Caring for Phalaenopsis Orchids, for the Absolute Beginner or the Hopelessly Confused
By far the most popular orchids available in the United States right now are hybrids of Phalaenopsis. Phalaenopsis, or Phals, as they are commonly known, are mostly native to tropical islands in Southeast Asia; namely, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Thailand, among others. They dwell, by and large, in tropical rainforests, where humidity and water are seldom in short supply. The climate in these regions seldom drops below 65 degrees (F), but also seldom rises above 95 degrees. This information is important because the more you know about your plant, the longer you can keep it alive, and the more likely it is to rebloom.
The commercially available Phalaenopsis orchids come in a dazzling variety of colors, sizes, and shapes, but they are almost never fragrant. Their large, showy flowers with their broad, flat petals have earned it the nickname the "moth orchid" because of those petals' resemblance to moth wings. However, because of the market saturation that Phalaenopsis currently has, most of the time they are just simply labeled "orchid." Many Phalaenopsis bought in supermarkets have been raised in giant commercial greenhouses, where they can be grown cheaply, in large numbers, and with minimal effort. Climate controls carefully create conditions in which these plants can flourish, and after only a couple years they can be shipped off, in full bloom, for the commercial market. However, no attempt is made to ensure that these plants are healthy, and oftentimes their condition will rapidly degenerate as soon as they are taken out of their idealized environment and placed onto a shelf. Depending on the location of the grower, they can also be infested with insidious pests that can invisibly eat away at the plant's leaves, roots, or flowers, and critically endanger its health before they are even noticed. Sometimes it will be only a matter of days after a plant is purchased before the flowers begin to droop and drop, making it seem like a considerably less worthwhile investment than one originally envisioned. Fortunately, with their wide, fleshy leaves, healthy Phalaenopsis can function as attractive foliage houseplants, even between blooming periods. First, however, one must ensure that it will be in healthy conditions to continue growing.
Phalaenopsis prefer to have two distinct seasons: a warmer, wetter season (which I will simplify and call "summer") and a drier, cooler season (which, by a similar token, I will call "winter"). During the summer, they will grow new roots and leaves, and during the winter that activity will become mostly dormant and they will attempt to flower instead. Typically Phalaenopsis are bought flowering, which is good in this case because the plants are dormant and it is always better to repot one during a dormant stage than a growing stage, as the new root tips are very tender and even the slightest bump could cause it to bruise or break and stop growing. Disturbing orchids while they are growing is always a risky endeavor, but nevertheless it is also sometimes necessary to save the life of the plant.
Phalaenopsis are most often planted in either white sphagnum moss or broken fir bark, but sometimes they will have sphagnum on top of bark; whatever the orchid is potted in is called the "potting medium." The first thing to do when you get a new plant is to check both the integrity of the roots and the potting medium. Decayed media deprives the roots of air and also withholds water, which can contribute to root-rot and bacterial growth. Dead and rotten roots are bad for the plant because they attract more mold and bacteria which can then harm living and healthy roots. It can also lead to more rapid deterioration of the potting medium, which compounds the problem even further.
The first thing I do whenever I buy a new orchid is to drench it in water. Turn on the kitchen tap, add in just enough hot water to make the water more "room-temperature" instead of cold, and just hold it under until it is soaked. Then just let it sit and drain for a half hour or so. This will enable you to free the plant more easily from its pot and the potting medium. After this, grasp the plant by the base and wiggle it while tugging lightly away at the pot, it should come out without too much trouble. Then, carefully knock away the potting medium, taking advantage of your sink's sprayer to wash the medium and dirt away. Once you have all the medium washed away, you will be able to inspect the roots. When wet, healthy roots will be green with white spots and firm to the touch, and dead roots will be soft, wet-looking, limp, and brown. Some sick roots might look more brown than green, but will still be firm to the touch. Be careful, though, to not squeeze roots too hard, as healthy roots will bruise and become damaged. Using very sharp garden shears, cut off any dead roots as close to the base of the plant as possible. It might be possible that there are no living roots left; this will require special care.
