by Erin Marissa Russel
Orchids are a longstanding symbol of romance and elegance, and their vibrant blooms and graceful silhouettes bring a touch of the exotic to any gardener’s collection. Despite the orchid’s popularity, we’ll bet you didn’t know that they are some of the oldest flowering plants around—the fossil record shows orchids blooming delicately alongside the dinosaurs 120 million years ago.
Now that orchids are affordable and available at most nurseries and even some grocery store floral departments, you’ve probably considered making a few orchid specimens your own. But somehow, these gorgeous plants have gotten a reputation for being fussy flowers that are difficult to care for.
With just a little knowhow, though, you’ll find this rumor is completely unfounded. Orchids aren’t harder to care for than other flowers—their needs are just different and take a bit of getting used to. Keep reading for our tips on orchid care that are guaranteed to make you an expert with plenty of long-lasting flowers to prove your prowess.
Orchids and Blooming
If your orchid isn’t blooming, give it more light.
Most of the time, an orchid that’s failed to flower just isn’t getting enough light. The foliage may look luxuriant, but if your plant hasn’t produced blooms, try moving it to a sunnier spot—one where it will get 12 to 14 hours of light. Depending on your location, you may need to move orchids throughout the year to make sure they continue getting the light they need.
South-facing or east-facing windows are best when growing orchids indoors. If you just don’t have an appropriate window, your orchids will be perfectly content under artificial lights. You’ll need a set of four-foot fluorescent bulbs, and full-spectrum bulbs are your best bet for illuminating orchids. Situate your flowers no farther than six to eight inches away from the lights for maximum success.
Dark green foliage indicates your plant could use more sunlight; orchid leaves should be a yellowish green. As a rule of thumb, types with just a couple of leaves or fleshy leaves need lots of light, while those with less substantial, softer foliage can do with less and may burn if given too much direct sun. Unless your orchid is being scalded by too much light and black spots are scorching into its leaves, your plant will benefit from exposure to more sun.
How to Water Orchids
Provide orchids with the perfect amount of hydration for their personal preferences.
Watering mistakes are the number one reason some gardeners don’t experience success when they first give raising orchids a try. Refer to the orchid type list at the end of this article to figure out what kind you have and how much water it needs to flourish. Orchids are the largest plant family in addition to being one of the oldest, so there can be quite a range of diversity in care requirements between types.
Your individual plant, its container, and your environment will determine the exact amount of moisture an orchid will want and how often you should provide it. That said, there is a general rule you can follow to guide your watering schedule. Let orchids dry out between waterings, and give them more moisture just before the potting medium has completely dried, which may take days to weeks. While the timing will vary by plant, place, and season, once a month is the least often orchids should be watered.
Overwatering is more likely to cause harm to your orchid than underwatering. If the leaves look wrinkled, shriveled, or leathery, your orchid is dehydrated and wants more moisture. You’ll know your orchid’s soil is ready for hydration when the surface looks thirsty, the container feels lighter than when wet (and clay containers are dry to the touch), and a wooden skewer poked into the soil comes back clean.
Using clear plastic pots can help you see how moist your orchid’s soil is due to condensation. If you can’t tell at a glance, though, don’t be afraid to stick a finger into your plant’s soil to test its hydration level. And don’t be a slave to the schedule—water your orchid based on how dry the soil is, not how long it’s been since you last watered.
When it’s time to water your orchids, hydrate them deeply. Continue to give your plant water until the liquid drains freely through the container’s drainage holes. (Pots without drainage aren’t appropriate for orchids, despite how often orchids are sold in them. Repot your plants if they come in containers without drainage—or use a drill to add some holes to the container they came in.) Deep watering will not only thoroughly moisturize the soil but will also flush accumulated salts.
Orchids and Oxygen
Keep your orchids beautiful by keeping their climate breezy.
Like people, orchids need plenty of oxygen to survive, which is why many types are grown without soil. In the wild, orchids grow by attaching to the bark of trees or to another nearby plant. That’s why when a potting medium is used, it should be loose and open, offering plenty of drainage. Potting media for orchids should always be kept fresh, so be sure to change yours if you see any sign of the plant’s roots dying.
Moss, lava rock, and fine-textured bark are the recommended potting media to keep orchids happy. Moss holds more water than bark, so moss is better for thirstier flowers, while bark and rock are perfect for those that thrive on a little aridity.
Encourage air to circulate in your orchid’s environment by situating your specimens under a paddle fan set to low. If you don’t have an overhead fan where your orchids grow, you can aerate them by pointing an oscillating fan away from the plants.
Proper nutrition is essential—for best results, fertilize orchids correctly.
If your orchid performed well when you first got it, but it seems to have reached a plateau, lack of nutrition may be to blame. Orchids can grow and even bloom for quite a stretch without fertilizer, but they’ll never do their best without nutrients from proper fertilization.
