With about 28,000 species that fall under 763 genera, plus countless hybrids, Orchidaceae is one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants. In fact, there are four times as many species of orchids as there are species of mammals. The genus name Orchis comes from the Ancient Greek word for “testicle,” which is ironic since the blooms resemble more…feminine qualities. These perennial plants can live indefinitely with proper care, but they’re also pretty easy to murder if you don’t know what you’re doing. Before we explore the most popular orchids, let’s go over some quick tips to protect your investment.
Orchids aren’t like other houseplants. For one, you don’t pot them in soil. Like air plants, orchids are epiphytes, which means they naturally grow in the wild by clinging to tree bark. Not only do they not need soil to grow, but it will suffocate their roots. Instead, a special orchid potting mix promotes sufficient drainage and airflow.
These picky plants are also particular about their pots. According to rePotme, “It is believed that orchid roots engage in photosynthesis, which makes sense given that they grow exposed to dappled light as the orchid hangs from a tree, and clear pots make photosynthesis by orchid roots possible.” Instead of your run-of-the-mill terra cotta clay pot, choose a small, clear plastic pot that offers plenty of drainage. Stems have to be staked so the blooms don’t topple over.
For a happy plant, place it in an eastern or southern-facing window. Orchids like “bright shade,” which means diffused natural light. This also applies to outdoors—if you want to give them some fresh air in the warm summer months (these tropical plants live for a balance of humidity and airflow)—don’t place them in direct sunlight. Another good way to kill an orchid is by over-watering, which can make its roots rot. Just give them a drink once a week (at the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves and blooms). You also have to keep them fed. According to the American Orchid Society, “Experienced orchid growers fertilize their orchids weakly, weekly” with a balanced formula such as 20-20-20.
Often used in corsages, this genus of orchid is popular for its wide variety of brightly colored beautiful blooms. With three sepals and three petals, one of which is modified to form a prominent labellum (lip), the aptly named Cattleya labiata is one of the most commonly cultivated species. Some hybrids have freckles, streaks, or other bi-color features, while some varieties are quite fragrant.
Commonly known as boat orchids for their schooner-shaped lips, Cymbidium orchids flowers come in just about every color, including burgundy, pink, yellow, purple, green, orange, red, blush, brown, and blue. Often large, hairy, and unruly, this genus produces its blossoms on tall spikes that can hold up to 35 blooms, which last up to two months. This easy to care for orchid is popular with newbies and can actually be grown outdoors as well as inside. According to HGTV, Cymbidiums can thrive in containers on a shaded patio or under a tree in mild regions almost year-round.
Dendrobiums are one of the most popular genera in horticulture. Out of thousands of species, the Dendrobium nobile is the most widespread ornamental orchid. Commonly known as the noble dendrobium, it produces impressive colorful blooms in spring and in winter. Big, beautiful blooms vary in shape and color, but the most common varieties are white, yellow, or lavender. These Asian beauties like it cooler and less humid than their more tropical counterparts.
Appropriately nicknamed the pansy orchid for its appearance, Miltonias are also known for their fragrance. Colorful blooms, including yellow, white, pink, purple, and red last from late spring into summer.
Also known as “dancing ladies,” Oncidium orchids are one of the most diverse orchid types. Oncidiums are available in a large assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors, including yellow, tricolor, and the cocoa-scented red sharry baby. Their gracefully long, branching sprays packed with flowers usually bloom in the fall.
Paphiopedilums, or Paphs for short, are also known as Lady Slippers because of their little petal pouch that resembles a ballet shoe. Single blossoms range in color from white, green, yellow, pink, and red to earth tones and even black, while freckles, stripes, and bristly hairs are common. Unlike many orchids, Paphs actually prefer some soil, as they are terrestrial in nature. Also unlike many orchids, they don’t have pseudobulbs to act as water reserves, so you have to make sure they’re getting enough water, but not too much of course.
Commonly referred to as moth orchids for their wing-like petals, Phalaenopsis (pronounced fayl-eh-NOP-sis) orchids are some of the most widely available. Sturdy and resilient, Phals are easy to grow at home and stay in bloom for a long time. From white to spotted, their large, lush flowers come in a variety of colors.
Phragmipediums have a lady slipper-like pouch, framed by what The Spruce describes as “Fu Manchu mustache petals”. Unlike most orchids, Phragmipediums love water and actually prefer to have “wet feet”.
Depending on the variety, orchids can bloom at least once a year. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will. If your orchid fails to bloom, it may not be getting enough sun. According to the American Orchid Society, “Leaf color indicates if the amount of light is adequate. The lush, rich, dark green of most houseplants is not desirable in orchid leaves. A grassy green color (light or medium green with yellowish tones) means the plant is receiving sufficient light to bloom.” Once the spike is finished blooming, you’re supposed to lop it off and repot the plant so new growth can emerge.