The very first orchid species were pulled out of the jungle by Westerners in the early 1800’s and it took half a century of trial and error to figure out how to water these mysterious epiphytes. There were countless mishaps along the way and many of the best varieties were lost forever. But, by the dawn of the new millennium and, for the next 100 years or so, professional growers and hobbyists alike had mastered the art of keeping their orchids properly hydrated.
But then came the grocery store Phalaenopsis. And with them, the baffling care instructions that suggest the use of ice cubes or a jigger of water.
Common sense tells us that tropical plants don’t respond well to either frosty weather or the drought-like volume of a shot glass. In fact, both techniques are likely to cause leaf and root distress and may even result in death.
What happens next is up for debate but many distraught owners stumble back into the same store and buy a replacement orchid. Lo and behold, the sinister marketing plan worked. In order to break this disheartening cycle, we must hark back to yesteryear and ask previous generations of horticulturalists how they took care of plants.
It all starts with the awareness that orchids are from sultry forests around the world and like a lot of moisture. They don’t want a dribble and they certainly don’t want ice. During the months-long monsoon season, epiphytes experience cloud bursts, deluges, downpours, drenches, floods, rainstorms, and soakings which should be good news to hobbyists who can easily duplicate a thorough watering in the sink of their home.
The timing of the hydration is critical, however. We never want a plant to be bone dry because the surface may be too hard to absorb any moisture. Conversely, we never want to apply water while the media is still damp or the air-loving roots may rot. The perfect moment is somewhere in the middle of bone dry and damp – on the cusp of dry.
Take notice of seasoned growers who always seem to be touching their orchids – the leaves, the flowers, and especially the media - searching for clues that the plants might be offering. Is the surface dry? Is it damp? Or if it’s somewhere in the middle, then it’s time for a good drench.
Commercial firms from the cut flower days used to collect rain in the greenhouse gutters and channel it into enormous tanks under the center benches. The water was pure but, more importantly, it would sit overnight and become room temperature by the time the sprinklers came on. As a result, the plants were happy and produced enormous growths. The lesson for today’s hobbyists is to use water that is at least 70 degrees.
- Drench the plant.
- Wait until the media is just about dry.
- Use room temperature water.
Photo Caption – “Orchids should be drenched with warm water. They don’t want a dribble and they certainly don’t want ice.”
Photo Credit – Arthur Chadwick