Caring for an orchid indoors or on the balcony: suggestions and insights

Here’s how to have beautiful repeated blooms and healthy plants

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By Alex

caring for an orchid

Caring for an orchid may seem simple, but actually, it’s not. Understanding the proper care for an orchid is not always straightforward. Frequently, after the initial flowering phase, even with adequate warmth and light, the plant loses its blooms, leading to a waning interest.

We offer valuable tips to ensure splendid, recurrent blooms and the sustained health of your orchid for years to come.

The Fascinating World of Orchids

The enduring allure of orchids stands as one of Nature’s most precious gifts. Each blossom embodies a captivating blend of colors, graceful geometries, and soft contours of unparalleled beauty. Celebrated for their decorative allure, these plants boast an elegant demeanor, lush, succulent foliage, and a spectrum of flowers in various hues—yellow, pink, orange, purple, and even red.

Despite their initial splendor, many struggle with caring for orchids, missing out on the opportunity for these exquisite flowers to grace their surroundings year after year. Orchids are, indeed, delicate plants that can bring immense satisfaction or, if mishandled, bitter disappointments.

Here, we share practical tips and fundamental guidelines to navigate the cultivation of these perennial herbaceous wonders.

A Brief History

Comprising 20,000 species distributed across approximately 650 genera, orchids stand out as the most diverse herbaceous perennials in terms of both quantity and global appreciation, thanks to their extraordinary flowers. Primarily found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of Asia, Central America, and South America, they typically thrive by clinging to tree trunks or rocks. A mere 15% of orchids grow in the wild in temperate and cold zones.

The name of the world’s most renowned and widespread orchid, the phalaenopsis, originates from the flower’s distinctive ‘butterfly’ shape (‘phalaena’ meaning butterfly and ‘opsis’ meaning similar).

Coined in 1752 by botanist Carl Ludwig Blume, the term was inspired by a specimen discovered on the island of Java, Indonesia. However, the plant’s discovery dates back to 1600 when German botanist George E. Rumphius described and illustrated the exquisite plant in ‘Herbarium Amoinense,’ assigning it the name Angraecum album majus.

Orchid Care: Our Guidelines

To flourish and grace us with exquisite blooms, often spanning many weeks of the year, orchids demand considerable care and attention. Merely having a love for gardening is insufficient; a certain level of knowledge about the specific varieties chosen is crucial. Whether kept indoors or in a greenhouse, orchids can thrive, and in suitable climates, they can also flourish in the garden.

Each orchid variety possesses unique characteristics that render it more or less sensitive to factors such as sunlight, temperature fluctuations, and the moisture levels in both the air and substrate.

Choosing the Right Potting Mix

Selecting the appropriate potting mix is another pivotal step. Prior to potting the plant, the substrate must be thoroughly blended. Standard potting soil is inadequate for orchids, as they require a mix that allows ample air circulation and prevents moisture buildup.

In general, the mix should be porous and can be composed of various materials such as bark pieces, coconut shell fragments, charcoal, or even Styrofoam. Once again, the choice of orchid variety will determine the ideal mix.

Materials of both plant origin (such as sphagnum moss, sphagnum peat, osmunda, beech leaves, cork bark, etc.) and mineral origin (like pumice, expanded clay, perlite, etc.) are recommended. The selection may vary based on the orchid species and the chosen growing technique (suspended or ground).

caring for an orchid - cattleya orchid
It is important to choose the type of potting soil best suited to the variety of orchid

If you find yourself uncertain about the potting soil mix for your orchid, you can confidently choose from two fundamental types that are effective for nearly any common orchid variety:

Thin-Grained Potting Soil:

  • Composition: 4 parts chopped fir bark or coconut shells, 1 part chopped charcoal, 1 part perlite.
  • Ideal for: Repotting and well-suited for thin-rooted orchids such as Oncidiums, Venus Shoe, Miltonias, and generally, orchids that prefer higher moisture levels.

Medium Mix:

  • Composition: 4 parts fir bark, 1 part charcoal with medium-sized pieces, and 1 part perlite.
  • Suitable for: Cattleye cultivars, phalaenopsis, and other ‘mature’ orchids.

Choosing the Right Pot

When selecting a pot, consider that the leaves, typically numbering 2-6, are crucial for the plant’s vitality. Orchids, lacking a true bulb, utilize their foliage to store water.