If you want to use the same pot that the plant came in, scrub it out and soak it in a bleach solution to kill any leftover bacteria or fungus spores. Then, after rinsing it out very well and letting it dry, you can then use it to repot your plant. Otherwise, find a new vessel for your plant. There are many decorative to utilitarian options, from glazed or unglazed ceramic pots to wooden or plastic baskets, but for Phalaenopsis, a ceramic pot with many drainage holes is usually the best option. Find a pot that is not significantly larger than the plant itself; most Phalaenopsis will be perfectly happy in a 5" or 6" pot. Using new bark (purchaseable at nearly any garden center, or in the garden area at large hardware stores), hold the base of the plant level with the top of the pot, arrange its roots inside, and then carefully pour in handfuls of bark, shaking the pot every now and then to make it settle. At the end, your plant should be settled firmly in its new pot, with its roots completely covered in bark. Take note of how much the plant weighs completely dry in its pot. Run the pot under the faucet again to soak it, and let the water run out again, then weigh it in your hands again. This is how you can tell when to water the plant again: when it feels close to its dry weight, soak it again. While the plant is in flower, this much handling should not affect it too much.
After the flowers begin to fade on a healthy plant, it is possible to attempt to force it to rebloom. Consider that as long as a Phalaenopsis is in bloom, it will not grow, so if its leaves are drooping or its roots are dead, it would be better to cut off the flower spike as close to the plant as possible. However, if it is in otherwise good shape, follow the flower spike up from the plant: there are a number of "segments" on the stalk. Count two, and then cut the top off a half inch up from the second segment. With luck, and good conditions, it will grow a new flowering spike out from around that segment, and then bloom again some weeks later. Otherwise, when the flowering has ceased, cut the spike off at the base. It is possible to just leave the spike and it will gradually dry and become brittle; cutting it simply speeds up the process. As inferred earlier, the fastest way to speed recovery on an ailing plant is to remove the flower spike to force it into a growth stage, so one might want to remove the flower spike for that reason as well.
In order to ensure a Phalaenopsis grows well, you must attempt to replicate its natural conditions as well as you possibly can. This is why they are planted in bark. The wet bark creates a humid environment for the roots, in lieu of frequent rainfall, and the evaporating water also envelopes the leaves to create a small micro-environment for the plant. However, this is not all. Phalaenopsis do not have any sort of water or nutrient storage structures, so they cannot endure a drought. Having a good high-nitrogen orchid fertilizer is essential in keeping it healthy. One can either mix in a tablespoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water and feed it monthly, or mix in a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water and use that every time the plant is watered. Either way, the method is the same: water the plant as normal, shaking the pot to remove excess water, and then pour the fertilizer-rich water over the potting medium afterwards. You do not have to use the whole gallon, but make sure that you use enough that the bark will be thoroughly coated. Also be aware that dissolved minerals and chemicals in certain well or municipal water systems can have an adverse effect on the plant's overall health; if you know that your water is particularly laden with microorganisms, minerals, or other dissolved substances, it might be worth using distilled or filtered water.
Another part of creating positive conditions for the plant to grow in are light considerations. Phalaenopsis prefers bright, but indirect light. Placing the plant on an eastward or northward facing windowsill will usually ensure that it does not get burned. Moving the plant slowly, over the course of a week, closer and closer to the light source will also assist it becoming acclimated to the light. Ideally, it should be on a table roughly a foot away from the window and get light for the majority of the day. In the summer, the plant should ideally be outside, as fluctuations in temperature stimulate the plant to grow. If it is around 95 during the day and 70 at night, this tells it that it's time to grow, and it will often grow two or three leaves over the course of a summer. The heat will make the water in the potting media evaporate much more quickly, so you might find yourself having to water it nearly every day. Warm, wet weather indicates to the plant that it is summer and it's time to grow, so this is a good thing. Indoors, it will grow much more slowly, largely due to the smaller temperature fluctuations that it experiences. If the temperature is too steady, it might not grow at all, since it will think that it is still winter. Keeping the plant around 65-75 and watering it less frequently indicates to the plant that it is winter, and therefore time to flower, so if you want to try to force it, these are the conditions you need to create.
Phalaenopsis will always grow new roots first, so if you have a plant where you had to do some major pruning of the root system, chances are it will sit and look like it is doing nothing for quite a few months before even attempting to grow a leaf. If its leaves don't begin to droop at all, and keep their bright green, waxy appearance, chances are that is what it is doing. Don't go digging around in the media to see, because you might damage the root and make it take longer to recover. This is, of course, not the course of action if the plant appears like it is further deteriorating. In that case, it is worth pouring the plant out again and looking to see what it is doing, if anything.
All of this information may seem overly complex or daunting, but once you have a stabilized plant in a good environment, you will be able to enjoy it for years to come. However, things don't always work out as planned, and so in a future article, I will address what to do when your plant is dying. Orchids are a surprisingly resilient group of plants, so do not immediately despair when yours starts to look worse for the wear.
My fertilizer of choice for all of my non-blooming plants. Inexpensive, packed with micro-nutrients, and a little bit goes a long way. A clear winner in my book.