- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Anyone who remembers the philodendrons of the '60s, the hanging ferns of the '70s or the ficus trees of the '80s knows and

loves houseplants for the living greenery they bring to a home.

The '90s, however, brought about a revolution in decorating with indoor plants. The '90s brought orchids.

"Orchids are the hottest houseplant going these days in decorating circles," says Linda White, a member of the National Capital Orchid Society. "If you go into a show house, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an orchid.

"There is no more elegant flower," she says. "Many orchids, particularly the phalaenopsis, bloom in the winter months," cheering up the house when the weather is the bleakest.

"[Phalaenopsis] are extremely easy to grow in the average home," she says. "They require the same conditions as African violets, meaning that they will thrive in east or western-exposure window light and typical home temperatures."

Ms. White is newsletter editor for the Maryland Orchid Society, of which she also is a member.

She acknowledges it sometimes is difficult to get an orchid to bloom a second time. Consequently, she says, unless you're an orchid hobbyist, you might follow the lead of many decorators and use orchids strictly as "pot plants" plants that are kept as long as they look pretty and then are thrown out. Christmas poinsettias often fall into this category, she says.

Phalaenopsis make the best orchid pot plants because they flower the longest, she says, often for months at a time.

Just as commercial growers time poinsettias to peak at Christmas, commercial growers of orchids often force them to flower at Valentine's Day and Mother's Day to sell as pot plants, but you can find orchids in bloom at florist shops and nurseries at almost any time.

"They come in all colors of the rainbow just about," Ms. White says. "A graceful white phalaenopsis has an elegance that is unmatched by any other flower I can think of."

When they're not in bloom, she admits, orchids "are actually pretty unremarkable."

Deanna Berman, who retired last year after 20 years as owner of an indoor-plant business, concentrates more on indoor plants for their lush green foliage.

In her Potomac-based business, Mrs. Berman would go to clients' homes, "spruce up" their existing plants, supply new plants and return at regular intervals to care for the plants.

Where you place a plant in a home depends mostly on the light available, she says. Draceanas do best in low light, but there must be a window in the room, she says.

"You can't have no light. You have to have some light," although it can be artificial plant lights like some offices have.

Among tall plants, Mrs. Berman says, ficus trees are still popular, as are palms. Ferns are no longer in style, she says, partly because they require more maintenance than other green plants and partly because they frequently were used in hanging baskets.

"Hanging baskets are out of style," she says.

Plants she prefers include two varieties of Draceana, known as "mass canes" and "marginata."

"Mass canes are pretty tall. You can get them to 6 feet," she says. "Arboricolas are very inexpensive. Pothos are always in style because they're easy to take care of. There are different sizes. And they look good. You just have to trim them to maintain a nice shape."

To keep up with the style of indoor plants being used, look at Architectural Digest, she suggests.

Ron Taddei, indoor-plant buyer for Shemin Nurseries in Burtonsville, keeps up with the style by tracking which plants are selling best. He confirms that ficus and palm trees are the best sellers among tall plants. He says orchids are popular among flowering plants and also lists cyclamen, greenhouse azaleas, indoor mums and calancho among other flowering plants.

Shemin Nurseries is a wholesale business that does not sell to homeowners, he notes, but to the retailers who sell to homeowners and businesses. Though hanging baskets might be out of style in the home, he adds, they continue to be big sellers in the business world.

"Pothos is a hanging plant," he says, including the "golden pothos with gold and green in the leaf or Marble Queen pothos with a white-and-green variegated leaf."

Green and variegated ivies also are popular in hanging baskets, he says.

"They have a lot of different applications. People buy 6-inch ivies and pothos to put in planters in malls and restaurants. They cascade over walls. They're a big seller for the wholesale trade."

Among popular indoor plants for low light, he says, "Spathiphyllum work well. Aglaonermas also are good for low-light situations. It's just a nice busy plant."

If you buy an orchid to display just while it is flowering, you can set it anywhere, even in a bathroom with no window, Ms. White says, "but not by a heat vent. In a bathroom, they love the humidity, and they'll be fine for as long as the blooms last. It could be a couple of months, [but] this is not an optimal growing environment."

The optimal environment, particularly if you want an orchid to bloom again, requires more light and about three weeks of lower temperatures at night (about 60 degrees) in the fall to set the flower spike, Ms. White says. "You can accomplish that very easily by opening a window near the plant.

"Orchids are addictive," she adds. "Once you re-bloom your first orchid, you're hooked. Somebody gets an orchid in bloom. Either by design or sheer dumb luck it re-blooms. And that's it. You're hooked."

Another fan of orchids is Margaret Brain of Bethesda, who has a plant business called Margaret's Flowers. Mrs. Brain took over some of Mrs. Berman's clients last year when Mrs. Berman retired, and she has the same kind of business.

"I have lots of orchids," Mrs. Brain says. "I just like orchids. I like to keep them flowering. I move them around the house."

They do not flower all year, but when they do, "You have the flowers for months and months and months. It's a trade-off, but a nice one."

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