Pot characteristics should align with the orchid type, accounting for factors such as some varieties thriving in pots with tightly compressed roots. Additionally, consider the ventilation and humidity levels of the surrounding environment.

Regardless of the type, the pot should be perforated to ensure proper drainage and be sufficiently long to accommodate the plant’s root development, especially for varieties like cymbidium.

Given the orchid’s preference for a humid (around 70 percent) and warm environment, it is advisable to place the pot on a saucer filled with expanded clay or gravel.

To prevent the roots from direct water contact, water the orchid periodically. This practice helps avoid hazardous stagnation that could lead to root rot.

Caring for an orchid - cymbidium
Selecting the right pot is crucial, as it serves both functional and environmental purposes tailored to the specific orchid type, as well as the ventilation and humidity levels in the outdoor surroundings. It’s essential that the pot has adequate drainage through drilled holes and sufficient length to support root development.

Propagation

When aiming to propagate your beloved orchid using seeds, it’s essential to maintain a sterile environment and handle everything with care. Plant only two seeds at a time, positioning them just below the pot surface in high-quality potting soil.

While you can encourage germination with a specially formulated fertilizer, it’s important to note that orchids typically exhibit a slow and gradual development. Patience is key, as seeing the initial results may take time. If you’ve chosen seed propagation, it might be months before any sprouting occurs, and the first bloom may not emerge for several years.

Potting

The root system of orchids is intricately dense and branched, providing excellent adherence to the substrate while remaining exceptionally delicate. Consequently, during transplanting, utmost care must be exercised to avoid harming the roots.

Remove any dead or decaying roots using a pair of scissors, dividing them into several sections before placing the plant into the new pot. Exercise caution with the amount of potting soil and substrate mix, ensuring that the roots are just lightly covered. Pay special attention to the more developed and mature roots, ensuring they adhere to the pot walls.

The Optimal Temperature

Ensuring the plant thrives at the correct temperature is another essential requirement. As plants of tropical origin, orchids prefer mild and warm climates (64°-77°F), well-ventilated spaces, and ample light, avoiding direct sunlight whenever possible.

In general, indoor temperatures (71-73°F), particularly during winter, align well with the plant’s preferences.

At temperatures exceeding 95°F, orchids can flourish if situated in a shaded, well-ventilated, adequately humid environment, and shielded from temperature fluctuations or drafts that may harm the plant.

Once you’ve identified the ideal location, refrain from relocating it outdoors with the arrival of warmer weather.

caring for an orchid phalenopsys
The amount of light for the orchid should never be excessive and direct.

Lighting

Proper lighting is crucial for observing the blossoming of flowers. However, the quantity of light must be sufficient without being excessive or direct. Excessive light can harm the leaves, even causing them to burn, while insufficient light may inhibit flowering.

To gauge the appropriate amount of light, one can easily assess the appearance of the leaves. They should consistently exhibit an intense and bright coloration, avoiding any brownish or reddish hues, which indicate an excess of light.

An ideal location is typically behind a curtain or shutter, where light is moderate and indirect.

Watering

It’s crucial to avoid overwatering! Err on the side of too little rather than too much, as excessive water can be detrimental to the plant. As a general guideline, aim for watering every 5-12 days, slightly more frequent during the summer.

Always assess that the substrate is neither overly wet nor too dry.

Certain varieties, particularly during their growth phase, thrive in consistently humid conditions (such as paphiopedilum, miltonia, cymbidium, and odontoglossum). On the other hand, some prefer well-dried soil between waterings (like phalaenopsis, vanda, and ascocenda).

Remember: the thicker and fleshier the leaves, the higher the plant’s water requirements.

Nutrient Solutions

The ideal nutrient solution should have a nitrogen-to-phosphorus-to-potassium ratio of 2:1:1 and should be refreshed every 7-15 days to 3-4 weeks, depending on the orchid species and the prevailing season.

Under favorable conditions of moisture, light, and temperature, the plant has the potential to produce enduring and vibrant blooms for several weeks, occurring 2-3 times a year, especially during the winter months (December to April).

To encourage flowering, the orchid requires a subtle nighttime temperature drop for at least two weeks (around 60° F) and slightly reduced light compared to its usual conditions.

