Did you know that there are over 25,000 — possibly even 30,000 — orchid species — and that about one in 10 flowering plants in the world is an orchid? That the flavoring vanilla is an orchid?
Or that orchids occur naturally on every continent except Antarctica, although most commonly available orchids originated in tropical and subtropical regions? And that they range from microscopic to plate-size?
Growing up in the mid-Atlantic region, I rarely encountered anyone who cultivated orchids, but I was certain that they were difficult to grow, requiring a greenhouse and an extremely green thumb.
None of that complexity, fortunately, is true. While some do require special handling, the vast majority of orchids are easy to grow, especially in our San Diego climate. As long as you understand basic orchid care, you can grow them happily both indoors and outdoors in your shaded yard, on your patio or balcony.
Recently, I visited the orchid collection and greenhouse of Debby Halliday, president of the San Diego County Orchid Society (SDCOS), who nurtures her collection of 700 to 750 orchids at her Rancho Santa Fe home. Unlike many orchid society members who specialize in specific types or varieties of orchids, Halliday favors diversity.
“The thing I like most about orchids is how different they are. I’m not a specialist at all. I’m a specialist in how many types of orchids I can grow,” she explained. “They’re extremely varied — that’s the fun of orchids.”
my visit, she introduced me to the many vibrant varieties she grows and explained their cultivation and handling.
Her collection emphasizes year-round blooms. The best way to ensure having consistent flowers, she explained, is to buy plants in bloom, preferably at orchid shows, so you understand their flowering cycle. Some bloom only once a year, but others bloom several times annually.
Orchids come in widely ranging colors and sizes, from whites, pinks, purples and reds to yellows, greens and blues. Many are fragrant, others are not, and that fragrance is generally linked to the time of day orchids expect visits from pollinators, since they require outside help with pollination.
“They mostly have a scent schedule, for example, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or at dusk, when the moths are out,” Halliday explained, although she pointed out that some produce scent all day.
Orchids and their pollinators evolved in tandem. She pointed out her Darwin’s star orchid, which has an unusually long spur or nectar tube. When Charles Darwin received a sample in 1862, he noted its pollinating insect must have an unusually long proboscis to drink its nectar and transfer pollen. Despite contemporaries’ scoffing, Darwin was proved right when the orchid’s pollinator, the hawk moth, was discovered decades later in Madagascar, the orchid’s native habitat.
While some varieties, such as Sobralias and Epidendrums, are considered terrestrial and grow well in the ground, most varieties are epiphytic, which means they grow naturally on trees or other plants.
Cymbidiums are one variety of popularly sold orchids that can grow in the ground, but only with excellent drainage and the right mix of dappled shade and limited water. Like most other orchids, they are more likely to thrive if kept in pots in an appropriate orchid bark mix.
San Diego, Halliday continued, is an ideal climate for growing orchids outside. She recommends keeping them in containers, which can be moved around to find the right mix of sun and shade, mimicking how they grow in trees in their native habitats.
Phaelenopsis, one of the most commonly sold orchids, for example, grows lower in the trees and receives more shade, while Cattleyas grow higher in the trees and require more sunlight. But most orchids do well in “dappled” shade, similar to sunlight filtering through the tree canopy.
If you don’t have an appropriately shaded area at your home, whether in your garden, patio or balcony, you can easily create an awning or screen providing shade using woven or knitted shade cloth, which is sold by the percentage of light it blocks. Generally, shade cloth rated at 75 to 80 percent is a good choice for orchids, though some varieties, such as Cattleyas, Dendrobiums and Oncidiums, like more light and would do better with 50 percent shade cloth.
“Think about how orchids grow (in their native habitat): They grow in trees. They have roots that wrap around trees,” Halliday explained. “It rains hard in the tropics and then it stops and the roots dry out. Then they’re soaked again. That’s how they want to be shaded and watered, with the rain washing grunge and nutrients off the trees, providing orchids food. That’s why we say water ‘weakly weekly,’ with quarter strength fertilizer once a week,” using a balanced fertilizer of 10-10-10 or 20-20-20.
The best way to kill orchids is to overwater them. (It’s not unusual for even experienced growers to kill a few.) It’s best to let them dry out between waterings. They need a wet-dry cycle to survive and thrive.
“When it’s almost dry, water well. Put the plant in the sink and, after watering, let it drain thoroughly,” she said.
“Benign neglect,” letting orchids dry out, is preferable to overwatering, she said, but not to the point they become desiccated.
While orchids grow well in the moss that many are sold in, the medium is more likely to turn to unhealthy mush than bark, which is better for orchids because of its superior drainage. It’s best to repot plants when the growing medium deteriorates or when they start “walking out of the pot,” she said.
Just outside her greenhouse, in a shaded outdoor area, Halliday has several treelike posts where Oncidiums, mounted first on cork and then hung on the post, have wrapped their roots around the post and put out an abundance of spikes with flowers, where, she explained, they’ve never been happier.
Similarly, on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, SDCOS member Peter Tobias observed that some Rio street trees were the same as San Diego’s, but were covered in orchids.
“In Rio, they buy orchids in grocery stores,” said Tobias, who has a collection of about 250 natural-species orchids at his Encinitas home. “When they stop blooming, they put them in the crotch of trees and they naturalize,” he said.
He decided to try that with his two mature avocado trees, which are now covered in brilliantly colored naturalized orchids.
“Orchids are easy to grow if you get an orchid that’s right for the climate, the right temperature and light conditions you have,” he said.
Halliday explained, “A lot of growing orchids is just trial and error, paying attention. I look for growth, bugs, scale and mealybugs.”
She emphasized the importance of sanitation to prevent spreading infestations and incurable viruses between plants. That’s why she always sanitizes her multiple pairs of scissors between use on individual plants with a 10-minute dip in a saturated solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP, available at Home Depot): three parts water to one part TSP. Afterward, she rinses her scissors and dips them in a 2 percent solution of Virkon S (available online) and lets them dry.
Where can you buy good orchids? Trader Joe’s and other markets, as well as most nurseries, do a good job with standard variety orchids, Halliday said, offering healthy plants — but avoid the bargain table, she warned.
“You want plants with about half their flowers open, with leaves that are shiny and crispy like fresh lettuce and feel thick. The roots should be shiny, white and firm,” she explained.
For more unusual varieties, she recommends San Diego County commercial growers Cal-Pacific Orchids, Andy’s Orchids, Sunset Valley Orchids, and Casa de la Orquídeas. Most require an appointment to visit.
Betty Kelepecz has a collection of about 1,000 orchids that are focused on Andean cloud forest varieties compatible with the marine layer often cloaking her Point Loma home. Orchids, she insists, are not hard to grow.
“I was a good grower before, but I’m an exponentially better grower because I’m around others who taught me so much about how to grow orchids. You’ll gain confidence and growing success,” she said.
If you’d like to learn more about growing orchids, check out these two local organizations. See their websites for upcoming speakers and details.
San Diego County Orchid Society: sdorchids.com, $20 a year for individual membership, $25 for dual membership. The SDCOS meets monthly in Balboa Park at the Casa de Balboa, as well as on Zoom.
Palomar Orchid Society: palomarorchid.org, $25 a year for individual membership, $30 for household. This North County group, based in Carlsbad, meets monthly at the Carlsbad City Library.
Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.