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The ‘chids are all right!

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With Orchid Societies throughout the country in the throes of presenting their annual spring shows  many people will be marvelling marvel at beautiful blooms cultivated by experienced hands.   

However, even garden-variety, green-thumbed enthusiasts can give these beauties a ‘grow’ if provided with the right advice and assistance, as president of the Howick Orchid Society, Glenn Poffley explains:

What are orchids anyway?

The orchid family is one of the two largest groups of flowering plants on the planet with well in excess of 25,000 species in nearly 900 genera listed by the Royal Horticultural Society.

These plants are defined by their unique flower structure and adaptations to encourage insects, birds, moths and other creatures to assist in pollination.

Growing worldwide in many climates, the only places they are not present are the polar ice caps and deserts. For this reason there is no ‘easy’ growing guide to orchids. They can grow anywhere from hot tropical areas of South East Asia, to very cool mountainous regions such as the Andes.

Orchids are often available for sale in nurseries and sold as house plants. The most common and well known of these is the cymbidium; there is a large export cut-flower market for this genus.

Another common variety – the moth orchid – is a warm grower that originates in the tropics, many orchids grown by orchid club members are cool growers, suited to our conditions.

As cool growers originate from countries that have warm, wet summers and cool, dry winters, here in New Zealand growers need to simulate these conditions, necessitating some form of protection from the elements, especially in winter.

Some amateur growers grow more than 30 different genera including cattleyas, dendrobiums, paphiopedilums (slipper orchids), oncidiums (dancing ladies) and many more.

Ultimately there is no way of telling exactly what conditions a particular type of orchid prefers except by trial and error.

How, where and when to plant

While it is essential to learn where to grow particular types of orchid, and how to look after them, with such a diverse family there is no ‘one size fits fix all’ approach.

Orchids are generally grown as pot plants and not in the garden (except in trees). Unlike most garden or indoor plants they are generally not grown in the usual potting mix sold in shops. Instead, use a very free-draining mix, such as bark.

The purists will often carefully select and prepare their own favourite mixes. The reason for this is that many of the orchids we grow are epiphytes or lithophytes in their natural habitat.
This means they grow attached to trees or rocks, although they are not parasitic and do no harm to the host plant. Their roots serve two purposes: first is to attach the plant to the tree (or similar) and the second to absorb nutrients.

Orchids are sometimes mounted on pieces of tree fern or other material, which is similar to how they grow in nature. As there are other terrestrial species, however, not all are suited to this method.

If grown in the incorrect mix and they are too wet, these plants will very quickly succumb to root rot.

Never sit orchids in a tray of water, as they love air movement around their roots. Orchids have adapted to survive in wet and dry cycles.


Many growers think orchids come from dense tropical forests and are always shaded. In fact, orchids do require a reasonable amount of light to flower, as they grow high in the tree canopy where it is quite bright.

Without the correct amount of light orchids will not flower. Place orchids in a bright area, away from direct sunlight.

Nutrients are needed by all plants, but orchids require a lot less than others. Strong fertilisers will burn orchid roots, resulting in root loss and often death. So, when it comes to fertilising, use little and often.

Orchids may not flower for other reasons; if a warm grower is being grown in too cool conditions, for example.

Some orchids will only flower on new growths while others only on canes that are older and have lost their leaves.


If in doubt, don’t water! Generally orchids will be putting on most of their growth during spring and summer; this is when watering is most important. During winter, many will rest and too much water can be fatal.

There are two types of growth habit of orchids. Many have a ‘pseudo bulb’ and can store water and nutrients for the dry season. The other type – which includes the moth orchid – does not, and needs more regular watering.

Some orchids can grow very quickly and will need dividing as the older parts die off. This can be a very simple exercise with some varieties, but may be fatal for others if not carried out correctly. Many orchids do not tolerate root disturbance.

Flowers should be cut early rather than left on the plant to die off. This encourages new growth quickly and earlier flowering.

Pest control

As with any plant, orchids are susceptible to diseases and insect attack. Fungal diseases and insects can be controlled by any of the commonly available sprays sold, but care is always advised and instructions on the package should be closely followed.

Some of the most common pests are scale and mealy bugs. These can be quite difficult to control as they will often live down in the mix, as well as on the plant where they can be well hidden in the folds of leaves.

Aphids and fungal spots can also damage flowers and slugs and snails love the fresh, new shoots.


Countries such as Taiwan export millions of orchid flowers, seedlings and pot plants every year, at a value of more than $100 million. Orchid pot plants are also very popular in Europe, USA and Japan.

Cut flowers are sought after for their long-lasting qualities, distinct perfume, often spectacular blooms and even vanilla pods, from the vanilla orchid. And, in some countries orchids are used for medicinal purposes.

To learn more about growing orchids, or purchase unusual or rare plants from specialist growers, consult your local Orchid Society.

Click here for details of upcoming annual orchid spring shows occurring nationwide over the coming months; or here to view more photos.   

Contributed by Glenn Poffley (Howick Orchid Society)