Some frequently asked questions about orchids.

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Orchid FAQ

This section was designed to provide some frequently asked questions about orchids, along with their answers, to help out anyone who is interested in orchids but has some questions about them.

All of the answers on this page were written by Joe Gadbois, 2010 Orchid Society of Alberta.

What is an orchid?

An orchid is a member of the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae). The orchids form the largest family of flowering plants in the world - there are an estimated 30,000+ orchid species that have been discovered and described, and many more that we do not yet know about. Hundreds more are described each year.

Orchids all share basic floral characteristics that set them apart from other flowering plants. Each orchid flower contains a whorl of three sepals (outer organs, typically protecting the flower bud as it develops) and a whorl of three petals (inner organs, typically designed with bright colors to attract pollinators to the flower). Like lilies and Hypoxis, orchid flowers have sepals and petals that are very similar to each other. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of orchid flowers is the lip or labellum - one of the three petals which is modified into a unique shape. The possible shapes that the lip takes on are endless, and it is this floral organ that most often makes orchids so special. Examples of lips in orchid flowers are the mysterious "toothed" platform in the centre of a Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) flower, and the whimsical pouch in the centre of a Cypripedium (lady's slipper) flower. Another unique feature of orchid flowers is that the pistil and the stamens (the fertile, sexual organs of the flower) are united into the column. Within the orchid family, there are countless variations on these basic floral features.

Where do orchids come from?

Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica, and in almost any imaginable habitat (not in deserts). As a result, every type of orchid must be grown differently according to where it comes from. However, orchids are also surprisingly tough, adaptable plants and many different types can be grown under the same roof. Although many people don't realize it, orchids even grow here, in our harsh climate! Colonies of yellow lady's slipper orchids can be found just outside the Edmonton city limits.

Do I have to have a greenhouse to grow orchids?

Absolutely not! Greenhouses provide the ideal climate to grow a wide variety of orchids more easily than one can provide it in the home, but they are not essential equipment. Prize-winning orchids can be grown quite easily on a windowsill with a little attention to detail. They can also be grown under artificial light, and many hobbyists use their basements to accommodate their collections! As well, there are a number of hardy orchids that can be grown outside in the garden, including many native species.

Are orchids hard to grow?

Orchids have garnered a reputation for being difficult to grow, and this is an over-generalization. Although some orchids certainly are very difficult to grow, the majority of those orchids that are readily available in the retail trade are actually quite easy to grow, and there are many that have been bred for easy cultivation in the home. Examples of popular orchid genera (plural of genus) for use as houseplants include Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum, and Oncidium. Many of these can be purchased at home improvement stores, flower shops, garden centers, and even department stores at quite reasonable prices.

Do orchids require a mychorrizal fungus to grow?

No. Orchids are known to have complex relationships with mychorrizal fungi at the time of seed germination and young seedling development, but most orchids (including all of the widely available ones) have no need for it in cultivation. The purpose of the fungus is to provide the young plant with nourishment as it grows, and in some orchids, it aids the mature plant in the absorption of nutrients. In cultivation, we provide the plants with nutrients through the use of fertilizers, so they have no need for the fungi. In nature, most plants have associations with mychorrizae of some kind, but we don't even think about that when we are growing non-orchidaceous plants, so why worry about it here?

Why are orchids so expensive?

As mentioned in the previous question, orchids take advantage of a relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus in order to germinate the seed. This is because orchid seeds usually have no endosperm (food reserves for the seedling) and only a thin testa (seed coat), so that they are small and lightweight, and therefore can travel easily on the wind. With no endosperm, the seedling must rely on the fungus to allow it to absorb external nutrients and get growing. As it is very difficult to extract and isolate the specific mycorrhiza that each orchid relates to, orchid growers use an aseptic, in-vitro (in the lab) method to artificially propagate the plants by seed. A nutrient mixture is mixed into agar and poured into a flask, and the orchid seeds are sown onto the sterile agar medium, which provides the seeds with the nourishment that the fungus would normally provide them. This is a slow and intricate process that takes time and money to complete. In the case of many orchids, by the time a mature plant has found itself at a nursery for sale, it has been around for 3-5 years at a minimum. You are paying for the time and money spent to create the finished product.

As technology has improved, many types of orchids have actually lowered in price to the point where there is little or no difference in cost between them and other plants. Phalaenopsis and Cattleya (among others) are now often propagated by meristematic tissue culture (cloning), a process that results in a greater quantity of plants in a shorter amount of time. Such plants can be purchased in flower for as little as $20. A nice poinsettia or large peace lily can cost almost or just as much, and in the former case you will likely just end up throwing it out after a month! You will find that orchids can vary in price, and those that are more expensive are best viewed as an investment with great rewards. You get what you pay for!

