These four winter-blooming orchids are elegant and easy to grow
Photographs by Norman A. Plate
Given their glamorous appearance and considerable cachet, orchids make impressive gifts. Their thick, waxy flowers last four to six weeks, often longer. Their length of bloom makes them a good value for the price—$28 to $45 for a 4- to 6-inch pot is typical. But that’s not the end of it. The orchids described here make good house or patio plants—no steamy hothouse environment is necessary to keep them happy. With reasonable care, they’ll bloom again next winter and for years to come. Oncidiums, cymbidiums, phalaenopsis, and zygopetalums are widely available now in nurseries, florist shops, and even supermarkets.
Florists call oncidiums “spray orchids” for obvious reasons. These beautiful plants produce tall, branching flower stems that dance with dozens of dainty, ruffle-edged blossoms. A few species and varieties are also fragrant: O. Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance’, for instance, exudes a powerful chocolate and vanilla scent. Oncidiums need more light than some of the other orchids, but when the right conditions are provided, they are contented house plants. BLOOM TIME: Varies. LIGHT: Bright, indirect light all day or direct light mornings only. TEMPERATURE: 70°–80° (day), 55°–65° (night). POTTING MIX: A commercial orchid mix, or medium-grade fir bark with or without perlite. WATERING: Keep potting mix moist during growing and bloom season. After bloom, allow the soil to dry out somewhat for two to three weeks. To provide the extra humidity this orchid likes, place the pot on an inverted saucer in a pan filled with pebbles and water. Keep water level below top of pebbles. Morning misting is also helpful. FEEDING: Fertilize with high-nitrogen fertilizer at least once a month for the first six months after bloom. Switch to low-nitrogen fertilizer for next six months.
The first cymbidiums to bloom are miniatures, which top out at 2 feet. They do well indoors in warm, sunny spots like south- or west-facing windows.
Standard cymbidiums have large, dramatic, long-lasting flowers (eight weeks or more is a typical bloom time) and graceful, strappy leaves. They're blissfully easy to care for too. But they need some chill during the fall to set flower buds. They’re happier outdoors than indoors--as long as temperatures don't drop much below 32° or rise above 100° for more than a few hours.
In frost-free areas, all cymbidiums can grow outdoors through winter. Elsewhere, protect them from cold by placing containers in a greenhouse or under deep overhangs. In summer, they thrive on lath-covered patios. Standard cymbidiums are sold in 8- to 10-inch pots, miniatures in 6-inch pots. BLOOM TIME: September-January (miniatures), February–early May (standards). LIGHT: As much as possible, without burning leaves. Plants with yellow-green leaves usually flower best. TEMPERATURE: Minis: 70° or higher (day), 60° (night). Standards: 60°–75° (day), 50°–55° (night) is ideal, but higher summertime temperatures (to 90° or so) and near-freezing winter temperatures are tolerated if plants are sheltered. POTTING MIX: Packaged cymbidium mix. Or fine-grade fir bark mixed with peat moss or perlite or both. WATERING: Keep soil moist during growing season, March–September. In winter, water just enough to keep bulbs from shriveling. FEEDING: January–July, feed with complete liquid fertilizer high in nitrogen every 10 days to 2 weeks; August–December, feed as frequently with low-nitrogen fertilizer.
Familiarly known as moth orchid because its blooms resemble moth wings, phalaenopsis is among the easiest orchids to grow. If there’s enough light for your hand to cast a faint shadow, that will do. Moth orchids do appreciate high humidity, so they are happiest in a bathroom or near the kitchen sink. Phalaenopsis flowers endure a long time, and the plants send up new blooming shoots frequently. If it’s happy, a plant can bloom for several months. BLOOM TIME: Varies. LIGHT: Filtered light; no direct sun. TEMPERATURE: 75°–85° (day), 60°–65° (night). POTTING MIX: Orchid mix or medium- to coarse-grade fir bark. Some growers add perlite and charcoal to the mix. WATERING: Keep the potting mix continually moist but not soggy. Provide additional humidity as recommended for oncidium (above). FEEDING: Fertilize monthly year-round with a high-nitrogen fertilizer.
All orchids seem exotic, but zygopetalum looks downright otherworldly. The upper petals are usually tiger-striped green and maroon, and the lower lips patterned with violet lines on white: the Nicolas Cage of the orchid world—slightly menacing-looking, perhaps, but that’s part of the appeal. Growing requirements are similar to those of standard cymbidiums, but plants are slightly more sensitive to cold. All are pleasantly fragrant. BLOOM TIME: Most varieties are fall and winter bloomers. LIGHT: Full morning sun or bright shade all day outdoors; while indoors, try a south- or west-facing window. TEMPERATURE: 60°–75° (day), 50°–55° (night) is ideal, but can take higher summer daytime temperatures if sheltered. POTTING MIX: Commercial orchid mix or medium-grade bark with perlite added. WATERING: Keep the potting mix moist most of the year, but let it dry out slightly for two to three weeks at the end of summer. FEEDING: Feed with high-nitrogen fertilizer monthly for the first six months after bloom; use low-nitrogen fertilizer for the next six months.
Winter-flowering orchids are widely available at nurseries, florists, and supermarkets. You can also mail-order directly from Rod McLellan Co. (800/467-2443).