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Phalaenopsis Are Easy To Grow

Hugo Freed

The following article first appeared in the American Orchid Society BULLETIN in May of 1976. It has been edited to reflect modern potting materials availability and nomenclature.

PHALAENOPSIS are certainly the most graceful and in addition are some of the most beautiful and spectacular of all orchids. The name, Phalaenopsis, is derived from the Greek and means "resembling a moth." It was so named because the white and pink species, growing on trees, bear many flowers on long, arched sprays and, at twilight, resemble flights of moths. Their natural range is mainly across the lowlands of one of the hottest and moistest parts of the world, stretching from Assam through Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The present day hybrids, when mature, generally bear from twelve to twenty (and quite often more) flowers, attractively spaced, and the spikes have a tendency to branch as they grow older and larger. Phalaenopsis schilleriana and Phal. stuartiana are two species that produce multitudes of flowers as do their hybrids on strong, mature plants. The small novelty types such as Phal. sumatrana, Phal. bellina/violacea, and Phal. lueddemanniana, etc., bear only a few flowers on much shorter stems. This is also generally true of their hybrids when crossed with each other.

Phal. schilleriana is arguably one of the
most beautiful species in the genus.

The plants are monopodial (a single growing stem that gets generally taller over time) in nature and the inflorescence arises on alternate sides between the leaves. As plants grow larger they may produce two flower spikes about the same time and, depending on their genetic background, spikes may be branched on mature plants. When these are through flowering, they can be cut back about one inch above a plump node. A new spike should appear in about six to seven weeks. The first flower should open in approximately another six weeks (most whites and pinks will respike as well as many novelty types but not all). These are the average times recorded by me in a series of experiments wherein I cut back one hundred spikes three years in succession. Of course, not every spike will produce another, although most of them should.

Very often Phalaenopsis plants will form many roots. These will grow as long as the plant is pushed up high in the pot, leaving a good supply of aerial roots. A vegetative division can be made by cutting the stump of the plant below these aerial roots and potting the upper plant with these roots inside the compost in another pot. The stub which is left has sufficient roots and should not be disturbed or repotted. Water only enough to keep the plant alive. One or more plantlets should start to form within one or two months, sometimes a little sooner. Watering this bottom section too heavily can easily result in rotting. As soon as the new plantlets are well-rooted, they may be carefully detached and planted. Remember that they are part of the same clone and should bear the same name as the original plant.

I may have dwelt too much on the foregoing details. However, I feel that in order to care for these plants properly one should know something about them. Phalaenopsis plants are really very easy to grow if you follow just a few fundamental rules. Of course, due to the fact that light and climatic conditions vary in different areas, I shall deal mainly with the conditions that exist in my growing area which is Malibu, California. Conditions here are ideal so that we do not have many of the problems that exist elsewhere. For instance, some of the growers in Bangkok, where it is hot and humid most of the time, try to grow phalaenopsis in pots. Even if grown in hanging pots, the pots themselves remain saturated with water and, too often, water remains in the crowns of the plants. Naturally, in this hot and humid climate, bacterial or fungus rot sets in and the plants meet rapid death. With roots exposed to the air (as in nature) and the plants tilted so that no water accumulates in the crown, losses can be held to a minimum.

Here are the details of the important requirement for the growing and care of Phalaenopsis plants as practiced by us in southern California.

Potting and Potting Media:
At our orchid range twenty-nine years ago, we potted phalaenopsis in osmunda fiber. At that time it was the most successful media in use in this country. However, osmunda fiber was quite expensive and the labor involved in potting was even more expensive (now - 2010, osmunda is practically impossible to find and other media are used almost exclusively). A few years later, when fir bark was introduced, we tried it and found it to be ideal. We have used it ever since. In most areas it costs less and the potting labor is considerably less. Over the years we have found that we could use ground-up bark in a size mixture from one-quarter inch to three-quarter inch for all size pots from three inch and up. For smaller pots I recommend seedling fir bark of one-eighth inch to one-quarter inch. The plants should be potted in pots one or two sizes larger than the plants because they grow quite rapidly, especially the roots.

Phal. amboinensis delights with its lovely
barred flowers. The clone shown here won an
HCC/AOS for Tom Coffey.

