GARDENING : Finally, an Ornery Orchid : The Hearty Phaleanopsis Can Flourish Without Your Undivided Attention


Orchids are reputed to be the hothouse prima donnas of the plant kingdom. They demand special humidity and specific temperatures, are fussy about when they're fertilized and bear high price tags.

But Costa Mesa's Brad Carter prefers to recount his experience with a resilient, undemanding orchid that dispels orchids' Maria Callas reputation.

Each spring for the past four years, his Phaleanopsis orchid (commonly called moth orchid) has produced an impressive display of five or six pink or white flowers that are three inches wide and last almost three months before fading.

What's even more remarkable is this plant has flourished under Carter's benign neglect. And because Carter is one of the area's leading orchid specialists, as curator of the orchid collection and assistant director at the UC Irvine Arboretum, he knows his plants.

"I have to come clean on this one," he said. "I haven't fertilized this plant at all and have only watered it when the leaves begin to shrivel up. I grow it in my bathroom, where it receives a minimal amount of light. Still, it blooms despite the constant abuse. This is a tough plant."

Carter is not alone in his experience. Phaleanopsis orchids require the least care of all the different orchid types.

"Phaleanopsis is the easiest orchid to grow indoors and is rapidly becoming the most popular," said Paul Brecht, owner of Brecht Orchids in Costa Mesa. "I sell thousands of orchid plants each year, and more than one-third are Phaleanopsis."

Carter isn't advising others to be as carefree in their orchid culture as he is, but he recommends that people who want to include an orchid or two in their homes start with moth orchids.

He's an expert on all aspects of orchids and frequently travels to South Africa and other regions to study species of orchids in their native habitats.

By understanding how orchids grow in nature, it's possible to replicate those environments in household settings.

In nature, Carter explained, moth orchids are epiphytes that grow on the surface of tree bark in humid tropical forests in Asia and Australia. They obtain their water and nourishment from the tropical rains, air and any decaying vegetable matter their roots can trap as they cling to the high branches.

These lush tropical-forest regions have frequent rainfall and very warm temperatures that cause the treetops to grow into a thick canopy, which blocks most of the sunlight from the lower forest. Phaleanopsis orchids thrive in low-light, moist, warm conditions. Because rainfall in these forests is sporadic, the orchids have adapted to periods of short droughts.

They obtained their common name, moth orchids, because in their natural habitat, as the large flowers hang from the elongated flower stalks, they resemble moths flitting above the plants in the twilight.

When moth orchids are grown in households, their natural requirements are simulated by planting them in a very fast-draining medium, usually redwood bark, and placing them in a spot where they receive filtered light.

If they must be placed in a western- or southern-facing spot, ensure the plant is protected from direct sunlight.

They thrive in the same conditions that African violets prefer--an eastern- or shaded southern-facing location, and daytime temperatures of 70 to 85 degrees with a minimum night temperature of 60 degrees.

"If your house is comfortable for you, it's comfortable for a moth orchid," Brecht said.

An average price for a moth orchid planted in a six-inch pot is about $25.

Brecht suggested selecting a plant with only two or three flower buds already open. The others will slowly unfurl, and the entire bloom stalk can last from one to three months, depending on the variety.

White is the most popular, but there are also shades of dark pink, light pink, yellow, red and spotted and striped flowers available.

Many varieties of moth orchids will bloom twice a year if they get regular fertilizer and water. Brecht advises watering once a week and lightly misting the leaves daily. He recommends fertilizing twice a month with a commercial orchid food with a 20-20-20 formula. Repot every two years, moving the plant up to the next size pot and placing it in a commercial orchid potting mix.

Moth orchids rarely suffer from insect infestation, but an occasional attack of mealy bugs can occur, Carter said. He recommends wiping the bugs off with a cloth saturated with alcohol and water or a solution of soap and water.

Moth orchids produce glossy, deep green leaves that have a small cup or indentation at their base. Avoid letting water accumulate in that depression to prevent the plant from rotting. If that happens, the plant will die.

But all is not lost, because the dying process triggers the plant's reproduction process, and several baby moth orchid plants will form around the mother plant. These can be removed and potted and will flower in roughly two years.

Phaleanopsis grow best indoors, Carter said, and will rot and die outdoors, unlike other popular types of orchids such as cymbidiums.


Where to Go

If you'd like to try growing Phaleanopsis, a good place to see them (and other orchid varieties) is at the Fall Orchid Festival on the grounds of the UCI Arboretum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Nov. 4.

The UCI Arboretum, the Newport Harbor Orchid Society and the Orange County Orchid Society are sponsoring the event, at which more than 30 vendors will offer thousands of different kinds of blooming orchids for sale at prices ranging from $5 to $100.

The UCI Arboretum is near the corner of Campus Drive and Jamboree Road on the UCI North Campus, Irvine. For information, call (714) 824-5833.

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