Let's Have Fun Growing Orchids!


By Steven A. Frowine

Editor's Note: This is the first of a 10 part series of articles about orchids. These articles are written by Steven Frowine, who collaborated with National Gardening Association and Wiley & Sons to produce the highly popular book Orchids for Dummies. We hope you enjoy this series of articles!
You're about to enter the wonderful world of orchids. You're in store for an exciting adventure! This is the largest plant family on our planet with an estimated 30,000 wild types (species) and many more man-made varieties. No other plants can compete with orchids for their power to seduce and bedazzle the most jaded plant lover with their fantastically beautiful flower colors, shapes, and textures, and heady and sensuous perfumes.


Some people believe that orchids are parasites. This belief probably comes from that fact that orchids are frequently seen in tropical areas clinging to branches, sometimes in such numbers that they may cover much of the tree. Unlike parasites, which derive nutrition from their host, these orchids are epiphytes that only use these trees for support to put them in a good position to receive the light and nutrients from organic matter that accumulates in the crotches of the trees.


You can easily tell when a rose is rose, but orchids are quite a bit more complex and varied when it comes to their flower shapes and the construction of their leaves, stems, and roots. Certainly the flamboyant colors of modern orchid hybrids are a standout and are the primary reason these plants are so treasured. But there are so many different types of orchid flowers, so the question is, "Which one is typical?" There is really no correct answer to this question. Many people think of the cattleya-type orchids, while others may picture the ubiquitous phalaenopsis or moth orchids.

To get a better idea how orchid flowers are constructed, take a look at a typical cattleya flower and compare it to a more ordinary flower, a tulip. The illustration below shows some of the major differences between these two flowers.
So what makes an orchid an orchid: the column. This fused sexual structure located in the middle of the flower is what separates the orchid from all other plants.

Comparing a cattleya flower with a tulip flower.

Differences between Tulip and Orchid Flowers
Petals The most obvious part of the flower and what makes a tulip look like a tulip. A very prominent part of the flower but comprises only half of the show.
Sepals Hardly noticeable in the tulip flower, especially after they open. Very striking in many orchid flowers. Can be as brightly colored as the petals

Lip or labellum Not found in the tulip. Usually a very showy part of the orchid flower. Actually a modified petal.

Anther and stigma The two sexual parts of the tulip. The anthers are male reproductive organs and the stigma is the female part. These separate organs are not found in the orchid; instead, orchids have a column in which the male and female parts are fused.

Column Not found in tulip. Only found in orchids.

About 80 percent of orchids are from the tropics in both the New World (Central and South America) and the Old World (Asia and Malaysia). A smattering can be found in North America and Europe.
The ones that grow in your home, though, are all of tropical or semitropical origin. They mostly hail from areas of high rainfall and humidity and enjoy tropical to above-freezing temperatures during the winter.

Orchids are divided into two major categories based on where they grow. Those that are commonly found clinging to branches of trees are called epiphytes; those that thrive growing on or in the ground are called semi-terrestrials and terrestrials.

So how can you tell the difference between the two? Many of the terrestrial roots are hairy, like those found in the slipper orchid. Epiphytes have thick roots (called aerial roots, because they're frequently suspended in the air), which are covered with a silvery material called velamen, which can absorb moisture from the air like a sponge.

Terrestrial and semi-terrestrial orchids like most slipper orchids frequently have hairy roots.

Epiphytic orchids have thick roots covered with silver velamen.


Growing and studying orchids will provide you the ultimate horticultural experience and pleasure. Here some key reasons to start growing orchids now:

* Growing orchids is fun! That's the most important motive.
* Orchids are easy to grow. I'll be giving you many tips on how to be successful.
* You can start with beginner orchids that any newcomer can be wildly successful with.
* Orchids cost less than they ever have, and you can easily select just the right one for you.
* No group of flowering plants comes close to the delicious perfumes that orchids emit.
* Because of the huge diversity of orchids, you'll never tire of them. You'll always find new ones to try and enjoy.
* You'll meet new friends who are as fanatical about these plants as you are. There are local and national orchid societies to join. Their magazines are marvelous sources for information and gorgeous pictures. These are some of the best-quality plant magazines in the world.
* Orchids don't require an expensive greenhouse to grow. They'll be happy with a windowsill or artificial lights.
* They'll beautify your home and life.
* Orchids can live forever, so as they grow you can divide and multiply them to share with your friends or to trade for others.

This was my windowsill when I lived in Connecticut. You can see orchids can grow very well on a bright windowsill.


Choosing an orchid is an exciting, but sometimes confusing, decision! So many types of orchids, so little space. I make this process easy for you:

* I will introduce to various types of orchids and inform you what their growing requirements are. It is much better to choose the right orchid for your growing area rather than trying to adapt your growing are to a specific orchid that has very special requirements.
* Consider starting your orchid collection with phalaenopsis or moth orchids. They're the most foolproof of all.
* Next check out slipper orchids, especially the Asiatic paphiopedilums.
* I'll be introducing you to a bunch of other easy-to-grow orchids.

In Part II of Introduction to Orchids I will be explaining orchids names—probably the most intimidating aspect of the orchid hobby. Don't worry. It is really not as bad as it seems!

Frowine, Steven A. 2005. Orchids for Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey. John Wiley& Sons, Inc.

This useful reference, Orchids for Dummies, which has been popular for both beginner and experienced orchid lovers, is available on Amazon.com and in book stores around the country. 

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