That so many orchids flower in the middle of winter always surprises me, but this is when three of the easiest to grow--and therefore most popular--do. It is a good time to visit an orchid nursery, or you can attend today's orchid sale at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Your purchases will benefit the arboretum.
If you are worried that you won't know what orchids to try and which to leave to the experts, plenty of experts will be on hand to answer questions. Look for their identifying badges.
Cymbidiums will be the most abundant at the sale and are the easiest to grow, taking considerable cold. None of the cymbidiums at the arboretum were damaged by this year's frosts, even though the temperature dropped below 28 degrees on several occasions.
Many in Full Flower
Many of the cymbidiums will be in full flower. As with all the orchids at this sale, those in flower will command the highest prices--from $10 to $20--while those that are not, or those that are less desirable to the collector, will be a real bargain--some costing as little as $1.
Cymbidiums grow best outside, and Earl Ross, the orchid specialist at the arboretum, says the secret to growing them is to give them enough light in early winter, before they flower. This is a tall order, because cymbidiums that get enough light look as if they are getting too much. Their foliage should not be a dark healthy-looking green, but should be yellowish, which in any other plant would be a sign of trouble. They should also be pot-bound; Ross says to look for large, strong plants that are well-rooted if you want the most flowers with the least wait.
The ideal situation for cymbidiums is under shade cloth (the arboretum uses shade cloth that screens out 55% of the sunlight), because while they need bright light they prefer it somewhat filtered. Under trees is not a good place, unless the tree is deciduous in winter and not too dark even when leafed-out in summer, but many cymbidium growers, especially near the coast, grow them in full sun in winter (November to March) and then shade them somewhat in summer.
Cymbidiums and most orchids in pots should be fertilized every month with a complete liquid fertilizer, and they should be kept moist all the time. Do not be in a hurry to repot should they seem to outgrow their container, because that will most likely keep them from blooming for a couple of years.
Another thing that almost all orchids need is good air movement--they do not like stagnant air. That is why you always see fans in orchid greenhouses, and it is one reason orchids can be tricky as indoor plants. The other is that they dislike dry air; indoor furnaces dry the air in winter and air conditioners dry it even more in summer. Trays filled with pebbles and water, misting the foliage and other means of providing humidity indoors really don't work, so your best bet is to keep orchids in the kitchen or the bathroom, the two most moisture-laden rooms in the house.
That's one place you can grow the two other orchids blooming now, the moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) and the lady's slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum). Both are among the best choices for indoor plants. The lady's slippers or "paphs," as they are called by orchid people, also do surprisingly well outdoors. It is surprising because looking at them you would think them impossible to grow. Their flowers are most elaborate and appear to be made of fragile wax that might melt at any moment, but they are quite durable.
Do Well Indoors
Outdoors, they need shade--just look at their dark-green foliage--and will grow with as little as 700 to 900 foot-candles of light, which is pretty dark and one reason they also do well indoors. Indoors, grow them on a north-facing windowsill in the bath or kitchen. If you have a window greenhouse that faces north, in the bath or kitchen, you have the perfect spot. (Most window-mounted greenhouses face the wrong way, but you can cover them with shade cloth--on the outside--to make them more habitable for orchids and other plants. The shade cloth should screen out 72% to 82% of the sun.)
This same situation would work for the moth orchids, so called because their flowers look like dainty moths hovering over the plant. These will not grow outdoors, because they do not like it hotter than 95 degrees, nor colder than 65, which is about what most people keep their homes. In the right place in the house, moth orchids are one of the easiest to grow, but remember they need humidity and bright light, but not direct sun.
Apple Pears Too
Though orchids are the stars of today's arboretum sale, the sale will also have some other hard-to-find plants, including some of the rarer deciduous magnolias (I brought home one named Alexandrina that has lovely flowers, a soft pink on the inside and a deep purple-pink on the outside), stag horn ferns, plumeria, philodendrons and apple pears.