Orchids have a reputation as expensive and demanding playthings of the rich or the obsessed. And, to be sure, there are orchids that must be coddled in temperature- and humidity-controlled greenhouses.
But there's at least one genus -- phalaenopsis -- that can make itself comfortably at home in a city apartment living room.
Phalaenopsis is the easiest orchid to grow indoors, said Cyrus Swett, former president of the Maryland Orchid Society.
"They are the ideal houseplant," said Swett, who has about 20 phalaenopsis plants and cares for more than 500 other types of orchids. "They don't really grow in soil. You put them in bark nuggets and water them once or twice per week. They don't need a great deal of light."
The fact that their comfort range is much like people's has helped make the phalaenopsis so popular that they are sold widely these days in garden centers, florist shops and even supermarkets. "They are extremely easy," says Joe Dixler of Highland Park, Ill. president of the Illinois Orchid Society.
Often called moth orchids because their widespread side petals make them resemble the insect, phalaenopsis bear their blooms along a single stem that arcs above broad, fleshy leaves. They have a sculptural quality that makes them inviting to interior designers. Growers today constantly are creating new hybrids with striped, swirled or spotted blooms in shades of white, yellow, pink, fuchsia and lavender.
Phalaenopsis have a reputation as the starter orchid. Wilda Kintop of Batavia, Ill., got two as a birthday present in 1978; today, she has 800 orchids, including about 20 phalaenopsis.
Need plenty of air
In their native habitat in the islands of the Pacific, phalaenopsis live in the rain forest as epiphytes, clinging with their roots to trees well above the forest floor.
That's a clue to moth orchids' most important demand: great drainage. They can't stand to sit in water and should be grown in chunky bark mix rather than potting soil, so that plenty of air gets to their roots.
Gene Hausermann, of Orchids by Hausermann, in Villa Park, Ill., recommends watering a moth orchid every week or 10 days -- whenever you pick up the pot and it seems light. It's best to water in the morning, so the plants have all day to drain and dry out.
Phalaenopsis are heavy feeders, so give them a fertilizer made for orchids, labeled 15-5-5 or 30-10-10, almost every time you water, Hausermann says. Use plain water every fourth or fifth time to flush away any extra fertilizer.
Dixler suggests watering the plant by setting the pot in a bowl of water rather than pouring water over the top. Let it sit for just five minutes and then remove it. "Most people kill their orchids through over- watering," he says.
Moth orchids can handle relatively low light conditions, even the interior of a room for a time. "When it's blooming, put it where you'll enjoy it," Hausermann says.
The blooms can last for several months. Once they are faded, cut the stem back to the crown, where the leaves join the stem, and put the plant in a north or east window. The unfiltered light from a south window would be too much.
If the plant gets the light and fertilizer it needs, cooler nighttime temperatures and shorter days in the fall likely will trigger it to begin the process of reblooming. A new flower stalk will grow and usually bloom in midwinter.
Humidity's great, too
Phalaenopsis can suffer from dry indoor air during the heating season, just as people do. If you don't have a humidifier, Kintop suggests placing the plant on a bed of stones in a shallow dish, such as a pie plate, and filling the dish with water. This will create a little zone of higher humidity around the plant.
Though many houseplants happily go outdoors for the summer, Kintop keeps her moth orchids in the house, where they are sheltered from insects and too much sun. In their native rain-forest habitat, she points out, they would grow in the shady canopy of trees.
Once a year, when the plant is not blooming, repot the plant in fresh bark mix. Bark mix breaks down over time and eventually can start to choke the orchid's roots.
Most of the phalaenopsis sold today are hybrids, Hausermann says; there are thousands, and more come on the market all the time. Many are imported from Asia in the form of tissue cultures. The Hausermanns breed their own in greenhouses where they have been in the nursery business since 1920 and became orchid specialists in the late 1940s.
In a locked greenhouse are new hybrids that are on trial: 'Otto Debs,' yellow with delicate spots and a white center; 'Alice Ainsworth,' a delicate shell pink; and 'Pepper Wild,' a pale purple spotted type.
Phalaenopsis begin blooming in the greenhouses in late December and plants keep coming into bloom for three months or more. Other orchid species join the chorus, and the sight of so many orchids in bloom can be exhilarating.
If you try a phalaenopsis, you can have a pot of that same splendor in your living room.
Sun staff writer Jennifer Lehman contributed to this article.
Spring Show next month
The annual Spring Show of the Maryland Orchid Society will be held March 12-14 in the Horticultural Hall at the Maryland State Fairgrounds on York Road in Timonium. Sales and displays will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on March 12 and 13 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 14.
Orchid Society meeting
The Maryland Orchid Society meets on the third Thursday of every month, September through June, at First Christian Church Hall, 5802 Roland Ave., Baltimore. Each meeting gets under way at 7:15 p.m. and features judging of orchids, a program with a speaker and a plant auction.
"It is more of a social event and ... is the best way to talk about orchids," said Cyrus Swett, former president of the society. "If you have a problem with a plant, you bring it up and others help you."