Diggin' In: How orchids can become part of your 'family'

April 6, 2015

Plants often become more than just plants; they turn into loved family members.

Hobbyist orchid growers like Joelle Miller feel exactly that way.

In San Diego, her first phalaenopsis orchid quickly turned into several and then into a dozen, until her second bedroom was a plant nursery. Then, she expanded her orchid collection outdoors.

"My fabulous landlord at the time even went so far as to adjust the sprinkler system to help water my ‘babies,’" says Miller, now a Tropical House gardener at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va., .

Joelle became the person people would give their ailing plants to and "expect me to fix them," she recounts. "When my husband got orders to relocate to Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago, I knew I couldn’t take them with me, so we had a garage sale and I screened prospective owners before I allowed them to buy my favorites.

"It broke my heart to leave them behind, but I felt good knowing that I passed them on to people who would love them as much as I did. I feel like I’ve come full circle in my horticultural career in that I’m now taking care of more orchids than I ever dreamed of when I started on this crazy journey."

At the Tropical House, Miller helps care for more than 150 different orchids on display with begonias, gingers, palms and bromeliads. The orchids are there on loan from members of the Tidewater Orchid Society, including its president Frank Drew, who has about 1,500 in his Virginia Beach greenhouse. Orchids in the Tropical House also come from the Kaplan Orchid Conservatory at Old Dominion University, also in Norfolk. The display is a great chance to see the different kind of orchids that can thrive in your own home.

"I’ve tried to choose the types that will do best in the conditions we can offer ranging from low light- needing lady slipper orchids to bright light-demanding reed orchids and everything in between," says Miller.

At the Kaplan Conservatory, orchids thrive in climate-controlled greenhouses that opened in 2008 with about 750 plants that the late Norfolk physician Arthur Kaplan donated from his personal collection. Frank Kirchner, who cares for 500 orchids in his backyard greenhouse in Norfolk, says he’s forever indebted to Kaplan for his mentorship and friendship.

"Our friendship started at a New Year’s brunch," he writes in an email.

"I had managed to not kill one of my first five or so orchids. Arthur, with a famous twinkle in his eye said, ‘Everyone has to lose a few orchids before they learn how to grow them.’ He then asked if I poked around and looked at the roots. Responding affirmatively, his eyes twinkled even more as he looked at his beautiful wife, Phyllis, also an expert grower, and said, ‘He’s really hooked!’"

"Arthur and I would spend wonderful summer mornings at his beautiful greenhouses repotting orchids; exploring different light intensities, different growing media, the same orchid growing in differing conditions," he said. "With a little attention and loving neglect orchids thrive and give back so much more than they require."

In Richmond, Va., the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s conservatory features an entire wing dedicated to a collection of 1,500 orchids, according to spokeswoman Beth Monroe, and there are 200-300 orchids always in bloom at any given time. "It’s a lush paradise with a waterfall and tropical companion plants," she says.

While the common moth orchid, a phalaenopsis, is the variety you typically see in garden centers and grocery stores, there are other orchids — the familiar corsage-like Cymbidium and Lady slippers, or Paphiopediliums — well suited for home environments, according to orchid experts.

In general, most orchids do well with daytime temperatures 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit and low to medium light — no direct sun, according to growers. The worst thing you can do is overwater an orchid because its roots will quickly rot. Instead, let your orchid get almost dry before watering it thoroughly, and then let it drain completely. Use a good orchid fertilizer according to directions on the label, and consider having an expert assess and repot it as needed.

But the best recommendation is to join a local orchid group to learn firsthand from members who have already been successfully growing these beautiful plants, according to Corinne Holland, a member of the Peninsula Orchid Society of Virginia.




Associated Press