Choosing the Right Orchid for You


In This Topic

  • Finding orchids for sale
  • Deciding which orchid to buy
  • Picking out a healthy orchid
  • Caring for your new arrival

One of the main reasons some people fail with orchids is that they simply choose the wrong ones. Considering that there are thousands of different kinds of orchids, it’s easy to see how people may not know which one to buy. To be successful, you need to choose a dependable supplier, healthy plants, and the type of orchid that fits your growing area. In this topic, I walk you through the important questions to ask yourself and your supplier so you end up with the orchid that will be just right in your growing spot.

Figuring Out Where to Shop

Finding orchid suppliers used to be difficult, unless you were lucky enough to live in a very warm area, like Southern California or Florida. Nowadays, because orchids have skyrocketed in popularity, you can find them for sale in myriad places. In the following sections, I fill you in on your supplier options.

Specialist orchid growers or suppliers

An orchid specialist is always my first choice when I’m buying orchids. Reputable suppliers in this category have been selling orchids for many years, before it was the chic thing to do. Almost all of them are orchid fanatics whose hobby grew totally out of control — so they were forced to either stop buying more orchids or start up a business. They know everything about their plants — where they came from, their attributes, and how to grow them. They almost always have the largest selection and cater to both the beginner and sophisticated, experienced growers. They love to help other people discover the pleasure of growing orchids and are full of helpful information.

The only disadvantage of specialist growers or suppliers is that you may not have one near where you live. Of course, that doesn’t have to be a deterrent. It just means you’ll need to do some planning and search out these growers so you can take your own orchid-buying safari!

Your local garden center

Having a local orchid source is very convenient both for buying the plants and for information on growing. Today, garden centers offer more unusual and more interesting plants than ever before — and orchids are among these. The types of orchids they offer varies greatly from one garden center to the next.

Look for a garden center that specializes in tropical plants and houseplants. Unless the garden center is noted for its orchid offerings, the selection will probably be limited. Search out the types mentioned in this topic, especially the moth and slipper orchids.

Orchid shows

At orchid shows, you’ll find dazzling displays of a broad range of gorgeous orchids. Be prepared to be wowed! Vendors of orchids are a regular feature of orchid shows, so they’re a great place to shop. To find an orchid show in your area, check out the various orchid magazines or search their Web sites.

Online orchid suppliers

You can buy a fine selection of orchids without ever leaving your home. Most orchid suppliers now have Web sites, and some of the sites are very detailed and informative.

To get started, check out the Orchid Marketplace at http://orchid and Orchid Mall at www.orchidmall. com. Each of these sites provides many links to various orchid-grower Web sites. If you already know what types of orchids you want, you can use a search engine (such as Yahoo! or Google) to search for them by type or name.

If you use the Latin name when searching for plants on the Web, not the common name, you’ll get many more hits. In other words, instead of searching for “moth orchids,” search using its Latin name, Phalaenopsis. Check out for lists of the Latin names with their English common names.

Home centers and discount stores

Because orchids have had such a meteoric rise in popularity, home centers and discount stores now frequently stock a limited selection of them. The good news: They usually carry the orchids that are easy to grow. The bad news: Getting information at these stores is difficult. But if you’re shopping for your first, inexpensive orchid, and if you don’t have easy access to a garden center or orchid grower, these are good places to start.

When shopping for plants at home centers and discount stores, find out what day of the week their weekly shipments come in. That’s the day you want to be there to get the best quality and selection.

Considering Your Environment

When you go to shop for orchids, you can very easily get carried away! The excitement of the moment can completely win over rational plant selection. Few beginning orchid growers take the time to consider their environment before they buy. Unfortunately, if you do this, you may end up bringing home a gorgeous orchid that’s completely wrong for you.

If possible, always choose an orchid that comes close to fitting your growing area. Even though in Part II of this topic I give you pointers on how to modify your growing area to make it more suitable for orchid growth, you can only modify your environment so much. For instance, an orchid that is commonly found growing in full sun in Hawaii probably won’t take well to a windowsill during the winter in low-light areas like New England. And an orchid from the cloud forest that is drenched with almost constant rainfall and very high humidity probably won’t be happy and bloom in the hot dry air of Arizona.

