The moth orchid
The Phalaenopsis comes
from hot, humid India,
Malaya, Java, and other of
the Pacific Islands. The
Philippines are particularly
rich in these beautiful
orchids. The species
queen mother of today’s
hybrids, has long been
cultivated by the natives of
these South Pacific islands,
where they can still be
found potted in coconut
shells, attached to trees.
The humidity is very high
there, with an average
temperature of 80 degrees. Imagine the excitement
upon finding the plants blooming in nature, growing on
the fine-barked trees of the island forests, rooted mid
trunk or under a high cluster of leaves where they
receive diffused light.
Phalaenopsis comes from a tropical climate and in cultivation is considered warm-growing. The
plants grow best between 60 and 90 degrees (F); for most locations this makes them an ideal indoor-growing orchid.
Phalaenopsis like bright filtered or indirect light; direct sunlight can scorch the leaves and
should be avoided. Some good locations are: in a brightly lit room out of the direct sunlight, under a large hazed skylight
or in a south, east, or west window, behind a translucent curtain or louvered blinds. Watch the color of the foliage.
If after a month the foliage has become a darker shade of green, it may not be receiving enough light. If it becomes
much lighter, it may be getting too much light. For those with light meters, 1000 foot-candles is ideal. The best
locations also provide air movement and extra humidity such as is found in a kitchen or bathroom. Also, flowering
plants or plants in bud should not be placed near fruit which off-gases or in the direction of heat or A/C vents. This can
cause bud drop or flowers to perish faster.
To maintain orchids in bloom the plants should not be allowed to completely dry out, nor should they be
kept constantly wet. The best method is to water plants thoroughly with good quality water until soaked through, then
allow to almost dry out before watering again. Determine when to water by lifting the pot and judging by its weight;
depending on how dry the orchids’ potting mix is, it will be heavy or light. Water the day before the bark is completely
dry, or the pot at its lightest. We recommend sitting the pot in the sink and running copious amounts of water through it,
letting it drain and perhaps waiting twenty minutes or so and running water a second time through (perhaps with
fertilizer). It is important not to water too often, and never leave the plant sitting in water, as the roots are subject to rot.
Most properly potted phalaenopsis do fine watered every one-to-two weeks. You may water more frequently in hot, dry
weather, and less frequently in colder weather. Also, large plants in small pots dry out faster; plants overpotted or in old,
decomposed bark stay wet longer (see repotting below).
A simple, balanced fertilizer used all year around works fine. We suggest using fertilized water for three
waterings, and use plain water for the fourth to clear out deposits. Add 1 teaspoon to one gallon of water of a liquid
fertilizer such as Dyna-Gro 7-9-5, or 1/2 teaspoon to one gallon of water of a more concentrated fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
When your orchid is finished blooming, check to see if it needs repotting. Push on the potting mix with
your finger; if it feels soft and mushy, or your finger breaks through, it is time to repot in new mix, to allows air and
drainage around the roots. Additional signs are visibly rotten roots or a plant that feels loose in the pot. It is very easy
to repot these plants. Cut off the finished flower spike at about half an inch from the base. Gently remove the plant from
the pot by squeezing the pot while pulling on the plant. Then remove all the old bark and dead roots. Dead roots will be
flat, hollow, mushy, and/or darker. If the plant has lost most of its roots, downsize to a 3 or 4 inch pot. Most of the time,
you can use the same pot again after washing it. If the plant and its roots look too big, go up a pot size or two; careful
not to overpot. Place the plant back in the pot so that it is not trying to push itself out. If necessary, cut the roots to
accomplish this. Gently pour in new bark (1/2 to 3/4-inch size fir bark or other orchid potting mix) while tapping the
side of the pot to help settle the bark and press bark firmly around the roots. Wait a couple days and then water.
If your orchid is not thriving, consider if it has been placed in too dark a location, without any air
movement, or stays too wet. The solution is to find a better location and be careful with your watering practice; not to
overwater and not to leave the pot sitting in a saucer of water. Sometimes common to phalaenopsis are insect-pests
which feed off flower buds, like mealy bug, white fly, and aphids. If visible these can be removed with a Q-tip and
rubbing alcohol without damage to the buds. Insects that have laid eggs in a plant or are pervasive like scale should be
treated with a garden insecticide at intervals of ten days until the pests are gone.
A robust plant will often produce additional branches from a spike that has already bloomed.
When flowering appears to have finished, the stem may be cut just above a node, where a branch may potentially
develop. If the plant has exhausted its energy, it is best to cut the whole stem and wait for an entirely new spike to
develop. If after a year your orchid has not rebloomed, giving it a temperature drop in the fall may help to initiate
flower spikes. Simply put your plant outside when night-temperatures are beginning to drop to the mid to low 50's, for
about three weeks, in a safe (pest-free and out of direct sun) location. With proper care and the right environment, your
phalaenopsis can bloom season after season for continual enjoyment.