Orchid Care But Make It Easy: Your 101 Guide To The Blooming Beauties
Orchids captivate us with their delicate smells, vibrant colors, and unique shapes. But among houseplant enthusiasts, they've gained a reputation for being a bit of a pain. (Anything that beautiful must be finicky, right?)
While it's true that some types of the flowering plant require special care, others are pretty easy to tend to at home—no portable greenhouse or expensive LED grow lights required. Here, orchid lovers with a combined hundreds of plants between them share their top tips for nursing these beauties into bloom again and again.
Types of orchids.
There are more than 25,000 types of orchids growing in the wild and even more plant hybrids out there. This sheer variety is part of their appeal. "There are so many different types of orchids that you could grow them for your entire life and still never get around to everything," orchid hobbyist Rafael Furtado tells mbg. (Furtado should know; he's been growing orchids for the past 20 years and currently has about 100 in his New York City apartment.)
But even though there are lots of orchids out there, it doesn't mean a beginner should try their hand at growing all of them. "Just because it has a beautiful flower doesn't mean that it's right for you," says Furtado.
If you're new to orchids, the best type for you will likely be the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. These orchids—named for their petal shape that resembles moths wings—can flower in most household conditions, says Kelly McCracken of High Desert Orchids.
You can find Phalaenopsis in most plant shops and online retailers, and they tend to be the most affordable orchids around. Their colorful and long-lasting blooms are also pet-friendly.
What the orchid symbolizes.
Cultures through time have imparted special meanings onto orchids. Ancient Greeks saw them as symbols of fertility, while they have long been considered lucky in Asian culture and feng shui philosophy. Today, giving an orchid as a gift is still considered a token of love and luck, and different color blooms are thought to carry their own unique message on top of that. (In the language of flowers, yellow orchids represent friendship, for example.)
In an at-home collection, Furtado notes that orchids can remind us to slow down and be more mindful, patient, and caring: "I always say that you don't grow orchids; they grow you."
Caring for the plant.
Now, let's get down to what an orchid needs to thrive in your home. These care tips are geared toward lower-maintenance orchid types like the Phalaenopsis. More unique and rare varieties require their own special care.
First things first: Orchids won't grow in the same all-purpose potting soil you give your other plants. In fact, they won't grow in soil at all.
Most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they tend to grow on the surface of trees or rocks and get their nutrients from the air and rainwater. We need to recreate these conditions at home using breathable potting mediums like bark, lava rocks, or sphagnum moss.
When deciding which one is best for you, orchid collector Terry Richardson of The Black Thumb recommends considering your habits as a plant parent. People who travel often might want to go with sphagnum moss because it holds on to water for longer, while those who are prone to overwatering would do best with a faster-drying option like lava rock.
Once you choose your medium, Furtado recommends planting your orchid in a terracotta clay pot since it's nice and porous and will deliver plenty of air to your orchid's roots.
"A lot of beginners overwater orchids," notes Furtado, "and orchids really hate to be overwatered." Be sure to only give your orchid a drink once its potting medium feels dry to the touch or its roots look white and shriveled. This means the plant is thirsty! Once it gets water, those roots will perk right back up and turn green.
The frequency of watering depends on your climate, but you likely won't need to water more than once a week during spring and summer, and even less in the winter and fall.
There are two watering methods you can use: Water from below by placing a tray of water underneath your orchid and allowing the plant to soak up what it wants. Or, give it a good soak in the sink and allow excess water to drain out the bottom. It's important to let water flush through your plant to rinse out any excess salts in the pot, which orchids are very sensitive to.
Whichever method you choose, use tepid, room temperature water. That old wives' tale about placing an ice cube in your orchids? It's a total myth, and the cold will only shock the tropical plants.
Orchids crave bright light but not direct sun. Set up your plant near an east-facing window that gets strong morning sun, and it should be happy. If you live in a darker home or apartment, McCracken notes that you can also set up your orchid underneath an LED light bar, and it should do just fine.
Different types of orchids have different temperature requirements, but lower-maintenance Phalaenopsis tend to be fine in normal household temperatures that fall between 50 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many orchids crave the moist, humid air of a tropical rain forest, so the average home will be a bit too dry for them. You can increase the moisture level around your plant by placing it near a humidifier, putting it on a rock tray that you fill with water, or occasionally misting its stem, leaves, and any aerial roots that you see.
"Air circulation is really important for orchids," says Furtado. Again, these are plants that depend on the air around them for nutrients, so it's not a bad idea to set them up next to a fan or an open window that gets some breeze. This will also help dry out your plant between waterings and reduce the risk of mold or root rot.
Fertilizing your orchid can help promote steady growth and blooming. McCracken says most orchids will do well with a well-balanced fertilizer (i.e., 13-11-11).
If it's well cared for, a typical moth orchid will bloom every 12 months or so. Richardson notes that exposing your plants to significantly colder temperatures at night than during the day (while still keeping it within that 50 to 85 range) can help expedite the blooming process a bit. Otherwise, you just have to be patient and let the orchid do its thing.
When it does reward you with a bright, beautiful bloom, do your best not to stress your plant out. "While the orchid is in bloom, you really want to try to maintain the conditions that it's in for as long as you can to maximize the bloom cycle," he says. If you do, the plant can stay blooming for up to six months. After that, its flowers will dry and fall, leaving only a thin stem exposed.
It may not be much to look at, but a plant in this state is still well worth keeping. "Those blooms will come back in due time if you put your plant in the right conditions," Richardson says. (He's actually had a lot of success rescuing abandoned orchids from Dumpsters and nursing them back into bloom!)
Tips to keep in mind.
Phew, got all that down? Here are a few last-minute tips to keep in mind before you set out to care for your orchid:
- Pests like mealybugs and aphids can make their way to your orchid plant, so it's worth keeping a close eye on it and checking for signs of these critters daily. At the first sign of pests, wipe the affected area down with neem oil or another insecticide. "It's always about being very proactive. That's how you end up growing really good plants, just being on top of things," says Furtado.
- A well-maintained orchid plant can last years—or even decades, so don't worry once its blooms wilt and fall. It's not dead; this is just part of its life cycle.
- Orchids are far from a "set it and forget it" plant, and there's always more to learn about them. That's why Furtado recommends treating orchid care as a lifelong learning experience. It may take you years to successfully achieve your first bloom, but it'll be well worth the effort. "It can take a lot of time and a lot of patience, but it's very rewarding," he says.
Keeping orchids at home requires a bit of know-how, but it's doable once you have the basics down. And with so many colors and shapes to choose from, growing these endlessly interesting plants is a great way to flex your green thumb.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.