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Looking after an orchid

Garden centres and retail shops were offering a great variety of orchids — most of them phalaenopsis or moth orchids — during the pre-holiday season because they make such great gifts. If you received one as a Christmas gift or if you purchased one as a gift to yourself, you might be wondering how to care for this exotic newcomer to your indoor landscape. The phalaenopsis orchid, although it looks and sounds exotic, is not that difficult to grow and it is not as particular about its care as you might think.

The lovely flowers of the phalaenopsis orchid do indeed resemble brightly coloured moths and thus the name makes sense, as the Greek word phaluna means moth. These orchids are quite happy in the temperatures of our homes during the winter, as long as you do not let the location get too cool in the daytime or remain too warm at night. Some people move their orchid to a cooler location for the night. The most suitable temperature range is from 18 to 28 C. Phalaenopsis like strong, indirect light; at this time of year they can be located in front of a window but as the sun gets stronger they will need to be protected from the strong rays of the midday sun.

Orchids are epiphytes in their natural tropical surroundings, where they grow high up on tree trunks and branches where there is a fair bit of air movement. In the home, locate an orchid where there is good air circulation. They also demand high humidity, so if you think that the air in your home is too dry, place the pot on a pebble tray. Growing several other plants near the orchid will also raise the humidity around the plant.

Some people do not fertilize orchids when they are blooming while others continue to use a balanced liquid fertilizer at one-quarter strength at each watering. When being encouraged into bloom, however, they must be fertilized. Keep the foliage clean by periodically wiping the stiff leaves with a damp cloth, and ensure that the planting medium, which will be material perhaps containing bark, perlite, or sphagnum moss or some combination of these materials, does not completely dry out. On the other hand, allow the medium to become somewhat dry before you water again. Overwatering will be damaging to the roots and therefore to the whole plant.

The more blooms and buds on the spikes, the longer the plant’s bloom period will be. The natural bloom period for phalaenopsis orchids is from December to May, and the blooms will last up to three months. When the last blooms fade, look for small, fleshy bumps or nodes on the flower spike and then count up three nodes from the bottom of the spike — ignore the dried-out ones and don’t count them. Cut the spike off a couple of centimetres above the third green node. With any luck, and if the plant thinks it is still bloom time, a new flower stalk will grow from one of the nodes.

Phalaenopsis orchids come in a wide array of colours, including white, pink, cranberry and yellow with lots of variations and blotches of contrasting colours. They are absolutely stunning and add an exotic touch to any interior. If you did not receive one for Christmas or buy one for yourself, perhaps you will treat yourself to a “post-Christmas” present and get one of these lovely flowering plants to enjoy during the remainder of our long winter.

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