrestrial, so they grow in the earth and like the access to moisture. Grow them in bright light and feed them and keep them warm all summer long and they’ll grow like weeds—and hopefully you’ll get a real good flowering in the fall with that cold exposure.
Q. With this trigger we need to provide.
We didn’t say anything about feeding, or about what to do with the remnant of the spike when the plant is done flowering.
A. Fertilizing can get really complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Basically the rule is to use a balanced fertilizer. When you look on the package, 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 will do just fine.
And then you’re going to use it at a quarter-strength, and basically water three waterings in a row with fertilizer, and the fourth one use plain water to flush it out.
Q. So you don’t get buildup of the salts in the medium, I see.
A. They won’t tolerate that too well.
Q. My friend Andrew always used to say to me, “Margaret, it’s weekly, weakly.”
A. That is the exact thing we use.
Q. [Laughter.] Oh, you orchid people! It’s a cult.
A. [Laughter.] It very well might be.
Q. So we’re doing that three of four weeks, with a quarter-strength dilute fertilizer. Then what about the remnant of what held the flowers? What do I do with that?
A. In most cases, when the inflorescence is done, you can cut it back to where it came out of the plant.
But in the case of the Phalaenopsis, you kind of have two choices. On the Phalaenopsis stem there are little brachts, little papery sheaths that enclose the stem. Each one of those is a growth point.
If you would like more flowers, and you’re OK with maybe pushing or stressing your plant a little, you could cut back to right above one of those nodes. Usually we recommend to count up three from the bottom, and cut above that one.
Q. Three from the bottom.
A. Mostly that’s just so your stem doesn’t wind up being really long. That node should be fairly active. Most of the Phalaenopsis these days are so aggressive that they can handle a second flowering without a problem.
Now it doesn’t guarantee one, but it might help suggest to the plant that it does that.
Or if you really like the plant, and you want it to go back to growing so it’s nice and strong and healthy for next year’s flowering, you could cut it all the way back to the bottom.
Q. I always try to reassure myself the first year after I have had a plant that this is the first time it’s trying to get used to a year with me. It had different conditions, greenhouse conditions, in its earlier life, and so it might skip a year. Am I just deluding myself, or can that be a factor?
A. I think there is absolute logic to that, and there might also be something else going on there that you might not be aware of. If you get a Phalaenopsis in particular—the moth orchid—from the grocery store, we can control those and force them to flower whenever we want. So if you bought it at a time of year when it’s not naturally flowering, you might have to wait until its next natural flowering time.
Q. Oh! Because I have noticed that with the Phals—they don’t seem to be on the same schedule. But it might have been triggered into flowering artificially.
A. They regularly flower in our wintertime. Late fall and early winter they start sending up their spikes; that’s the time of year they are developing. But if they were forced out of season, and say you got it flowering in the summer, it might skip that winter and you might have to wait until the next year [winter] to kind of get back in rhythm.
Q. Well, I’m on my way now to the garden center, Greg. [Laughter.]
longwood’s orchid extravaganza
LONGWOOD GARDENS’ annual Orchid Extravaganza, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, runs through March 27, 2016. Details and ticket information is at this link. For more about Greg Griffis’s beginning orchids class, click here.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 25, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).