Follow your orchid type’s specific instructions from the list at the end of this article. As a general rule, use a balanced fertilizer (like a 20-20-20 water-soluble formula that includes all trace elements) weekly in the summer and every two weeks during the plant’s dormant period, if yours goes dormant, in the fall and winter.
Water your orchids before adding fertilizer to keep from burning the dry roots. Use one quarter to half the strength directed on the package, and ensure the fertilizer you choose for orchids does not contain urea. When in doubt, feed orchids weakly and scale up, as they are more tolerant of too little nutrition than they are of too much.
Repot with care, and do so only when needed.
Different varieties of orchids have different repotting timelines—and some don’t tolerate repotting at all—so refer to the end of this article for timing based on your orchid variety. If your plant’s roots are hanging over the edge of the container, though, it’s time to repot no matter what.
You’ll also know it’s time to change containers if your orchid’s potting mix has broken down. You may be tipped off by dying roots. If your flower’s roots have died, they’ll be dark in color and shriveled instead of pale, firm, and fleshy. Trim away dead roots with sterilized shears before repotting—and don’t skip sterilizing your shears to protect your orchids from disease.
If your orchid still fits in its container but the potting mix has broken down, your plant will likely be happiest staying in its pot with freshened potting media. When you select your container size to suit the dimensions of the orchid’s root system, the parts of the plant that remain above ground should be well supported.
Give your orchid custom care that’s tailored to its type.
Not all orchids are created equal. Most of the varieties on the market are hybrids, bred to flourish indoors with minimal care from you. You’ll still need to determine exactly which type of orchid you have, though, so you can customize its watering, sunlight, and other care details.
We’ve listed the abbreviations of common hybrids to demystify your plant’s tag or packaging—and we’ve also described the maintenance each type needs. If your orchid didn’t come with a label stating its cultivar, refer to the list below and use a Google image search if needed to analyze which orchid you’ve got.
Blooms are fragrant and come in orange, pink, purple, red, or white. Place in bright light where the plant will get some full sun. Water every one to two weeks, and let soil dry thoroughly between waterings. Keep warm, fertilize regularly, and repot every year or two. This variety is often crossbred with related orchids to create durable beginner-friendly hybrids, such as Brassocattleya (Bc), Brassolaelia (Bl), Brassolaeliocattleya (Blc), Iwanagaara (Iwan), Laeliocattleya (Lc), Potinara (Pot), Sophrocattleya (Sc), Sophrolaelia (Sl), and Sophrolaeliocattleya (Slc).
The Cymbidium features large blossoms and grassy foliage, and it comes in standard and miniature varieties. (Note that mini Cymbidiums need more warmth than larger ones.) Flower hues include brown, green, pink, red, white, and yellow. Cymbidium likes bright light with some full sun and requires temperatures to drop by 20 degrees Fahrenheit each night. Water heavily, fertilize in spring and summer, and back off in fall and winter. Repot this breed only when it’s physically escaping its container.
There are many types of Dendrobium, so it’s best to refer to the seller or packaging for specific instructions. This breed blooms in shades of orange, pink, purple, red, white, and yellow. Most types flourish in bright light with some full sun. Water and fertilize with a heavy hand, but let your orchid go dormant in winter. Repot Dendrobium on a two- or three-year cycle.
These are some of the easiest orchids out there, and some varieties produce bloom after bloom for years on end in green, orange, pink, purple, red, white, or yellow. All Epidendrums require bright light, and some need full sun. Cool, moderate, or warm temperatures can keep this orchid happy, as Epidendrums aren’t particular. Fertilize and water thoroughly in spring and summer, then allow these orchids to go dormant in fall and winter. Change to a larger pot every two or three years.
Masdevallia produces small, pyramid-shaped blooms in orange, pink, purple, red, white, and yellow. While this orchid needs bright light and high humidity, keep away from direct sun. This type needs cool temperatures to thrive (between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit), as well as plenty of air circulation. Water daily, except during the winter dormancy, when you can space hydration out to every two or three days. Repot Masdevallia orchids every year or two.
If your orchid resembles a pansy in pink, red, white, or yellow, odds are it’s a Miltonia. Find these flowers a spot in bright shade—but direct sun won’t hurt them in early morning or late afternoon. Miltonia orchids love high humidity and temperatures under 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Let this variety dry out thoroughly between waterings, and repot every year or two. You may encounter Miltonia hybrids, such as Beallara (Bilra), Colmanara (Colm), Degarmoara (Dgmra), Miltassia (Mtssa), Miltonioda (Mtda), Miltonidium (Mtdm), Odontonia (Odtna), and Vuylstekeara (Vuyl).