Where can I get information on how to grow orchids?

Join the Orchid Society of Alberta! If you live in the Edmonton area, our monthly meetings will give you access to all sorts of information on orchids, including literary resources from our library, presentations given by accomplished growers, and of course our friendly membership is always willing to share tips. As a guest you are welcome to join us and see what being a member is like before you decide to join.

At home, there are countless web resources available on orchid culture. Many of these are listed on this website under "Links to Orchid Sites". A good starting point is to download culture sheets from the Canadian Orchid Congress and American Orchid Society websites (now also available on our website under "Orchid Culture"). You will find basic information to get you started on every popular genus there.

My orchid grows very slowly. Am I doing something wrong?

If you do not have much experience growing orchids, their slow rate of growth may surprise you. Orchids grow slower than most other plants because they have a low rate of metabolism - an adaptation that allows them to grow in areas with low levels of nutrients, water, and/or sunlight. Although orchids do grow slower than other plants, they should appear in most cases to grow steadily (although many orchids really slow down or stop growth during the winter). If your orchid doesn't appear to be growing at all, consider refining your cultural techniques. Unusually slow or stunted growth is usually the result of the plant not getting enough nutrients, water, or sunlight. It can also signal health problems with the plant, such as root damage or an insect infestation. Examine the plant closely to eliminate any possible health problems (perhaps unpot the plant to check for root problems), and review your cultural regime to ensure the plant is getting what it needs.

Why are orchids grown in bark or moss, instead of soil like other plants?

Many of the plants that gardeners are used to are grown in soil because they are terrestrials - they grow in the ground, and therefore are grown in soil as that it what they naturally grow in. Most of the popular orchids however, are epiphytes, meaning they grow on trees. This means that their roots are exposed to the air, and to grow them in soil would suffocate and rot the roots as they would not be exposed to air. Bark is the most common ingredient in orchid potting mixes because it mimics the tree branches that the plants naturally grow on - it absorbs a small amount of moisture, releasing it quickly and allowing air to exist around the roots. Perlite is often added to the mix as well, as it helps to retain moisture while also creating air pockets in the mix. Charcoal is added to prevent souring and further improve drainage. Epiphytic orchids are also often mounted on bark or cork slabs (among other materials) to better replicate the natural habitat. This method of growing is usually used by greenhouse and terrarium growers, as high humidity is needed to keep the exposed roots from drying out too much.

Sphagnum moss is often used as an ingredient in orchid mixes as well, to improve moisture retention. On its own it usually stays too moist for most epiphytes, but it is commonly used for lithophytes (plants that grow on rocks) and terrestrials. These plants are still not grown in soil because unlike garden plants, they don't grow in actual soil but rather shallow layers of loose, airy humus on the forest floor, or in rock crevices. Sphagnum moss, combined with some bark, perlite, and charcoal, often mimics this quite well.

On the other hand, hardy terrestrial orchids are grown in soil-type media, although most will not survive in standard garden soil. That is a whole other topic!

I heard that I should not grow orchids that have been collected from the wild. Is this true? Why?

There are two main reasons why buying wild-collected orchids is not a good idea. The first is both a moral and a scientific reason. When orchids are taken out of the wild in large quantities for the retail trade, it makes a huge impact on the wild population of those species. Orchids are slow to reproduce, so when mature plants are taken from a colony, it dramatically reduces that colony's chance of survival. Like many species, orchids have to deal with a lot of competition in the wild, and they need the best chance they can get to survive. Although cultivated plants can be reintroduced into former habitats, this changes the gene pool that originally existed there, and can reduce genetic variation. Without genetic variation, a species is weakened. It is genetic variation that keeps a species going - think of "survival of the fittest". Without genetic variation, a population is unable to adapt to changing environments and will eventually die out. When you buy wild-collected plants, you are supporting all of this.

The second reason is that by buying wild-collected plants you are not actually helping yourself. Plants that have been removed from their natural habitat go through severe shock that very often ends in their death. They are often damaged and difficult to revive. They can also often possess inferior genes (from a horticultural point of view) to artificially propagated specimens, resulting in poor growth performance and low-quality flowers. You are wasting your money and time buying such plants!

