A generation ago, orchid plants were rare and expensive, reserved for the rich or for special occasions. Unlike other perennial flowers, growers couldn’t reproduce orchids fast enough; it would take years for a plant to grow to blooming size. Propagation was a slow process and even pollination a leisurely business -- one reason why orchid flowers last more than a month in a pot or a vase.
Plant scientists then learned that cloning could duplicate tropical orchids. Take a part of the plant that might be smaller than your pinky fingernail, grow it in a lab and get a blooming specimen in a single season. Voila. Now we see mass-market orchids for sale everywhere, even at the grocery store.
Beginner gardeners usually start with Phalanopsis, aka Moth Orchids. These have long-lasting, rounded flowers on arching stems. I admit I have no luck with Phalanopsis, but the green-thumbed among us (such as my niece) have no problem getting rebloom from a gift Phalanopsis. The trick seems to be to keep the plant fertilized, when you are watering it once or twice a week, using a quarter-strength solution of houseplant fertilizer. Give the orchid bright light rather than strong window sun, and a moist atmosphere, such as a kitchen or bathroom, and clip off the old flowers as they fade.
You can try this, but if the leaves start falling off and the stem withers, don’t fret. Enjoy Moth Orchids as you would a holiday poinsettia, and throw them out at the end of their season.
The paradoxical dryness of “steam heat” in Manhattan apartments is a challenge for orchids indoors. I have had more luck with about a dozen different species of orchids that share a common quality: their leaves are heavier in substance and often stiff to the touch.
Here are a few hardier types for a bright window. If you can put them outdoors, once the freezing mark is passed, they will truly thrive and give you a reason not to curse the humidity of our New York summers. Miniature varieties are worth looking for.
Cymbidium: waxy flowers and good in pots outdoors. Bloom time: winter.
Oncidium: long sprays of tiny flowers, often fragrant. Bloom time: Spring.
Reed Epidendrum: pompoms of bright color, try outdoors in a sunny border. Bloom time: Summer.
Zygopetalum: tough as nails, often fragrant. Bloom time: Autumn.
Two good sources are Foliage Garden (120 West 28th Street) and, believe it or not, Trader Joe’s (Broadway at 72nd Street).