- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The pots of orchids sitting in the bay window in the Francis home change almost daily. Joseph Francis rotates orchids from his three greenhouses, where he has a collection of 2,000 of the plants, into the restored 100-year-old Victorian foursquare farmhouse in Herndon. He shows 30 of the plants in bloom in the living and dining rooms or show area of their home.

Aggie Francis takes care of the lilies, hibiscus and perennials in the gardens in the front and back yards while her husband, a 70-year-old Fairfax County Master Gardener and orchid hobbyist, takes care of the orchids, including the hardy varieties that grow outdoors.

Years ago, Mrs. Francis brought home an orchid, and Mr. Francis asked her, “What is that?” She told him that because he could grow everything else, he should try the tropical plant. Needless to say, Mr. Francis took her seriously. He shows orchids at exhibitions and shows, where 28 of his plants have won awards.

“They’re so unique, so different and so beautiful,” says Mr. Francis, treasurer of the National Capital Orchid Society, a chapter of the American Orchid Society that meets at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast.

Despite their appeal, orchids have an image of being finicky, difficult-to-grow plants.

“You just have to think of them as different than other houseplants,” says Jonathan Kavalier, manager of the Merrifield Garden Center in Merrifield.

Orchids make up one of the largest families of plants in the world, with 30,000 species and more than 300,000 cultivars; they grow in every continent except Antarctica. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, fragrances and colors and typically bloom in the fall and winter. An orchid can be a terrestrial plant that grows in the ground or an epiphyte that rests in trees and brushes common to the tropics.

Most of the orchids found in garden centers, nurseries and home-improvement centers are epiphytes, particularly the phalaenopsis and the dendrobium, which are considered beginner-level plants. Orchids also can be purchased from orchid growers and by mail order.

“If you understand how they grow in the wild and the conditions they grow in, that will help you grow them at home,” says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt.

Eighty percent of orchids are epiphytes, or air plants, Mr. Nardozzi says.

Phalaenopsis, also called the moth orchid, is an epiphyte that produces a spray of mothlike blooms in a wide variety of colors, while the dendrobium, an epiphyte known as the spray orchid, produces a smaller cluster of blooms and is used in Hawaiian leis. Three other beginner varieties include the epiphyte cattleya, or the corsage orchid; the terrestrial cymbidium; and the semiterrestrial paphiopedilum, or slipper orchid.

“Most people start with the phalaenopsis orchid,” Mr. Kavalier says. “The flowers last a long time and bloom several times a year.”

Epiphytes prefer growing in a bark mixture with charcoal and perlite because the bark replicates their natural habitat, Mr. Kavalier says.

“If you grow them in soil, it will hold too much water and rot the roots,” he says. “They like a lot of humidity, but they don’t like to be wet, necessarily.”

A humid atmosphere can be achieved in a high-humidity room such as a kitchen or bathroom by grouping orchids together or by using a humidifier or a pebble tray that allows water underneath pebbles placed in a drip tray to evaporate up to the plant, Mr. Kavalier says.

Epiphyte orchids should be watered once or twice a week, soaking the plant so the water runs out of the bottom of the pot. The plant then should be allowed to dry out before the next watering, says Arthur Chadwick, co-owner of Chadwick & Son Orchids, an orchid grower in Powhatan, near Richmond.

“They love that because it’s like a heavy rain,” Mr. Chadwick says.

Some of the roots of epiphyte orchids grow above the potting line and hang down in the air to soak in moisture, mist and rain, says Mr. Francis, who mainly grows cattleya and cymbidium orchids, along with a few other varieties.

“The most important thing they have to have is air movement. If they don’t have that, the roots can’t dry,” Mr. Francis says.

Planting epiphytes in a bark mixture provides air pockets with space around the roots to allow them to dry, he says.

“Generally speaking, it’s better to keep the media on the dry side, especially for epiphytes,” says Bradley Evans, horticulturalist for the National Arboretum. “Other plants can take overwatering more than orchids can.”

Overwatering is the No. 1 way people kill orchids, says Leslie Blischak, commercial horticulturalist for the Loudoun County Cooperative Extension in Leesburg.

“People think they need more water because they’re tropical,” Ms. Blischak says.

Epiphyte orchids prefer low or intermediate light conditions and are unable to handle full sun because they are adapted to growing in a jungle covered by a canopy of trees, Mr. Chadwick says. The phalaenopsis and the paphiopedilum favor low light without any direct sunlight, while the cattleya, cymbidium and dendrobium like intermediate or partial light diffused through something such as curtains or blinds, he says.

Orchids generally do well near an east- or north-facing window, Ms. Blischak says.

The leaves of orchids are a bright emerald color if they are getting appropriate sunlight, Ms. Blischak says. If not, the leaves can become yellowish from too much light or dark green from not enough, she says.

Mr. Evans recommends fertilizing orchids every two weeks at half the strength recommended on the label and repotting them when the media breaks down, losing the ability to bring air to the roots.

The flowers can be cut to the base of the stalk when the orchids finish flowering, Mr. Nardozzi says. Orchids flower up the stalk with the lowest flowers blooming first, he says.

“I like them because they flower so long,” Mr. Nardozzi says. “They’re an attention grabber because they’re so beautiful.”

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