Odontoglossum orchids feature spotted blossoms (some are also ruffled) in brown, pink, purple, white, and yellow. Give bright light, fertilize, and water frequently, but back off the water and fertilizer during winter dormancy. Keep the environment below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and repot into a new small container every year or two. You may see such hybrids as Bakerara (Bak), Beallara (Bllra), Colmanara (Colm), Degarmoara (Dgmra), Maclellanara (Mclna), Odontioda (Oda), Odontocidium (Odcdm), Odontonia (Odtna), Vuylstekeara (Vuyl), and Wilsonara (Wils).
This handsome cultivar features blooms reminiscent of snapdragons or torenia in brown, pink, or yellow. All Oncidiums require bright light to perform best, but some types need full sun, too. Temperature needs also vary, so check the tag or do your research. Varieties with thin leaves need more water than those with pseudobulbs (thick pod-like shapes at the stem base) or thicker leaves. Repot Oncidium every two or three years for best results. You may see hybrids of Oncidium including Beallara (Bllra), Colmanara (Colm), Maclellanara (Mclna), Odontioda (Oda), Odontocidium (Odcdm), Odontonia (Odtna), Vuylstekeara (Vuyl), and Wilsonara (Wils).
Sometimes shortened to “Paph,” the Paphiopedilum features sleek blooms in green, pink, red, white, and yellow, many with mottled petals or leaves. This orchid thrives in shade or under fluorescent lights. Keep moist but not overly wet, watering several times a week. If your Paph has mottled leaves or multiple flowers per spike, it needs warmer temperatures than others. Paphiopedilum orchids don’t go dormant in winter, though the change in weather may mean they need a touch less water. Repot yearly after flowering has ended.
When you think of an orchid, you probably picture a Phalaenopsis. This popular type may be called a “Phal” or a “Moth Orchid” and can produce pink, purple, red, white, or yellow blooms for months with minimal care. Treat Phalaenopsis like African violets, placing in bright shade, as direct sun can scald them. Phals prefer the climate to be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Fertilize this breed regularly. Hydrate regularly, too, with room-temperature water, and scale moisture back during winter dormancy. Do not allow water to sit on Phalaenopsis’ leaves overnight, or you risk encouraging rot. Repot every two to three years. Hybrids include Arachnopsis (Arnps), Beardara (Bdra), Doritaenopsis (Dtps), Moirara (Moir), and Renanthopsis (Rnthps).
Many Vanda or Ascocentrum orchids have mottled blooms in shades of blue, orange, purple, red, white, or yellow that almost look geometrically patterned. The larger Vandas require full sun, while the smaller Ascocentrums don’t need quite so much. Water and fertilize with a heavy hand—these orchids require daily hydration in summer—but scale back on both water and fertilizer during winter dormancy. Avoid repotting, and consider growing with roots bare. Hybrids include Ascocenda (Ascda), Mokara (Mkra), Rhynchocentrum (Rhctm), Rhynchovanda (Rhv), and Vascostylis (Vasco).
The key to a dazzling orchid collection is careful, frequent examination. Check your orchid plants over whenever you care for them, looking for signs that adjustments are needed. Giving your orchids a once-over on a regular basis and making any changes to their care your checkup indicates helps you catch problems early, when they’re easiest to solve. Once you know what your orchids like, it should be simple to keep them happy and growing strong.
Want to learn more about caring for orchids?
About Orchids covers Orchid Index of Varieties
About Orchids covers Orchid Cattleya
About Orchids covers Orchid Cymbidium
About Orchids covers Orchid Dendrobium
About Orchids covers Orchid Epidendrum
About Orchids covers Orchid Miltonia
About Orchids covers Orchid Odontoglossum
About Orchids covers Orchid Oncidium
About Orchids covers Orchid Paphiopedilum
About Orchids covers Orchid Phalaenopsis
About Orchids covers Orchid Vanda
American Orchid Society covers Novice Phalaenopsis Culture Sheet
American Orchid Society covers Basic Orchid Care
American Orchid Society covers Orchid Care
American Orchid Society covers How to Feed Orchids
American Orchid Society covers Questions About Orchid Gardening
American Orchid Society covers When to Repot Orchids
Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Care for Orchids
Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Grow Orchids Indoors
Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Repot Orchids
Gardeners covers Growing Orchids
Gardening Know How covers Indoor Orchid Care
Gardening Know How covers Beginner Orchid Growing
Interflora British Unit covers Growing Orchids
Just Add Ice covers How to Trigger Reblooming of Your Phalaenopsis Orchid
Just Add Ice covers 3 Essential Tips for Orchid Beginners
Just Add Ice covers Trimming Orchid Spikes
Orchid Care Tips covers Growing Orchids for Beginners
ProFlowers covers Orchid Care Guide: Care Instructions for 24 Popular Orchids
PROMIX covers How to Care for your Orchid
SIMPLEMOST covers 6 Easy Ways To Keep Your Orchids Alive
The Spruce Covers Basic Indoor Orchid Care