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Phalaenopsis (Moth) Orchids


Ah, winter, when a garden center’s fancy turns to houseplants. When it’s cold outside, we always appreciate our houseplants, sitting on the windowsill, awaiting our return. Like a cat, only without the fur balls.

Even more appealing than green foliage are flowers, and orchids provide them. With a little bit of care, orchids will bloom for you for several months. If you have the patience and the right conditions, you may be able to get them to flower again next year.


The Many Virtues of Moth Orchids

While most orchids are challenging to grow in the home, some are pretty straightforward. The most popular is the Phalaenopsis or Moth Orchid, which, as the name implies, is shaped vaguely like a moth. Like most orchids, Phalaenopsis are epiphytes. Epiphytes grow upon other plants instead of in the ground. They are not parasites, they don’t “feed” on the host plant; they just hang out there.

Because hanging around on a tree branch waiting for a rainstorm has a certain level of unceratainty, Phalenopsis are adapted to drying out between waterings. They have thick leaves, and roots with a sort of spongy covering. They can absorb and store water efficiently, but also tolerate drying out in the drier seasons. They like bright light but not hot sun, and high humidity.

Care of Moth Orchids

To keep it blooming for a long time, place your Phalaenopsis in an east or north facing window. Not next to the window, which is a dark spot, but on the windowsill. To water, take it to the sink and run tepid water into the pot and over any protruding roots for a few seconds. Let it drain thoroughly (10 minutes of sitting in the sink to drain after you water should be plenty of time. That’s the plant; you don’t have to sit in the sink.) I would suggest checking for water once a week; they hate to be overwatered.

Humidity: Best done with a humidifier on the furnace. If your skin flakes off in the dry air in the house in the winter, then your orchids (and other tropical foliage plants) are not going to be happy. Misting is a waste of time. The orchid will be happier in more humidity than is good for your house; just do your best. (My first experience with humidity and orchids was in my first apartment. One nice humid room full of books and orchids–then the books started to mildew. Oops.) If the temperatures and humidity are comfortable for you, then the plant will be in reasonably good shape.


Temperatures: Normal home temps are fine, high 60’s, 70’s. They are tropical, they don’t like to get too cold. Your windowsill can’t drop to 40 degrees when it gets cold out or you will probably find that your leaves are discoloring from the cold.

Fertilizer: Use a houseplant fertilizer for orchids. I suggest you go with a half of the recommended rate, since orchids in the home are not in ideal locations, you don’t need as much fertilizer as the container will suggest.

Generally, when you buy a Phalaenopsis, it will have an open flower or several, and lots of buds. Sometimes the buds fall off; this will be due to any of a number of causes: low light, low humidity are top of the list. Even when all of the flowers have finished, and the buds have bloomed or dropped, there is a chance for additional bloom. Frequently, a new bloom spike will start to grow off of the old one, so don’t cut the old spike off until it starts to turn yellow. A happy Phalaenopsis can easily bloom for three to four months.

by Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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