In the following sections, I help you assess your environment so you can be confident that you’ll pick out a stunning orchid that is right for you and that will thrive where you live.

Taking temperature readings

Before you bring home an orchid, you need to consider the average daytime and nighttime temperatures in summer and winter where you live.

To determine high and low temperatures indoors get a maximum/ minimum thermometer that records this information and place it in your growing area.

For an idea of what your minimum temperatures are outdoors where you live, check out the USDA hardiness map at If you’re a weather nut like I am, you can use a recording weather station that reads the maximum and minimum temperature, humidity, wind speed, rainfall, and barometric pressure every hour and stores this information so it can be charted. Mine has remote sensors and a wireless connection to my computer.

When you’ve determined the average summer and winter temperatures in your area, turn to Table 2-1, which lists some of the most common types of orchids by temperature requirements. Notice that some orchids are adaptable enough to fit into more than one temperature range.

When orchid publications refer to temperature preferences, they always mean the evening temperature. The daytime temperature is usually about 15°F (9.5°C) higher than the evening temperature.

Table 2-1 Orchid Temperature Preferences

Temperature (Nighttime Minimum)


Cool (450F-55°F/7.20C-12.8°C)






Cool (450F-55°F/7.20C-12.8°C) to


Intermediate (55°F-60oF/12.8oC-15.6°C)










Temperature (Nighttime Minimum)


Intermediate (55°F-60oF/12.8oC-15.6°C)



Cattleya and hybrids

























Intermediate (55°F-60°F/12.8°C-15.6°C)


to Warm (65°F/18.3°C or higher)




























Warm (65°F/18.3°C or higher)






Measuring your light intensity

Just as important as temperature is the amount of light your orchid will get. Orchids that thrive in high light need several hours of direct sunlight (preferably in the morning to early afternoon), while those that thrive in lower light will perform with less direct and more diffused light in a windowsill or under lights.

Will you be growing the plants under artificial lights? Most light setups consist of multiple florescent lamps and can provide adequate illumination for medium- to lower-light orchids. High-intensity-discharge lamps are capable of much more light output but can be expensive to operate and generate quite a bit of heat.

How bright is your light? Figure 2-1 illustrates a simple yet effective and reasonably accurate method for determining the intensity of your light.

The shadow test is a simple and reasonably accurate way to measure light intensity.

Figure 2-1: The shadow test is a simple and reasonably accurate way to measure light intensity.

After you determine your light levels, turn to the following sections, which list orchids by the amount of light they need. Remember to keep in mind temperature (see the preceding section).

Bright light

The following orchids require a bright greenhouse, a very bright south-facing window, or very-high-output (VHO) fluorescent lamps (which require specialized ballasts to operate) or metal halide lamps:

  • Angraecum
  • Some varieties of Cymbidium
  • Some varieties of Dendrobium
  • Vanda

Medium light

The following orchids need a shaded greenhouse, an east-facing window, or a four-tube 40-watt florescent light fixture:

  • Amesiella
  • Ascocenda
  • Ascocentrum
  • Ascofinetia
  • Brassavola
  • Brassia
  • Cattleya and hybrids
  • Some varieties of Cymbidium
  • Some varieties of Dendrobium
  • Epidendrum
  • Laelia
  • Leptotes
  • Masdevallia
  • Miltonia
  • Miltoniopsis
  • Neofinetia
  • Neostylis
  • Odontoglossum
  • Oncidium
  • Paphiopedilum (strap-leaf multiflorals)
  • Phragmipedium
  • Rhynchostylis
  • Zygopetalum

Low light

The following orchids do well with a low level of light, easily attainable with two 40-watt florescent lamps or on an east-facing windowsill:

  • Paphiopedilum (not including strap-leaf multiflorals)
  • Phalaenopsis
  • All orchid seedlings