The time to repot depends upon the size of the plant, the condition of the bark and the climatic conditions. If the roots have taken over the pot, it is a good idea to repot as soon as feasible. Potting should be avoided, if possible, over the winter time due to the shorter daylight hours and less light intensity resulting in less photosynthesis. Sometimes a plant needs attention at this time and I recommend the following two courses of action:

1. If you can push your thumb or fingers far into the bark, it indicates that the bark has broken down. A good idea is to push down until the bark is firm once again. Then add fresh bark to fill the pot to its previous level. It can be repotted in the spring with completely fresh bark.
2. If the bark is firm and there are aerial roots, you can repot the plant, pot and all, in a large enough pot so that there will be enough room for additional bark around the smaller pot. Some of the aerial roots, if long enough, can bebrought down into the larger pot before adding the bark. Also a layer of bark on the bottom of the larger pot is necessary to bring the plant up to the proper height. It is also a good idea to follow this procedure, even without aerial roots, if a plant becomes top-heavy in the smaller pots. When the days become long enough, the plant can be removed, bare rooted and repotted in the larger pot. These plants will take off immediately if the weather conditions are right.

Phalaenopsis plants potted in fir bark grow better and flower sooner from flask in southern California, where ideal weather conditions usually prevail. Of course conditions vary in different parts of the country and other potting media such as osmunda fiber or shredded tree fern, etc., may prove satisfactory in these areas.

Light - Water - Feeding:
These three requirements go hand-in-hand. Although many growers recommend about 1000 foot-candles, I have found that our plants have achieved optimum growth at from 1250 to 1500 foot-candles. Of course with more light we get more photosynthesis. The plants not only can use more water and food; they require it. During cloudy or hazy spells, when our light intensity drops, cut down on water and fertilizer or the roots may rot or burn.

To me the success or failure of growing phalaenopsis is due more to the proper application of light or shade and water than anything else. At Malibu we generally water plants from 4" pots and larger about once a week, smaller pots about twice a week. As long as the drain holes remain open, any excess water will drain out at the bottom, making the fir bark virtually fool proof against excess watering. A good way to tell if a plant needs watering is to pick up a few pots of different sizes individually and feel the weight before watering and after watering. Since water is heavy you should notice a marked difference in weight between a nearly dry pot and a freshly watered one. Of course one must take into consideration a hot, dry wind which will dry out plants in a short time or a long, humid spell that prevents evaporation in the pots.

As to fertilizing, I have found fish emulsion to be ideal for the small collection, but several other water-soluble fertilizers are also available. Only a dilute solution should be used, preferably through a proportioner. All of these fertilizers have directions for their use printed on the container. Please follow directions. Doubling the strength will not double the rate of growth; it can damage or even kill the plant. In Malibu we fertilized our plants from March 1st through September 15th about once every week or two, depending on their condition. From September 15th to March 1st, we fertilized half as often. The longer days give not only longer light but better quality of light coming down through the spectrum, thus encouraging more photosynthesis. The opposite is true of the shorter days which provide poorer quality and intensity of light. In connection with light, some growers keep their Phalaenopsis houses much darker than I recommend, even as dark as 800 or 900 foot-candles. The plants have beautiful, dark green leaves, but they are soft and droopy and the flowers have much less substance.

Air Movement and Humidity:
In nature, Phalaenopsis plants grow on trees about two-thirds of the way to the top, anchored to the bark of the tree by aerial roots. Around this height, the branches usually thin out sufficiently to allow good air movement and a fair amount of light. Due to the evaporation of surface water, the air is generally sufficiently humid for good growth. To approximate these conditions, I suggest around 70% humidity with gentle air movement provided by fans. A good air movement throughout the entire greenhouse should prevent Botrytis from ruining the flowers.

I have found that phalaenopsis grow best with minimum temperature around 63-65F at night and maximum day time temperatures of around 75-82F. In areas where night temperatures stay above 65F for any length of time, many plants may not initiate flower spikes during this period. Cooling the greenhouse to 60F or even to 55F at night for two to four weeks should prove quite fruitful in initiation of spikes. These plants can grow reasonably well at night temperatures as low as 55F. However, they will grow much more slowly and take longer for the flowers to open.

Pest Control:
These plants are more pest free than most genera, but I recommend a regular, controlled, preventative schedule to prevent damage from spider mites, thrips, scale, mealy bugs, aphids, ants, etc (Editor's note: While these sorts of prophylatic spraying routines were recommended long ago we now know that they rapidly foster the development of resistance. Pesticides are best applied at the first signs of trouble and two or three different pesticides with different active modes should be used in rotation to avoid the development of insect resistance). Far worse is the damage these insects can do by carrying virus from plant to plant.

