Orchids: More than just a houseplant

By Andy McIndoe

As the popularity of other houseplants declined during the past few decades orchids moved in to colonise their habitat.

Central heating transformed the domestic habitat, bringing constant warmth and the ideal conditions for the moth orchids, phalaenopsis; exotic beauties that would have been regarded a tricky hot house orchids that could only be grown by the privileged few fifty years ago.

As propagation techniques enabled their mass production the cost of the plants plummeted; they became as affordable as bunch of flowers, but much longer lasting.

The phalaenopsis, commonly known as moth orchid has become the flower we know as an orchid, whereas in reality it is just one genus in one of the largest families of flowering plants.

There are around 28,000 recognised species of orchids across more than 700 genera, and of course countless cultivars, the result of intensive breeding and plant selection.

Although associated with the tropics, orchids are widespread throughout the continents in just about every habitat except the coldest.

The Victorians put them on the map when plant hunters were sent out by wealthy patrons to collect orchids from the jungles where they were most profuse.

In the early days of orchid mania, interest in these flowers was not regarded as a suitable for ladies. Orchids were regarded as natives of humid jungles occupied by half naked savages. Their flowers were somewhat suggestive, symbols of masculinity and fertility. The derivation of the name orchid comes from the Greek “orkhis”, a testicle.

However, Queen Victoria dismissed the myths by visiting the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth to view the orchids. After her approval they were regarded as flowers that could be appreciated by all.

Orchids have evolved in close relationship with insects and have developed ingenious ways to effect pollination and the proliferation of the species. The orchid enthusiast avoids this pollination by insects,  as the blooms fade once fertilised.

A bee landing on the lip of a cymbidium bloom and entering in search of nectar is certain to fertilise and result in the death of the flower.

Orchids produce copious quantities of dust like seeds. These usually only germinate in the presence of suitable mycorrhizal fungi in the ground or on the branches of host plants. Another fascinating adaptation of these plants that are determined to secure their future success.


Fifty years ago, before orchids colonised our homes, some orchids were grown successfully in cool greenhouses. The cymbidiums were regarded as the easiest: “beginner’s orchids”.

These are still wildly popular as long-lasting cut flowers, the blooms surviving for 6-8 weeks on the plants. Like most orchids, the plants are hardly things of beauty with their clumps of pseudobulbs and long phormium-like leaves.

They like cool, light conditions and are best inside for winter but outside in semi-shade in summer. These terrestrial (ground-growing) orchids need a distinct temperature drop between day and night in summer to initiate flowers. They are best left on the dry side between watering.


The disa orchids, natives of tropical and southern Africa are also terrestrial, but love wet, even boggy conditions.

Most have incredibly bright, almost neon blooms and they are ideal for the more experienced orchid enthusiast that is looking for a challenge!


The slipper orchids, pahiopedilums, previously called cypripediums, are also terrestrial orchids. There are cool growing and tropical species. Like all orchids they require special growing media rather than soil based composts; they are trickier to grow and it is hard to get the watering right. Overwatering results in root death.

The flowers are “marmite”, some hate them, and some love them. The blooms are prized by creative flower decorators and they are traditional in Madeiran homes at Christmas.


Phalaenopsis are epiphytic orchids which cling to the branches of trees or on to rocks. They have aerial roots that take moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere.

They are grown in pots simply for convenience.

A great many other orchids such as oncidiums and cattleyas and their relatives are also epiphytic.


The oncidiums are generally cooler growing and are relatively easy. The flower stems are produced at the side of the pseudobulbs and the blooms are carried in sprays way above, or hanging from the plants.

Few other flowers do more to attract insects by their appearance than these delicate beauties.


The cattleyas boast some of the most flamboyant, glamorous blooms in the orchid world. These are the flowers of Hollywood corsages: silk stockings, mink coats and divine decadence.

Often large, frilly, delicate but extravagant they are easier to grow than their appearance suggests. The tall, slender pseudobulbs are topped with unattractive leathery leaves. The most recently produced bulbs are topped with a sheath from which the flowerbuds emerge.

So why are these other orchids not as popular as the Phalaenopsis?

Most other types only flower once during the year, whereas the moth orchids often seem to flower almost continuously.

Most others require just a little more attention to replicate their natural growing conditions, whereas the Phalaenopsis is better adapted to the way we live.

Phalaenopsis are more manageable plants with leathery succulent leaves rather than pseudobulbs. They have become easy to propagate and quickly reach flowering size.

But more than anything it’s perhaps because their blooms are “pretty” and easier for us mere mortals to understand.

Andy McIndoe

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