We tend to think of orchids as delicate plants that need to be kept indoors because of their fragility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most orchids suffer when grown indoors and will refuse to flower due to lack of light. Whereas the habitat of most orchids – like that of most common houseplants — is the tropical rainforest, there is a significant difference between the niches they inhabit. Common indoor plants live on the forest floor where light is limited while orchids are typically perched on branches high up in tree canopies where light is abundant. Also, keep in mind that the shadiest outdoor exposure is a lot sunnier than the brightest indoor exposure.
The only orchids you can reliably grow indoors – and the ones most heavily sold – are moth orchids, or Phalaenopsis, since they require less light than the vast majority of epiphytic or tree-dwelling orchids. Nevertheless, moth orchids still need 10-12 hours of good ambient light in order to thrive. Moth orchids are also more water needy than a number of other orchids as they lack pseudobulbs, water-storage organs that develop from underground stems or rhizomes and appear as swollen structures above the soil surface from which leaves sprout. Two other orchid types that you may have success growing indoors are lady’s slippers (Paphiopedilum) and the sometimes fragrant corsage orchids (Cattleya).
Most orchids, including many types found at nurseries and home improvement centers, are meant to be grown outdoors unless you can provide added light indoors in the form of fluorescent tubes or LED bulbs. The latter can be screwed into gooseneck table lamps where you want to grow plants in a light-deprived corner of a room. Procure multiple-head gooseneck lamps with LED lighting through online vendors to maximize the area for growing orchids or other plants where natural light is limited.
Yes, temperature is the major limiting growth factor for many orchids and so you cannot grow them outdoors, with a few notable exceptions, in our interior valleys. But by the time you journey south to Orange County, in any event, there are a large number of orchid species you can grow outdoors in containers, even if most will need shade cloth to protect them from the hot sun. To learn more about growing orchids outdoors in Southern California, visit fascinationoforchids.com. To find orchids for purchase, visit orchidwire.com where a list of orchid growers throughout California is provided.
I have witnessed five orchid species growing outdoors in the San Fernando Valley. Three of them were in the ground, one was growing on a tree trunk, and the other was thriving in containers. Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata) was the most successful of those growing in the ground, as it had completely covered a front yard in Sherman Oaks. It is generally considered to be the toughest orchid, does well in both sunny and shady exposures, and will bloom now until the end of summer if not beyond. Its flowers are fuchsia to purple and could pass for miniature Cattleyas, to which they are unrelated. I also observed a pink rock orchid (Dendrobium kingianum) in a small planter next to a friend’s front door, and a large swatch of yellow, orange, red, and purple reed stem orchids (Epidendrum) in a planter bathed in half-day sun.
I once saw a Laelia, which is a Cattleya relative, affixed to the trunk of a cycad in a garden in Burbank. Native primarily to temperate Mexican rainforest, Laelias are more cold-hardy than most epiphytic orchids and may be found growing outdoors as far north as San Francisco.
The orchids most suitable for container-growing outdoors in our inland valleys are Cymbidiums and they are frequently encountered on gardeners’ patios in these locales. They bloom in winter and spring. Although they should be fertilized twice a month for maximum bloom, they will yield some flowers even when you completely forget about them. They produce pseudobulbs, from which new plants will grow, which makes it possible to propagate them by division at the roots. However, keep them in their pots as long as possible since crowded plants bloom the heaviest and it may take years for new divisions, which should include at least three pseudobulbs, to flower. Keep your cymbidium containers off your patio deck since they are susceptible to fungus infection when stationed there. Ideally, you would find a way of hanging them from an overhead beam or at least placing them on a wood-slatted table.
The orchid family is one of the largest families of plants on earth. While most are tree-dwelling epiphytes, there are also lithophytes, which are species that grow on rocks, and terrestrials or ground-dwelling orchids. There are more than 20,000 orchid species, which is more than twice the number of all bird species on earth and four times the number of all mammal species. It is thus reasonable to assume that orchids may be found almost anywhere if you take the time to look for them. There are 31 orchid species native to California, with each of our state’s counties boasting one or more of them.
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If you ever had an indoor plant in your company office, there is a good chance it was an aroid. Aroids include philodendrons, anthuriums, aglaonemas, caladiums, spathiphyllums and dieffenbachias. Pothos or devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum), whose leaves are heart-shaped and variegated — either green and yellow or green and white — is the most widely grown aroid, possessing the status of America’s favorite houseplant. With occasional fertilization and weekly watering, pothos will quickly grow right out of the pot and start trailing across your desk or down the side of your bookcase.
The flamingo lily (Anthurium andraeanum) is the quintessential representative of the aroid group on account of its unmistakable spathe and spadix, the ornamental complex found in all aroids. The flamingo lily’s heart-shaped, shiny, vinyl-textured spathe is either red, pink, white, or chocolate; it surrounds a golden yellow spike known as a spadix. The actual flowers of an aroid appear as tiny protuberances growing out of the spadix. Flamingo lilies bloom virtually all the time as long as they are regularly fertilized with a balanced fertilizer such as 14-14-14 (percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and receive excellent light. Dwarf flamingo lilies are sometimes planted outdoors as a ground cover but they are frost sensitive so should be brought indoors by mid-October.
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum) is an aroid with a white spathe and spadix that is generally grown indoors but will also perform well in frost-protected outdoor locations. Calla lily (Zantedeschia) is a white-spathed beauty for the ornamental garden that can grow in any soil type and does not require fertilization.
Tip of the Week: If you are seeking drought-tolerant candidates for spilling over block walls that will flower from now until fall, I have a few suggestions. If you like passionate blazing color, firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis) would be your obvious choice. This beauty offers a flaming blanket of deep red-orange in addition to delicate sea-green foliage that will remind you of horsetail (Equisetum spp.). If you prefer a trailing summer blaze of orange and red, you will want to choose Mexican cardinal flower (Lobelia laxiflora). This species belongs to that select group of what we like to call bulletproof, or virtually unkillable, plants. Mexican cardinal flower will trail over a wall but it is also an aggressive ground cover that will cover a vast expanse with a minimum of water although the more water it gets the faster it spreads. If you have a cooler summer experience in mind and would like, instead, drapes of refreshing lavender-blue to gaze upon, then you will want to select ground morning glory (Convolvulus maritanicus) for your block wall covering. This may be the most indefatigable spillover plant you can find, displaying a tapestry of closely-knit flowers that leave no room to imagine there could be a better alternative for the purpose it serves.
For more information about area plants and gardens, go to Joshua Siskin’s website, thesmartergardener.com. Send questions and photos to Joshua@perfectplants.com.