Modern hybrids such as Phal.
Brandy Parfait have won the hearts
of a whole new generation of orchid
lovers. This is 'Plantation' AM/AOS.

Pots should be spaced on a bench to allow adequate ventilation. When seedlings are potted or repotted from smaller sizes, the seedlings are generally small enough so that the pots can be placed on the bench touching each other with enough space between plants to allow good air movement. However, when potted at the beginning of spring, the seedlings grow quite rapidly and very soon begin to grow over the edge of the pot and across the adjoining pots. If they are not then thinned out, the top growth will soon hide the pots from view. This happened quite often in our seedling houses because good help was extremely hard to find and we grew so many seedlings that we did not have enough bench space. Imagine seedlings repotted in 3" pots reaching an overall leaf spread of 6" to 8" and those in 4" pots reaching an overall leaf spread of 8" to 12" in about three or four months of good growing weather. This caused us three problems. First the plants did not receive adequate ventilation and occasionally we lost a few plants from rot. Second, the heavy covering of leaves would sometimes divert the water from some plants and they would dry up and die from lack of water. Third, and the most annoying, the roots would grow out over the edge of the pot or through the drain holes and continue to grow along the bench or into the adjoining pots. When I would reach over to pick up one pot, I usually found that I was pulling up several rows of pots along with the pot I wanted. I had to cut roots all around so that I could lift the one pot freely. Imagine the trouble in trying to fill a few orders involving even a few seedlings. For the hobbyist with limited bench space, I suggest spacing your seedlings far enough apart, three-inch pots with about three-inch spacing between pots, four-inch, with about four-inch spacing, and five-inch with about five-inch spacing. All phalaenopsis seedlings should flower in no larger than five-inch pots and many will flower in four-inch and even in three-inch pots.

There is a saying that orchids "thrive on neglect." Nothing can be further from the truth. Most orchids can tolerate a certain amount of neglect, some more than others. But I know of no orchid that will not do better if properly cared for.(Editor's note: while orchids do not really thrive on complete neglect the intent of that axiom is that plants should not be babied to death and really applies to overwatering.)

Talking to Plants:
Do you know of anyone that claims that he or she talks to their plants and that they grow and flower better? Well, I do. I have had customers that not only talk to them but give them individual pet names. I have read articles about plants responding even to what a man was thinking about them. However, I still have to be convinced that any plant has a brain, auditory nerves, etc. I believe that those who talk to plants are successful for an entirely different reason. They add a secret ingredient to their care of the plants - love. I don't just mean a love for plants and flowers; I mean that kind of love that looks on each plant they own as a distinct living entity with its own individual "personality." They rejoice when it is growing well, they grieve when it is not. In loving plants in this way, they are bound to be much more observant of their "children" and thus will notice almost immediately any changes in the health of the plant and take appropriate action.

I have left the following to the last because it is fairly new and can be of extreme importance. This is the growing of phalaenopsis and other orchids mounted on slabs of cork bark and hung from rafters in the greenhouse or affixed to posts or beams or greenhouse walls. They are easy to water and fertilize by spraying the roots, although better success may be attained by also spraying the leaves. This eliminates repotting and all compost problems. Dr. George Kennedy, who lives only a few miles away, has been gradually converting his many thousands of plants to cork bark and he is almost through with this project. His plants grow better and bloom faster, including some difficult-to-flower ones. The January-February, 1976 issue of THE ORCHID DIGEST contains his article titled "Growing Orchids as Epiphytes." His success has been phenomenal. If a copy of this issue is not available to you, I suggest that you order one from THE ORCHID DIGEST.

I have retired from Arthur Freed Orchids and no longer have any connection with them. Where I have used the words "I" or "we," it alludes to the twenty-eight years I was in charge.

I wish to emphasize once again that there are no fixed and rigid rules for growing phalaenopsis. I have tried to give you a picture of the way we grew these plants in southern California. One must vary these conditions to suit any area where different conditions prevail. Phalaenopsis are really easy to grow. A few simple rules, a little common sense, a good observing eye and, most of all, patience, should be all the tools one needs. The results are well worth it. Remember that even the most complex Phalaenopsis hybrid is only, comparatively, a few steps away from the species, and species must be extremely hardy to survive in the jungle. I maintain that it takes a genius to kill a Phalaenopsis plant. Please don't be a genius! 29500 Heathercliff Road, #277, Malibu, California 90265.