Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens

Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It was perched on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered its flowers smelled exactly like chocolate.

Our guide explained that the plant was called ‘Sharry Baby,’ commonly known as Chocolate Oncidium; a member of a large family of orchids admired for their beautiful flower shape and dozens of blooms. This was news to me, because like many people, I was mainly acquainted with the common orchid Phalaenopsis, most notable for its large, flat-shaped blooms and attractive, low-maintenance qualities.

Chocolate oncidium, commonly known as Sharry Baby

Thus began my foray into the exotic world of these diverse and beautiful plants.

Branching out, I began looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge. So it happened that while in Mexico, I found myself touring an off-beat orchid garden called Lo de Perla located high on a mountainside in a tropical jungle. There, in the deep humid shade of giant ferns, tall palms and monster-like climbing vines, thousands of orchids known as epiphytes were growing wild on trees.

I learned that most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of other plants, such as trees. For this reason, they are often referred to as ‘air plants.’ At Lo de Perla, there seemed to be an infinite number of varieties. The garden also had a small greenhouse in a clearing filled with hundreds of rare and unusual species.

One of the many beautiful orchids at Lo de Perla

Then last year, I heard about a spectacular orchid show being held at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Located in the museum’s main lobby, it was curated by the Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden and featured hundreds of orchids in a customized gallery created by the Hirshhorn’s own designers. The curved structure was constructed of random-shaped cubby holes, each featuring a single orchid species. My daughter and I were duly impressed.

2017 Hirshhorn Orchid Exhibit

But this year, I received my best education to date at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.  Each year, from January through March, it hosts an orchid extravaganza. This was my first time visiting the show and as expected, the conservatory was brimming with jaw-dropping installations.

Orchid arch in East Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

There were huge spheres of Phalaenopsis orchids hanging throughout the conservatory.

And some unusual varieties like this Laelia undulata, that from afar looked more like an allium than an orchid. But close up, you could clearly see all of the little orchid flowers.

Laelia undulata

Close-up of Laelia undulata

Ample signage dispersed throughout the garden, confirmed that the orchid family, or Orchidaceae, is exceptionally diverse in terms of size, color, floral structure, fragrance and origin. One of the largest families of flowering plants, it is considered the most evolutionary advanced plant family due to its highly specialized floral structure.

An exhibition of Phalaenopsis hybrids from Taiwan rarely seen in the United States was on display in a hallway adjoining the conservatory. It demonstrated a specialized technique perfected by experts in Taiwan for growing these orchids. The plants are notable for the length of time they hold their flowers and for the number of flower-pairs blooming in perfect unison on each stalk, a quality that was instantly discernible.

Phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

Close-up of white phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

The real education began, however, when winding our way through the labyrinth of greenhouses that adjoin the main conservatory, we spotted an exhibit focused mainly on instruction. In a long hallway adjacent to the bonsai exhibit, we discovered hundreds of colorful specimens from Longwood’s own orchid collection. Started in 1922, the collection contains over 2,000 types of showy and unusual varieties.

Attached to the wall behind the orchids were signs describing the main characteristics of the Cattleya, Miltoniopsis, Vanda, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Masdevallia,  Paphiopedium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis varieties.

Here are some stand-outs and a little about each:

Cattleya orchids are exceptionally showy and often fragrant. Also known as corsage orchids, they were the most popular variety in the early 20th century.

Cattleya orchid

Miltoniopsis orchids, commonly known as pansy orchids, are native to Central and South America. They are most notable for their large flowers and long stems that can carry up to seven or more blooms at a time.

Miltoniopsis orchid

Vanda orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia. They are known to be some of the bluest flowers in the orchid world. Almost always vibrantly colored, they can range in hue from dark purple to red, pink, yellow and white.

Vanda orchid

Unlike many other orchid varieties, cymbidium orchids, which are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, need cool temperatures and bright light to flower. Most carry many flowers on a single stem. They are often used in cut flower arrangements.

Cymbidium orchid

Dendrobium orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Oceana. They are unusual in that they grow on rocks in addition to trees. A large genus with over 1,000 species, they are sometimes referred to as ‘rock orchids.’

Dendrobium orchid

Masdevallia orchids can bloom year round in the right conditions. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, they are sometimes referred to as ‘little flag orchids.’

Masdevallia orchid

Paphiopedium orchids, also known as slipper orchids, have a large pouch that resembles a shoe. Native to China and tropical Asia, they usually carry just one flower per stem.

Paphiopedium orchid

Oncidium orchids (of which the aforementioned chocolate-scented Sharry Baby is one) are a large genus of over around 300 species. (They also have hundreds of close relatives.) Commonly known as dancing ladies, they are native to South America.

Oncidium orchid

The most common orchid variety, Phalaenopsis orchids are the easiest to grow. Also known as moth orchids, they have large, flat blooms and thick green upright leaves. Native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, they grow mainly as epiphyties.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Thinking of heading to the store? Many orchids are easier to care for than you might think. Just remember, since most of them are used to growing in air, they don’t like lots of water or heavy soil around their roots. Water once a week in the morning, allowing the plant to completely dry out between waterings. Never leave your orchid standing in water, which will quickly rot the roots.

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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