Choosing the Right Orchid Variety

Originating from equatorial regions, orchids exhibit a remarkable ability to adapt to diverse climates and environments, extending beyond their native habitat. The key to success in cultivating orchids lies in selecting a species that aligns with the local climate, light conditions, and our caregiving capabilities.

For those less experienced, several common types prove well-suited. Highly recommended cultivars for beginners include phalaenopsis, dendrobium, and oncidium. It’s worth noting that each variety often encompasses numerous subspecies, so consulting with a trusted nursery professional is advisable to determine the most suitable plant for your specific circumstances.

Here are ten of the easiest varieties to care for.

Phalaenopsis Orchid

Affordable, readily available, and remarkably resilient, the Phalaenopsis orchid boasts extended blooms, lasting up to four months, with large flowers available in an array of colors such as white, pink, red, green, yellow, orange, and purple.

Position the plant in low to medium sunlight and water the roots every two weeks. To encourage flowering, apply natural orchid fertilizer once a month.

The optimal temperature range is approximately 80°F to 86°F, but be cautious: brief and moderate temperature fluctuations can expedite the flowering process!

The phalaenopsis, the 'moth' orchid
The Phalaenopsis orchid, commonly known as the Moth Orchid, is a popular and accessible choice, prized for its durability and extended flowering period, which can span up to four months.

Dendrobium Orchid

Thriving in full sunlight, the Dendrobium orchid produces relatively lengthy blooms, lasting about a month, showcasing a stunning array of colors including pristine white, soft pink, purple, red, and lilac. Predominantly found in white hues, this orchid maintains deep green foliage throughout the entire year.

Watering is necessary only when there is excessive dryness, typically once a week or every two weeks. Support the orchid’s growth with a specially formulated vegetal fertilizer. The recommended temperature range is approximately 77°F to 81°F.

The dendrobium orchid
Dendrobium orchid

Oncidium Orchid

Commonly known as the ‘ballerina’ or ‘Dancing Venus,’ the Oncidium earns its nicknames due to the unique shape of its flowers. Displaying a vibrant and colorful bloom, it forms clusters of 40-50 small flowers in striking shades of purple, red, yellow, and orange.

Thriving in very warm climates, the Oncidium prefers direct and intense sunlight and should be watered once every two weeks. It benefits from monthly feeding with appropriate fertilizer.

In addition to their vivid colors, Oncidium flowers are known for their particularly fragrant aroma.

dancing venus orchid
An oncidium orchid: the Dancing Venus

Cymbidium Orchid

Featuring dark green foliage, elongated stems, and velvety, almost ‘waxy’ looking flowers, the Cymbidium orchid is renowned for its ease of cultivation and minimal maintenance requirements, making it one of the most popular and cherished houseplants.

For this orchid, weekly watering is recommended to prevent the roots from drying out. During the summer, the plant can be placed outdoors in a shaded area. It thrives in cooler temperatures, staying below 72°F, and blossoms even during the winter months.

caring for an orchid - cymbidium orchid
Cymbidium orchid

Paphiopedilum Orchid

Originating from tropical Asia and Malaysia, the Paphiopedilum orchid showcases a distinctive ‘slipper’ shape when its beautiful flowers bloom. The name is a combination of the Greek words ‘paphie,’ honoring the goddess Aphrodite of Paphos, and ‘pedilon,’ meaning sandal. This orchid is also known as ‘Aphrodite’s sandal’ or ‘Venus’s slipper.’ The variegated and fleshy foliage enhances the plant’s aesthetic appeal, even when it is not in bloom.

Thriving best in indirect sunlight or semi-shaded conditions, this orchid should be watered sparingly, only when the substrate becomes excessively dry.

orchid
Orchids from the Paphiopedium genus are commonly referred to as ‘Venus’s sandal’ due to the distinct slipper shape of their flowers.

Cattleya Orchid

Considered one of the most straightforward orchids to cultivate, the Cattleya boasts abundant and often fragrant blooms in hues of yellow, orange, red, and vibrant pink. Growing up to 50 cm, it develops lush, deep green foliage. This orchid thrives in direct sunlight and requires weekly watering.

It prefers moderate climates (70-80°F) and benefits from monthly fertilization, ensuring it produces two annual blooms that last for several weeks. It is crucial to prevent water stagnation in the pot.

How to grow orchids
The cattleya orchid and its stunning blooms.

