Friday, March 28, 2008

Orchids—Hot New Phalaenopsis Cultivars


Mention orchids and what comes to mind? For me, the word conjures visions of plants festooning branches of trees in a steamy tropical forest where the silence is broken only by the sounds of waterfalls and the calls of rainbow-plumed birds. In reality, however, orchids grow in almost every imaginable habitat all over the world. There are more than 30,000 orchid species, making this family the largest of all the flowering plants. And it is their flowers, which come in myriad colors, sizes, and shapes—often resembling butterflies, moths, or insects—for which these elegant beauties are prized. The first orchid specimens were culled from the wilds of Southeast Asia by early explorers who brought the plants home to Europe, where they were coveted by wealthy hobbyists. Massive wild collecting ended in the late 1920s as attention turned to creating new orchids through hybridization. The search continues in the wild for new species, but collecting is now strictly controlled and special permits are needed to import plants to this country. otanically, orchids are monocots, which means they bear a single seed leaf or "cotyledon" upon germination. Leaves have parallel veins, and flower parts generally come in threes—three sepals and three petals. One petal, the labellum, has a unique formation that serves as a landing pad for pollinators. Although their appearances may suggest otherwise, most orchids are not fragrant. Some actually emit distasteful odors to lure their pollinators—the smellier the better if the pollinator of choice is the fly. Flowers can last for months, days, or only hours. Many orchids will grow and flower as house plants, but perhaps the best candidates are species of Phalaenopsis (pronounced "fail-en-OP-sis"), also known as moth orchids. Phalaenopsis are native to Southeast Asia, extending from the Philippines to Formosa, India, New Guinea, and Queensland. In their native habitats, Phalaenopsis grow as epiphytes (air plants), mostly on tree branches. Epiphytes can also be found growing on rocks on the ground. There are also terrestrial orchids that grow in the soil. Sometimes mistaken for parasites, epiphytes, whether ground or tree dwellers, extend their life-sustaining roots out into the air to collect moisture and nutrients. Trendsetters
Today, growing Phalaenopsis is within the reach of anyone who wants to try it—the exotic is not out of bounds. And current breeding efforts have produced exciting new cultivars, including an increasing variety of beautiful, waxy, yellow blossoms, prized by collectors such as Charles Marden Fitch, who photographs award-winning plants for the American Orchid Society. Current hybridization and breeding efforts also continue to aim at creating stripes, spots, and plants that bloom out of the usual January to March Phalaenopsis season, according to Gene Hausermann of Orchids by Hausermann, a Villa Park, Illinois nursery. Other trends include breeding for fragrance and miniature form. Recent hybridization with related genera has also been producing interesting flower formations. Crosses with Doritis, for example, produce plants with smaller but more numerous flowers on each spike. Phalaenopsis flowers are usually produced on single or on branched spikes. The number of flowers per plant varies from a few to as many as thirty. When in full bloom Phalaenopsis can be truly breathtaking to behold. Traditionally, the flowers have been white with reddish or rosy lips; hybridization is also making possible pinks, lavenders, and the aforementioned yellows. Most bloom in winter or early spring, setting spikes in the fall. Each plant will bloom at the same time year after year. Planting and Care The flowers can last for months, and while the plant is blooming the pot may be placed anywhere in your house or apartment to show at best advantage. When not blooming, plants require bright light, but not direct sunlight, which will burn the leaves, causing black spots. If you do not have enough natural light, Phalaenopsis adapt well to artificial light. Normal home temperatures are ideal. When Phalaenopsis are in spike, close observation of the buds will reveal that the lip (the one petal that is different from the other two) is on the top when the buds are formed. Just prior to opening, the bud rotates on the stem so that the lip is on the bottom. Some species will also produce plantlets on the flowering spikes, complete with leaves and roots. These small offshoots can be pruned and planted, but keep in mind that transition from plantlet to flowering specimen is a long process requiring several years and lots of patience. If you want to extend bloom time, plants can sometimes be coaxed into producing secondary flower spikes. When flowers are spent, feel along the spike for a node that has not produced flowers, but is slightly larger than the others. Cut the spike just above this node and wait for growth. The flowers on this secondary spike may not be of the quality of the original, but the results are still rewarding. To approximate their natural growing conditions, most orchids are planted in pots in a medium composed of bark chips of varying size. There are many mixes -- experiment to find one that works well for you. Phalaenopsis need to be repotted every two to three years. Either plastic or clay pots will do the trick. I prefer clay to plastic because clay gives me a better feel for when plants need water. Moth orchids require even moisture, but the excess water must drain away -- picture the plants growing on a tree branch and you will understand why. When repotting your orchid, wait until just after the plant has flowered. Fertilize with a dilute solution of orchid fertilizer once a week, especially when the plants are actively growing. Good air movement is essential. If you are a beginner, purchase a mature plant from a reputable grower. After you have had some orchid experience, you can buy seedlings, remembering that it takes time and patience to nurture these young sprouts to the flowering stage. But as any orchid lover will tell you, it's worth the wait. Further Reading To learn more about growing orchids, check your local library or bookstore for references. Probably the best source of information will be your fellow orchid growers; consider joining the American Orchid Society. Information is also available on the internet: The site contains helpful information about Phalaenopsis, including cultural information, book reviews, suggested plants, and more.
by Barbara Pesch

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