General Orchid Care, part 1

Orchids are everywhere -- they're now the No. 1 houseplant in the U.S., having recently surpassed poinsettias, African violets and chrysanthemums. Two best-selling books ("The Orchid Thief" and "Orchid Fever") as well as a hit movie ("Adaptation") are about orchids.

So why are orchids so popular?

For starters, they come in every imaginable color, shape and size. Intense purples with orange throats. Big frilly whites with polka dots. Fluorescent yellows that resemble bees. Long, spidery tentacles reeking of cinnamon. The combinations are seemingly endless.

And let's not discount the addictive quality of orchids. With 30,000-plus naturally occurring species and hundreds of thousands of man-made hybrids, one is never bored and could never own them all. It's common to see first-time orchid buyers try a plant or two and second-time buyers snatch up a carload.

Once they're in a home, orchid care is surprisingly simple -- at least while they're blooming. Watering once or twice a week and giving them a bright room constitutes orchid care. And you can expect to see flowers for several months.

Fortunately for the orchid addict, prices for these exotic beauties have fallen to extreme affordability. What would have cost $1,000 at the turn of the 20th century, involving an often perilous journey into uncharted South American jungles, can now be had for the price of an entrée at a fine restaurant.

So let's look at the finer points of the five most popular orchids:

* Cattleya: "Corsage" orchid. When people think of orchids in the traditional sense, this is what comes to mind. From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was fashionable for women to wear cattleya corsages when they went out on the town. The beauty of the orchid was unmistakable -- large, frilly, fragrant and, yes, fragile.

Styles change, and today the "corsage orchid" is grown as a potted plant. Cattleyas remain a sentimental favorite despite their relatively short-lived bloom (two to three weeks).

* Dendrobium: "Hawaiian Lei" orchid. Hundreds of dendrobium flowers are strung together to make leis. On the mainland, long sprays are a popular item in floral arrangements and wedding bouquets.

Potted dendrobiums are even better. The plants are superb bloomers, producing dozens of half-dollar-sized blossoms ranging from solid white to vivid magenta to pea green. Unlike close rival phalaenopsis, these orchids can bloom at any time and sometimes twice a year.

* Oncidium: "Dancing Lady" orchid. Imagine a bright-yellow dress spinning wildly as these fluorescent flowers brighten up the dreariest room. This orchid is grown for cut flowers and potted plants.

In recent years, oncidiums have evolved into rich mahogany and sunset tones. Some even smell like chocolate. Overall, these flowers last six to eight weeks and can bloom twice a year.

* Paphiopedilum: "Lady Slipper" orchid. Few people try to utter the tongue twister "paff-ee-oh-PED-i-lum." Most just say "paff." The flower looks familiar to Virginians due to its similarity to native cypripediums found locally in pine forests.

Typically, a single bloom seems to float above a small leaf set. One is instantly drawn to the pouch, which is designed to attract insect pollinators in the jungle. Unlike most of the orchid family, the foliage is actually attractive -- mottled and lush. The flower lasts about two months and is a good companion plant for the shade-loving phalaenopsis.

* Phalaenopsis: "Moth" orchid. Saving the best for last, the phal is the most popular orchid. Long arching sprays of moth-shaped pastel-colored blooms summarize most of the hybrids. And the flowers last three months.

This low-light orchid is seasonal and usually only flowers between January and May in Virginia. If found in bloom at other times, this plant was, most likely, forced and will return to the normal period the next year. Practically anybody can grow and bloom a phalaenopsis. This is a good plant for those wishing to test the warm waters of this fascinating hobby.

Friday, May 1, 2009 - 17:45