- Francisco C. Tirado-Mercado
An introduction to these not-so-complicated plants
By Francisco C. Tirado Mercado (FTM)
Being Puerto Rican and talking about orchids is to picture ourselves in our loving “Abuelas” (grandma’s) house. When it comes to these plants it’s safe to say that this is always the place to go. Walking through their garden you can find the prettiest and healthiest plants but when you ask them how they take care of them, they just rely on instincts.
Most people have their orchids in homemade hanging baskets below tree branches that they water every day or so. Usually, they don’t give them too much care, and not knowingly are providing their orchids the balance they need to thrive. That’s why when you come to understand your orchid’s needs you’ll see that it’s easier than you thought.
Orchidaceae is one of the most diverse families within the plant kingdom. You can find orchids in almost every part of the world. There are terrestrial orchids, epiphytes, semi-epiphytes, and lithophytes. Lithophytes use rocks as support, while epiphytes only use trees.
These plants have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhiza (a type of fungus) that provides nutrients that orchids utilize. Since orchid seeds lack endosperm (tissue produced in the seed that gives nutrition), this relationship helps the seeds germinate. Most orchids grow by producing growths from their rhizomes(modified subterranean plant stems) that grow alongside each other.
Orchids have different types of structures and growth. Orchids are classified by monopodial and sympodial growth. Monopodial orchids, such as Vanda orchids, only have the main stem where leaves and aerial roots grow. On the other hand, sympodial orchids have pseudobulbs in which they store water and nutrients. Like all plants, orchids absorb water and nutrients through their roots. Orchid roots have a white coating that surrounds them called velamen. The function of the velamen is to absorb and store water and nutrients for the plant. This structure is highly important in monopodial orchids since they don’t have pseudobulbs to store water and nutrients as the sympodial orchids have.
When we talk about orchid maintenance first we should look for the orchid’s origin and its climate. Our goal with this information is to try to mimic the environment in which they thrive. Key factors for healthy plants are giving the plant the right humidity, sunlight, and fertilizing. Also, minimal stress levels push them to survive, grow, and in this case, flower. I’ve worked with orchids that haven’t flowered in years, and most of the time it’s because they are too comfortable in their environment, so I usually give them a little stress for them to thrive. How do you give them stress? You can either move them to a different spot with more or less light, water them less or just repot them. If you think about it, they don’t need too much attention, just a little push.
Now, let's talk about watering. Orchids don’t like to be humid all the time; many people tend to water their plants daily. A high level of humidity causes their roots to rot. Depending on the wind and temperature (location) you should wait to water your orchids every two days or so between drying. They absorb the droplets that run through their roots so when you water them, always be sure to stop when water pours out from the bottom of the pot they’re in and the roots turn dark green.
Like us, orchids thrive on having good nutrition. If you find your orchids a little pale or yellowish it could indicate that they’re screaming to be fertilized. To fertilize your orchids I recommend using a balanced fertilizer solution with micronutrients every two weeks, using half of the quantity required by the label per gallon. It's recommended to reduce fertilizer application in colder seasons and when in bloom.
So, when do we repot? Over time, orchid rhizomes tend to grow out of the pot and the medium (pot substrate) starts to decompose. It mostly depends on the size of your plant and on the medium mixture you’re using. Personally, the medium that has worked out for my plants is a mixture of tree bark, clay balls, and carbon bits 1:1:1. Having an orchid in the right pot and with a clean medium will make the difference between a healthy continuously growing plant and a weak one. You may think that if you have a big plant you should also place it in a big container, but on the contrary, orchids like to be in tight aired spaces. In a smaller space, it's easier to control humidity and promote healthy root growth. In time we will have more growths that can later be divided into a separate plant.
When we divide orchids, we should always check for their pseudobulb count
and maturity. A mature orchid has healthy pseudobulbs and growing roots. Aside from their pseudobulbs, orchids can produce growths in main stems or even in their spikes (also known as Keikis). This will vary depending on the genera. Each genus has its own specifications on dividing its growths, so first, look up which orchid genera you’re working with, and then make a snip!
Pests & Diseases
Our plants are part of a beautiful ecosystem that includes microorganisms, insects, arachnids, or in my case, a lot of “coquíes” (species of frogs’ endemic to Puerto Rico). Nonetheless, orchids are also susceptible to pests and diseases. The most common orchid pests are aphids, thrips, slugs, and mealybugs. All these organisms harm the leaves, roots, buds, and/or flowers causing permanent damage in most cases if not treated. It’s recommended to apply pesticides monthly to prevent these insects from harming your plants and make sure to take the safety measures required in the label. For those who want alternatives to synthetic pesticides, I recommend manually inspecting your plants every two weeks before fertilizing and cleaning the leaves with a solution of 1 tsp. of dish soap, 1 cup of water, and a tsp. of olive oil.
It’s also normal to encounter diseases in your plants. These diseases can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Bacteria and fungi may cause leaf spots and rot. It’s recommended to control the humidity to prevent these diseases. You can do this by locating your plants in a ventilated area, watering them less, or changing to a larger pot substrate mixture to improve air circulation. I recommend applying a copper-based anti-fungal formula once a month as a preventive measure. This pesticide is also used by organic growers! Virus symptoms are usually seen in the leaves and flowers. Symptoms can appear as stripes in the affected areas. Viruses have neither cure nor treatment so when these symptoms are spotted in a plant it’s recommended to discard or isolate it from other orchids. Most importantly, to prevent the spread of diseases we should always sterilize our equipment with alcohol, a blowtorch or bleach, before and after working with an orchid. If you are new to plant diseases and want to learn more, you can check our article: Are your plants sick?
At the end of the day with a little guidance, every person creates their own orchid care guide by experimenting with their orchids. Don’t feel as if you’re going to kill your plants, look at it as a new experience that will be rewarded in the future with beautiful blooms. Personally, it's a therapy working with my orchids. When in bloom they bring happiness that can be shared with our loved ones for years to come.
If you have questions and want to learn more about orchids don’t hesitate to contact me at Hoja Mojá Orchids!
Facebook: Hoja Mojá
Website: American Orchid Society
(Free) Fact Sheet: Orchids as House Plants
(Free) Book Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to Orchid Culture
Book: Orchids as House Plants
Book: Understanding Orchids