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Documents: Special Interest: Orchids:

Gardening From Alaska
by Jeff Lowenfels
November 18, 2001


More and more I come across Phalaenopsis orchids. 
Type the name into a web engine to see to what I am referring or look it up in a flower book. Once you see one, you will recognize seeing it. You also probably won’t forget Phalaenopsis’s common name, the Moth Orchid. The flowers do look like exotic moths. They are complicated and simple at the same time, obviously an orchid complete with lip and all and usually in a spray of three or four, each flower two inches across, white being a popular base color with some sort of variation in the middle parts of the flower.
You have seen Phalaenopsises all over the place. They used decorate fancy restaurants and serve as backdrops for Harry Winston or Tiffany dimond ads and you have seen them a zillion times though you may not know their name. Now they are all over the place available year around from supermarkets, nurseries, florists and the large chain store nursery departments. 
The point is they are so prevalent that I know you have been tempted to buy one at some time or another, but were afraid you wouldn’t be able to care for it. 
Plants don’t become year round sellers unless they are easy to grow, not only for you but also for the supplying growers. Phalaenopsis is one of the easiest orchids to grow. Under ideal conditions of 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 to 80 degrees in the day, with 55 degree nights for a month or two in the fall to set buds, they will produce flowers without fail. But they will also do pretty good under plain old household windowsill environments as long as you stay within the temperature range, don’t over water them and give them as much light as you can.
Light is usually a problem for orchids, but Phalaenopsis do fine with the light from an east window elsewhere. Here, it is a good idea to provide them with southern exposure or as good as you have in the winter months. Of course, putting plants six inches under four fluorescent tubes for 18 hours won’t hurt them! However, it is not absolutely necessary. Keeping them in an office isn’t a bad idea either because most have better light than homes.
Phalaenopsis store water in their leaves. They need to be watered thoroughly, the leaves that is, and then allowed to dry out for a week or so. They cannot stand in water as they will rot and that is why they are sold in a bark mix that water drains through. Once the leaves soak up water, the whole thing needs to dry out. What could be easier than watering once a week or so? You can add some orchid fertilizer to the water from spring through the summer.
Humidity is a helpful, however and the higher the better up to 80%, but again, the plant is forgiving. You might want to set plants on a tray of pebbles filled with water or grow around other plants. Mist often. Mist, don’t soak. 
Finally, Phalaenopsis sold locally are cheap enough and stay in bloom for so long that many people rightly treat them as annuals. They can bloom for two months. However, many people don’t realize that you can often get the plant to re-bloom just a month or so after the first set of flowers disappear. This is because the flower stalk usually has two branches and plants are sold when the top branch flowers. One the top branch dies, cut it back a bit to where you see the new branch starting to grow from a bud. If you are worried you will cut the wrong bud, simply leave the first branch until the second starts to bloom.
Next time you pass a Moth Orchid, think about trying one or two.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

  • Turn Plants: Plants grow towards the light. Turn them to make sure you get even growth.

Fertilize or not?: 

Fertilize plants growing under lights. Use a dilute fertilizer solution if your plants get good natural light and are still growing. Otherwise wait until spring to feed.


Jeff Lowenfels gardens in Anchorage and is a Fellow of the Garden Writers Association of America.
PLANT A ROW FOR THE HUNGRY has generated over 1.5 million pounds of harvest from gardeners like you. Ask me how you can help feed the hungry from your garden. 

Email: jeffl@ypc.com
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