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The Orchid family is the largest and most highly evolved family of flowering plants known to man.

If a gaudy, oversized lavender flower with a bow and trailing ribbons is what comes to mind when you hear the word orchid, a visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens Fuqua Orchid Center will be an eye-opener. There youll find orchids in every color, size and shape imaginable growing in the ground, on tree limbs and seemingly suspended in the air. Its hard to believe so many different-looking blooms can all be called orchids, but they all are. These are definitely NOT your grandmothers Easter Sunday corsage.

The orchid evolution

The orchid family (Orchidaceae) is the largest and most highly evolved family of flowering plants known to man, and there is incredible diversity amongst its members. Orchids can grow as small as a tiny thimble and as massive as 20 feet tall, and they flourish in environments as dissimilar as Alaskas cool tundra, balmy Madagascar and the steamy Philippinesand almost everywhere in between.

Depending on the species, the flowers of the orchid can last from a week to several months, making them highly prized in the flower-growing world. Second only to poinsettias as indoor plants, they are rapidly gaining in popularity.

Orchid growing was once a hobby only available to the very wealthy, but orchid fanciers today have the benefit of modern reproductive technologymaking the purchase of an orchid affordable to almost anyone. You can spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on an orchid plant, but for as little as $20, you can buy a beautiful orchid for your home.

The orchid myth

One of the ways that orchids differ from one another is where they grow. When referring to growing conditions, there are different types of orchids. Lithophytes grow on the surface of rocks, rare saprophytes grow on the forest floor and derive their nutrients from dead plants, and terrestrials are secured in sand or soil and prefer temperate climates. Most orchids, though, are classified as air plantsepiphytes, which grow on trees. The majority of plants grown by the average homeowners are epiphytes, which can easily be grown in fir bark medium.

Orchids arent hard to grow if you choose the right ones. Just as with any plant, it will flourish with proper growing conditions. Regrettably, orchids have been stereotyped as difficult plants, requiring the temperature and environment of a tropical rainforest. It is true that some orchids have very specific needs, but many varieties can be grown under normal household conditions. To ensure success, understand the native environment of the orchid you desire, and determine if your homes environment can mimic that environment. In other wordsfind out what the plant is and what it needs.

Providing the right growing environment

Fortunately for the beginning collector, many orchids that are readily available have similar needs. The following guidelines will help you provide the best environment for most orchids.

Temperature: Most orchids will be comfortable when you are comfortablewarm in the daytime (70 to 80 degrees F) and cooler at night (60 to 65 degrees F). In order to flower, that 10-degree drop in temperature in the evening is critical. You can place your plants near a window where the temperature drops automatically; otherwise, set your thermostat so that the temperature will be cooler during the night.
Air circulation: Good air circulation is important. Placing the plant in front of a heat or air conditioning vent is not a good idea, while a slightly opened window, or a light breeze from a fan, reduces stagnant air and helps prevent disease problems.

Light: Filtered sunlight throughout the year is necessary for plants to grow and bloom. A southern-facing window is the optimum location. Mother Nature has provided us with a fairly reliable indicator in the orchid leaf. If leaves are dark green, the plant is not receiving enough sunlight. Pale leaves indicate that it is getting too much sun. If the leaves are a nice medium to light green, and the leaves appear to have a soft sheen, they are getting the right amount of light. If natural light is inadequate, you can use artificial light.

Humidity: Probably the biggest challenge for orchids in the home is humidity. Most orchids require about 50 percent humidity, and the average homes humidity is only 10 percent. Misting the leaves daily will help, but the easiest way to increase humidity is to place the orchids container on a bed of pebbles in a saucer with 3- to 4-inch sides. Add water to the pebble bed, and allow the bottom of the orchids container to rest on the pebbles. Be careful that the bottom of the pot does not sit in water or root rot problems can occur.

Water: The number one cause of orchid death is over-watering. Generally, orchids should be watered once a week, allowing the water to run through the container and out of the drainage holes into the pot. Its very important that plants do not sit in waterotherwise, the roots will suffer. Avoid getting water on the leaves, as this could encourage bacterial or fungal disease problems.

Fertilization: Since orchids are fertilized in nature by organic debris washing over their roots, its critical not to over-fertilize them in the home. Fertilizing at half-strength once every two weeks is adequate. Most orchids are happy with a 20-20-20 balanced water-soluble mixture.

Growing medium: Obviously, the medium you need depends on the type of orchid that you choose, but the majority of orchids purchased by the home collector are epiphytes, which require an airy, coarse potting medium. Regular potting soil should not be used. There are many different and unusual choicesfir and redwood bark, crumbed charcoal, pebbles, lava rocks, osmunda fiber and cork are just a few. Orchids do best when they are pot-bound, and either clay, ceramic or plastic pots are suitable. The growing medium should be changed when it begins to naturally break down, about every two to three years.

Choosing your plant

Once you are familiar with these basic requirements, its time to buy your plant. If you are just starting out, select one of these popular orchids for beginnersbased on ease of care.

Many varieties of orchids can be grown under normal household conditions, like this Cattleya labiata.

Cattleya: This is the one that Grandma wears on Mothers Day. Called the Queen of Orchids, it is native to Central and South America, and produces several large, very showy, fragrant blooms each year. While the flowers only last for two to three weeks, they are commonly regarded as the most colorful of flowering orchids. Cattleya bloom on new growth and like to dry out a bit between waterings.

Oncidium: Native to Central and South America, the Dancing Lady sports a showy spray of 1-inch, almost fluorescent flowers of pink, yellow, brown or white. The blooms last four to six weeks, and like Cattleya, Oncidium like to partially dry out between waterings.

Paphiopedilum: The Lady Slipper orchid is popular for two reasonsfirst, the unusual pouch-like purple or green flower that annually emerges, and secondly, the bloom lasts for three to four weeks. Also, the foliage of some cultivars has a very attractive mottled look, which remains nice-looking even when its not in bloom. It is a compact specimen that grows well under fluorescent lights. Paphiopedilum are native to Southeast Asia.

Phalaenopsis: Rapidly becoming the most popular orchid, the Moth Orchid has graceful white or pastel flowers that display themselves in an arching spray and last for three to four months. Very bright, but indirect light is essential for blooming. This plant needs a consistent amount of water, and does not like to dry out between waterings. Once the flowers drop off, cut the stem near the base, and each year a new set of leaves will grow.

Dendrobium: This is the flower that is used for the Hawaiian lei. Native to New Guinea and Australia, its actually categorized two ways: the Phalaenopsis type with flowers resembling a Phalaenopsis orchid, and the antelope type, which has thin, pointed flowers that look like antelope horns. Dendrobium bloom from both old and new growth, and their flowers of lavender, white and many other beautiful shades last for six to eight weeks.

Dendrobium Orchids are used in many Hawaiian Leis.

Once youve mastered the basics of orchid growing and care, youll be ready to start collecting. If you are like me, one is not enough. While Ill confess that my favorites are the Paphiopedilum, Ive got a sentimental feeling for Dendrobium since they decorated my wedding cake. Im eagerly awaiting my Phalaenopsis to re-bloom, and probably need to buy an Oncidium or two. With 20,000 species to choose from, I may just have to build that greenhouse soon. Happy collecting!

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