Ludisia discolor

Valued more for the captivating beauty of its purple foliage adorned with pink stripes than for its flowers, Ludisia discolor makes an ideal perennial houseplant. The small white or soft pink flowers, adorned with yellow speckles, emerge on tall upright spikes, mainly blooming in late summer or fall.

Thriving in indirect sunlight, this plant requires watering just once a week and is sensitive to cold temperatures and fluctuations.

how to grow orchids
Ludisia Discolor

Phaius tankervilleae

Originating from China, India, and New Guinea, Phaius tankervilleae exhibits a vertical growth pattern, reaching heights of up to 2 meters. Each stem has the potential to bear up to 16 white and brown or purple flowers.

Thriving in bright light conditions, this orchid necessitates weekly watering during the summer, spring, and fall, reducing to once every two weeks in winter. It is sensitive to excessively dry climates, as evidenced by darkening and jagged edges of the leaves in such conditions.

orchid care
One of the most spectacular varieties of orchid: Phaius tankervilleae.

Encyclia cochleata

This orchid produces petite, purple ‘clam’-shaped flowers that sprawl along the lengthy stems of the plant. In ideal conditions, the blooms can persist throughout the year, especially when shielded from direct sunlight.

When it comes to watering, simply dampen the substrate as required, using 1-2 cups of water.

Orchid care
Encyclia cochleata

But which orchids stand out as the most beautiful in the world? A collection of photos will unveil the fact that it’s not limited to the typical supermarket Phalaenopsis; there exists a myriad of stunning and unique varieties.

The World’s Most Beautiful Orchids

We’ve curated a selection of seven of the world’s most exquisite and rare orchids. Witness their breathtaking beauty and be astonished by the peculiar shapes and sometimes ‘human’ appearances that their flowers can seemingly adopt.

Orchid Sofronite

Originating from South America, this evergreen orchid blooms in winter, displaying vibrant colors ranging from red and orange to white. Thriving as both epiphytic and lithophytic, the Sofronite orchid primarily grows on tree bark and rocks, showcasing a relatively small root system.

Orchis Italica

Also known as the ‘naked man’ orchid, this unique wild variety is prevalent in Italy. Its name is derived from the distinctive shape of the flower’s labellum, which remarkably resembles a naked man, complete with identifiable features. Blooming from March to May, this orchid is widespread not only in Italy but also throughout all Mediterranean countries.

care orchid
Orchis Italica, a truly unique orchid variety.

Ophrys Bombyflora

Commonly known as the ‘smiling bee,’ this orchid is prevalent in the northern Mediterranean. Its distinctive flower features a labellum shaped like a smiling beetle’s face, adorned with vivid spots. Encounters with Ophrys Bombyflora are frequent in Southern Europe, the Canary Islands, and various regions of Asia Minor.

Dracula simia

Referred to as the Monkey Orchid, this orchid presents a fascinating combination of features. Its flower strikingly resembles a monkey’s face, while the elongated petals at the base evoke the canines of a vampire, inspiring its name ‘dracula.’ Originating from the Peruvian rainforest, the Dracula Simia is considered one of the rarest flowers globally, with only a select few having had the privilege of witnessing its beauty in person.

orchid care
Dracula Simia,ì or Monkey Orchid: an orchid that looks like a monkey.

Restrepia Guttulata

A diminutive orchid hailing from the eponymous genus, which comprises approximately sixty species of exceptionally beautiful orchids, all native to the Andes.

Thriving in favorable climatic conditions, particularly in cool environments, and when provided with a suitable substrate that remains consistently moist, orchids belonging to the Restrepia genus have the ability to produce abundant and remarkably long-lasting blooms.

Habenaria Radiata

Also recognized as the orchid heron, this orchid showcases a uniquely picturesque bloom that extends throughout the summer. A rare Asian orchid species, it produces two or three snow-white flowers on its tubers, forming the shape of a heron in flight.

orchid care
Habenaria Radiata: a flower that looks like a heron in flight.

Odontoglossum

Comprising approximately 300 orchid species, all indigenous to Central America, this genus derives its name from the distinctive shape of its labellum, resembling a tooth. Notably, the term “Odontoglossum” is derived from the Greek words “odontos,” meaning tooth, and “glossos,” meaning language, referencing the labellum’s central callosity that strikingly resembles a tooth

how to grow orchids
One of the many beautiful varieties of Odontoglossum.

More tips for your plants

Lots of tips for having beautiful and lush plants: