Easy Orchid for Beginners: The Moth Orchid
Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid)
Orchids are amazing flowering houseplants. Once considered a luxury, these elegant plants have become affordable due to large scale hybridization. Moth orchids, or Phalaenopsis, in particular, have been bred to thrive indoors.
Of all orchids, these are the easiest orchids for beginners and are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Flowers come in a wide variety of colors and color combinations. Moth orchid blooms are long-lived, lasting from 6 weeks to 3 months with proper care. Blooms appear on the end of a long, arching stem.
The foliage is sturdy and attractive. The thick leaves grow low, are long and oval in shape.
When buying this type of orchid, it is best to shop at a nursery or gardening center to ensure the purchase of a quality product. If you want a bargain and pick one up at a grocery store or the gardening center at a large hardware store, buy the orchid when it first comes in; the flowers will last longer and the plant will be in its best condition.
Did You Know?
Moth orchids do not naturally occur in bright blue. Those weird blue Phalaenopsis you see in some large garden centers are chemically treated.
Check the container. Phals should be planted in a loose growth medium, never in soil. Regular potting soil is too dense for the roots. In nature, Moth orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow along the sides of trees filled with plant debris.
Moth orchids grow best in pine chips, sphagnum moss, or small pieces of volcanic rock as a growth medium. A mixture of all 3 works well. Sphagnum moss alone may break down too quickly to be effective and can retain moisture for too long causing the roots to rot.
A few roots protrude from the top of the pot. They should be silvery green with green tips. Avoid buying plants that are lightweight as they are too dry. Avoid plants with shriveled looking leaves or leaves with spots, webbing, yellow or brown marks.
Make sure the container has a drainage hole at the bottom. Orchid pots should also have some holes in the sides.
A plastic pot will hold moisture while terra cotta may allow the plant to dry out too quickly. Since these plants often come in small size pots and may be top heavy, place the plastic pot into a larger, more attractive container.
Best Light for Your Orchid
Placement is very important for the health of a moth orchid. Set the container in a spot that receives filtered or indirect sunlight. An East or North-East facing window is best, though the East facing window may provide a bit too much sun in summer.
Do not allow them to receive direct sun, and never place the plant in a South facing window. Some sites suggest a West facing window, but the afternoon sun there can be too strong and may damage the plant.
Check the leaves of your plant to see if they are set in the best light. Healthy leaves should be a light grassy green. If they are very dark green, long and floppy they are not getting enough light. If the leaves look yellow, they may be getting too much light.
Best Temperature for Your Orchid
One of the reasons that moth orchids do so well for so many people is that they thrive in temperatures we enjoy in our homes—between 60 - 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, heat and air conditioning dry out the air in many homes. To increase humidity, place the plant on a tray of moist pebbles. Do not fill the tray with water or allow the bottom of the container to sit in water or the roots will rot.
If your orchid is double-potted, fill the bottom of the outer container with pebbles.
A drop in temperature will signal Phalaenopsis to bloom. Some believe that cooler nights do the trick, while other experts claim a general all day temperature drop encourages bloom production.
A plant set in an East or North-East facing window should experience this temperature dip in the Fall.
Do not allow your orchid to sit in a drafty area or experience temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some successful moth orchid enthusiasts place their plants outdoors in summer. If you choose this route, keep the plants well shaded. Bring the plants indoors before evening temperatures go below 60 degrees F. (The weather report may predict a 60 degree F night, but could easily be wrong)
Be Mindful When Watering:
The #1 killer of all houseplants is over watering. Though Phalaenopsis are tropical plants, remember that they are epiphytes, not bog plants.
Moth Orchid and Water
Sphagnum moss retains moisture longer than pine bark or volcanic rock. So plants grown in sphagnum moss should be watered less than plants grown in a looser medium. This is not the preferred planting medium for moth orchids as it can retain too much moisture and become soggy.
How To Water Your Orchid:
- Run tap water into a large container and set out overnight or for 24 hours to off-gas chlorine. Allowing it to sit overnight will bring the water to room temperature. You don't want to water the plants with cold tap water.
- Set the container in a sink and water until all the water drains out the hole in the bottom of the pot. Repeat.
- Make sure water does not collect in between the leaves. Tip plant to drain.
- Dust the leaves when you water the plant.
How Often Should You Water?
This depends on several factors:
- How dry is the air in your home?
- Are the pots made of plastic (holds moisture) or terra cotta (dries out more quickly)?
- Does the soil mix dry out quickly?
Most tropical plants enjoy a brief winter rest. In the colder months, water every 10 - 14 days.
In Spring and Summer, water it once a week or so.
Moth Orchid in Bloom
Fertilizer for Phalaenopsis
Fertilize with a liquid orchid food once a month in Spring, Summer, and early Fall.
Or, mix up a batch of 1/4 strength fertilizer to feed weekly.
Before you fertilize, flush the plant with water. Then add the liquid fertilizer.
Moth Orchid: New Spike
The flower stalk grows up from the base of the leaf. The first indication is just a little bump. The spike is a light, bright green in color. (Note the photograph above) Don't confuse air roots with a spike. The roots have a silvery sheen while the spike does not.
Here is how to guarantee the success of your flower:
- Make sure that the flower stalk is staked. The flowers grow at the end of a long stem and may hang over, making the plant top-heavy.
- Gently twist a thin bamboo stake between the roots. As the spike grows, clip it to the stake with tiny hair clips (those hinged, plastic ones with the teeth).
- Once the flower stem begins to grow, do not turn the pot but keep it oriented in the same direction. The stem will grow toward the light. Constant turning will cause the stalk to twist in an unattractive manner.
- When the flowers are in full bloom, you may move the plant however you like for optimal viewing.
- Maintain water and feeding.
What To Do About Dying Flowers
When the flowers die off, there are 2 courses of action you may take:
- Cut back the stem close to the base. Use a sterile knife or scissors. To prevent fungus problems at the cut, dab a bit of cinnamon on the tip.
- OR, cut the stem back to a node—a little line and small bump below the spot where the lowest flower grew. This encourages new flowering.
In any event, remove the spike when it becomes woody.
Please Note: Flowering takes a lot of energy from the plant. Many orchid lovers like to encourage the plant to rest, and are satisfied with a once a year bloom. After all, the flowers last a long time.
Repot a Moth Orchid
- Never repot when the plant is in bloom!
- Repot when the planting medium begins to decompose.
- Turn the plant over. Gently remove orchid.
- Gently shake off the old medium.
- Snip off any dried up or dead looking roots.
You do not need to plant Phalaenopsis in a large pot. But a slightly larger container gives the roots room to spread out a little.
Moth Orchid Problems
- If your Phalaenopsis dies, get another one and try again. You never really fail with any plant unless you've killed 3 of them. We learn from our mistakes!
- If a plant is infested with insects, throw it out! An infestation will severely weaken the plant and may spread to other houseplants.
- If you really want to rescue the plant, isolate it from other orchids or houseplants so the problem will not spread.
- If all the leaves are yellow or browning, or if the foliage has a shriveled appearance, throw it out. The plant will not revive.
- If the plant produces new leaves, but the lowest leaves turn yellow, remove the lowest, yellowed leaves. In this case, there is no problem, it's just that the bottom leaves have aged.
- If all or most of the leaves appear shriveled, they will not revive.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Dolores Monet