Orchids are considered rare, exotic and delicate.  In reality, they are common in nature, are becoming commonplace as houseplants, and they are tough.  The trick to enjoying long lasting blooms of the orchid is that after you purchase one, find the right environment.  To grow an orchid, think like an orchid!

As the second largest plant family (right behind the Aster family), there are over 30,000 species of orchids found everywhere around the world except for deserts. They are so common that about 1 in25 plants in the world is in the orchid family — there are 900 species of orchids in Borneo alone.

All orchids share the characteristics of having flowers with bilateral symmetry, highly modified petals, fused stamens, and extremely small seeds.  A majority of orchids are Epiphytic, growing on a support such as a tree, and using their aerial roots to absorb water and nutrients from the air, not the soil. Familiar Epiphytic Orchids are the Cattleyas and Phalaenopus orchids.

Some others, called Lithophytic Orchids, can grow on rocks, still using roots to absorb what they need from the surrounding air.  An example of this orchid group is the Dendrobium orchid.

Terrestrial Orchids grow in grasslands or the forest in temperate climates such as ours, but still receive most nutritional requirements from the air. Our native Ladies Tresses orchids additionally need a root fungus that it parasitizes in order to grow. Other Terrestrial Orchids are the Cymbidium orchid and the Lady Slipper orchid.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of orchids is their use of deception in order to get their seeds pollinated. For example, many flowers produce nectars to attract pollinating insects and advertise it by exuding a perfume.  The Green Wing orchid produces no nectar, but mimics the look of other flowers that do, thus fooling insects to come calling, without expending a lot of energy.

Bee orchids go even further.  They look like female insects and even release an odor mimicking females, so that male insects even prefer the orchid over the real female insect. There is another orchid that pulls this same con game on a wasp.  This may be the answer as to why orchid flowers last for such a long time; they are patiently waiting for the correct insect to come along and be fooled.

Another interesting approach to distributing pollen, is the one that the Oncidium orchid takes, mimicking another male bee as the orchid blows in the wind.  Being very territorial, the bee attacks the orchids over and over, thinking they are rivals, and in the process spreads the fertilizing pollen from flower to flower.

The Bucket orchid makes use of imprisonment, using the enticement of its perfumes to lure insect visitors.  The large fleshy lip of the flower is expanded into a bucket-like receptacle catching water that the orchid produces.  The strong scent produced by the flower draws in male bees of the genus Eulaema, and they scratch vigorously at the flower to get at the liquid producing the odor. And when they do get to the liquid, it is enough to make the bee drunk, he falls into the bucket, and as he struggles to climb out, he knocks the pollen on to himself.  When he finally sobers up some and frees himself, he manages to climb out of the bucket, going off to the next flower, repeating the procedure, and in the process, carries pollen from one flower to another.

The condensed version of how to care for orchids that you purchase can be summed up in five basic points:

1.  Keep your orchid watered, but not waterlogged. Water every 5 to 12 days.  A good way to do this is place 3 ice cubes at the base of the plant. Keep the water off the leaves.

2.  Once a month feed your orchid with a fertilizer made for orchids.

3.  Plant orchids in small pots with good drainage holes, and repot once they have outgrown their container, using special orchid mix (bark particles if it is an Epiphyte, and a loam mix if it is a Terrestrial).

4.  Cut the bloom spike down to ½ inch once all the blooms have faded.

5.  Keep orchids in a warm place (65-85 degrees F.) with good air circulation and out of the direct sun.

I bought an orchid the first week in April and in the last week of June it still had a few blooms hanging on.  How is that for tough beauty?

Story by Jolene Renfro 

Crockett Garden Club and Davy Crockett Master Gardeners