Other questions to ask yourself

In addition to considering temperature and light, you want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the growing area have moist (humid) air, or is the air very dry? If it is already humid (50 percent or greater), it’s perfect. If not, your orchids will be happier with moister air.
  • How much space do you have to grow orchids? If you have plenty of head room, you can grow some of the taller orchids, like cane dendrobiums and full-size cattleyas. If space is at a premium, search out very compact or miniature growers. Part III gives you plenty of choices for plants of all sizes.
  • When do you want your orchids to bloom? Spring, summer, fall, or winter? In the evening or during the day? Armed with this information, you can pick those orchids that will be in bloom in the season and time of day of your choice.
  • Do you have air circulation in the growing area? Most homes have adequate air circulation, but if your orchids are going to be located in the basement or some other spot where the air is stagnant, you’ll want to consider a fan of some type to provide them with fresh air.

When you’re armed with this information, you’ll be better prepared to choose an orchid that will thrive.

Knowing What to Look for in an Orchid

After you consider your environment, you’re ready to go shopping. You have an idea of which types of orchids will work best where you’ll be growing them, and now you just need to look at a few things such as the plant’s health and age. I fill you in on these factors in the following sections.

Choosing a healthy plant

Picking out a healthy orchid plant is essential. Even in the best of circumstances, the orchid that you bring home will have to adapt to changes in its environment. A strong, robust plant has a much better chance of surviving this ordeal than a weak plant does.

Here’s a checklist of things to look for when you select an orchid:

  • Look carefully at the leaves. They should be stiff, not shriveled or dehydrated. They should also have a healthy green color. Brown or black spots on leaves could mean disease, or they could be harmless; if you find spots, ask the grower about them.
  • Look for any signs of insects. Most insects hang out on the new young growth, on the flower buds of the plant, or on the undersides of the leaves. Also check under the pot for snails or slugs.
  • Examine the exposed roots on top of the potting material.
  • The roots should be firm and light colored, not black, soft, and mushy.
  • Watch out for plants infested with oxalis (which looks like clover). Oxalis is a pesky weed that is difficult to get rid of after it’s established. It will not directly harm the orchids, but it can harbor insects and is a cosmetic distraction.

Make sure the plants are labeled. Labels will be important to you later if you want to look up information on growing your particular type of orchid.

Be sure to ask the grower about the temperature, light, and humidity requirements of the orchid you’re considering. Check out its ultimate size. Then match this information with what you know about your orchid growing area.

Deciding between a blooming plant and a young plant

When you buy a mature, blooming plant, you get to see exactly what the flower of this orchid is like. Because many orchid flowers can last quite a while, you’ll be able to enjoy this orchid for weeks after you bring it home. The biggest disadvantage of blooming plants is that they’re usually the most expensive, because they’re in the highest demand.

Younger plants — ones that are months or even years away from blooming — are much less expensive than their mature counterparts. The joy in choosing these plants is anticipating when they’ll bloom and what they may look like.

If you’re a beginner, I recommend that you buy mature plants with buds or flowers. Waiting for immature plants to bloom is something you may enjoy after you have a small collection of the mature ones.

Choosing seed-grown orchids or orchid clones

Very few orchids sold today have been collected from the wild. Instead, they’ve been grown from seed. The flower color, flower size, and growth habits of these seed-grown plants vary. Seed-grown plants are generally very reasonably priced.

Cloned orchids, also referred to as meristemmed or mericloned orchids, are orchids that have been multiplied from single cells, usually from a plant of very high quality, in a flask, which is a type of laboratory bottle. The result is that they’re all identical.

The advantage of purchasing a cloned orchid is that you can depend on the orchid that you buy being exactly like its parent, which is frequently an award winner. In general, these clones are a bit more expensive than the others, but they’re usually worth it.

Caring for Your New Orchid

Adding new orchids to your plant collection is exciting, but this is also a time for caution. Even though you may have been very careful in the selection process, your orchid still may be harboring insect eggs that may hatch, or it may have a disease problem that you didn’t notice before.

So, to be on the safe side, keep your new plant isolated from all your other plants for at least two to three weeks — enough time to see if any insects appear or a disease shows up. If you need to treat your new plant, doing so will be easier when it’s separated from your other plants.

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