Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

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

Our guide explained that the plant was ‘Sharry Baby,’ or Chocolate Oncidium; an orchid admired for its lovely shape and abundant flowers. This was news to me, because like many people, I was only familiar with the moth orchid, Phalaenopsis.

Chocolate oncidium, commonly known as Sharry Baby

I’ll admit I was naive. And thus I began my immersion into the world of these beautiful tropical plants, a journey that continues to the present day. 


Branching out, I began searching for opportunities to grow my knowledge. So, a year later I found myself touring Lo de Perla, an orchid garden located high on a mountainside in Mexico. There, deep in the jungle, thousands of orchids known as epiphytes grew wild on tropical trees.

Indeed, I learned that most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of other plants. Happily, Lo de Perla had a seemingly endless number of varieties. It was a great way to begin my studies. 

 Lo de Perla


Last year, I heard about a show being held at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Located in the building’s main lobby, the annual exhibition is curated jointly by the U.S. Botanic Garden and Smithsonian Gardens. The display, which was created by the museum’s own designers, featured hundreds of orchids in a customized gallery.

To highlight the different species, each type was presented in its own cubby hole in a single white pot. Thanks to this unusual design, I was able to observe the flowers’ unique characteristics up close.


However in February, I received my best education to date at Longwood Gardens, where each year in late winter the property hosts an orchid exhibition. Not only was the show instructional, but it was also astonishing. The place teemed with jaw-dropping installations.

East Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

In particular, I noticed the many phalaenopsis suspended from the ceiling.

Ample signage displayed throughout the garden confirmed that the orchid family is a big one. One of the largest families of flowering plants, it is considered the most evolutionary advanced plant family in the world. This is due to its highly specialized floral structure.


Longwood has a reputation for showcasing unusual types of plants. So, I was delighted to discover an exhibition of rare Phalaenopsis hybrids from Taiwan arranged along one passageway. Demonstrating a specialized technique perfected by experts in that country, the plants featured long strands of flower-pairs blooming in unison on single stalks. 

Phalaenopsis from Taiwan

Close-up of white phalaenopsis from Taiwan

However the real education began when, winding my way through a maze of greenhouses, I spotted an area devoted entirely to instruction. To the left of the staff potting room, I spied hundreds of varieties from Longwood’s own collection. 

Here at last were orchids for beginners! Furthermore, attached to the wall were signs describing the main characteristics of each type. So if you, like me, are looking to learn, please see below.


Cattleyas, also known as corsage orchids, are not only exceptionally showy but they are also frequently fragrant. They were the most popular variety in the early 20th century.


Miltoniopsis, 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 blossoms at a time.


Vandas are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia. They are known to be some of the bluest flowers in the orchid world (although they looked purple to me.) Aside from blue, they range in color from dark purple to red and also come in pink, yellow and white.


Unlike many varieties, cymbidiums need cool temperatures and bright light to flower. Most carry many flowers on a single stem. They are often used in cut flower arrangements.


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


Masdevallias 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.’


Paphiopediums, 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.


Oncidiums (of which the aforementioned chocolate-scented Sharry Baby is one) are a large genus of over 300 species. Commonly known as Dancing Ladies, they are native to South America.


Finally, the most common variety Phalaenopsis are the easiest to grow. Moth orchids have large, flat blooms and thick green upright leaves. Native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, they grow mainly as epiphytes.



Ready to head 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. Most importantly, never leave your orchid standing in water, which will quickly rot the roots.


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