Oh, and there's one last reason why you shouldn't buy wild-collected orchids. It's illegal! Canada is a signatory of CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species), and prohibits the sale and purchase of any wild-collected orchids. If sufficient evidence can be gathered that your plants are wild-collected (or, more accurately, if no proof can be produced that they are not), you could face hefty fines, and even jail time in extreme cases!

How can I tell when a plant has been taken from the wild?

The first clue is when you see rare plants offered at unusually low prices. Usually the seller has purchased these from a poacher, and they were sold by the kilogram. With such a deal, the seller still makes tons of profit even if they sell at a low price, so they greatly undercut legitimate nurseries to eliminate competition.

If you are buying from overseas (the most common scenario), the seller will charge you for phytosanitary documents and a CITES permit on top of the cost of the plant, if it is artificially propagated. If no such documents are discussed in the terms of sale, the seller is probably selling you wild-collected plants. Either that, or they simply don't want to go through the paperwork process, which will still get you into trouble as you won't be able to prove that your plants are legal.

Finally, if you are buying in person domestically, wild-collected plants are often bareroot and in really bad shape. Note that not all bare root plants are wild-collected! Plants are often sold bare root to keep costs down, especially when they have to be shipped long distances. But wild-collected plants will often have bad root systems and wilted leaves or pseudobulbs, as well as signs of disease, insect infestations, or physical trauma. If any plant you see seems suspect, don't buy it! Fortunately, wild-collected plants do not seem to appear in the Edmonton area.

What is CITES, and how does it work?

CITES (pronounced "SITE-eez"), the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, is an international treaty signed by a number of nations worldwide that restricts the trade of endangered species. You only really have to worry about CITES when you are buying from outside the country. All orchid species are considered endangered by the treaty and are placed in two of the three Appendices of the Convention - Appendices I and II. Appendix II includes species "not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to prevent utilization incompatible with their survival". Appendix I includes species that are "threatened with extinction. Trade in these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances".

Appendix II includes all orchid species except for those in Appendix I, and Appendix I includes the following:

Aerangis elisii

Dendrobium cruentum

Laelia jongheana

Laelia lobata

Paphiopedilum spp.

Peristeria elata

Phragmipedium spp.

Renanthera imschootiana

Artificially propagated hybrids of the genera Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, and Vanda are excluded from the Convention, provided they pass an inspection.

When you are buying Appendix II species, only an export permit is required from the plant's country of origin. With Appendix I species, both an export permit and an import permit (from your country) are required. This makes it harder to import Appendix I species. Each country has their own policies when it comes to CITES however; the US is considered very strict, while Canada is a little bit more lax. European countries are very lax. CITES permits (both import and export) must be applied for and cost money. If a shipment of plants comes through customs and is inspected, and found to have no documentation, it will be seized. The plants will then either be destroyed or sent to a rescue center. Both the seller and the buyer can get into a lot of trouble for trading CITES plants without permits.

Complete information about CITES can be found on the website, www.cites.org. Also visit the Environment Canada CITES website for specific information on CITES in Canada, and downloadable permit application forms.

All of this CITES mumbo-jumbo has got me confused. What does it mean if I want to buy plants from a foreign vendor at an OSA meeting or orchid show?

Not to worry! Those vendors all apply for CITES permits ahead of time, before they visit us. That's why pre-orders have deadlines that are often a month or more ahead of the meeting or show date - the paperwork takes time to complete. You can rest assured that the OSA likes to invite reputable vendors to our shows and meetings who will sell you quality, legal plants.

September 9, 2010 update:

What the heck does that name mean?

The majority of orchids in cultivation are exotic plants, and therefore, don't have English common names like popular garden plants do. As such, we use the botanical names (which, believe it or not, alleviates a lot of confusion anyway!). The botanical names are mainly derived from Latin, Greek, and other classical languages. They are often hard to pronounce, but unlike English common names, there is only one name per plant. For example, the English term "lady's slipper" can refer to any number of species or hybrid plants from one of five genera. But, if you use the name "Paphiopedilum delenatii", I know you're talking about the tropical Asian slipper orchid with the pink and white flowers and mottled leaves.

Orchid nomenclature can be a difficult concept to grasp, however, and in some ways differs from the nomenclature of other horticultural groups. I will attempt to explain it here.

In its most basic form, an orchid name exists in two parts: the genus name and the species name, or specific epithet. In the name Paphiopedilum delenatii mentioned earlier, the first word, Paphiopedilum, is the genus name, while the second term, delenatii, is the specific epithet. These are both Latinized botanical names, and as such are properly written in italics or underlined (although in casual situations this is not usually done). In a scientific setting this name would even be followed by what's called an authority, but that is not of importance here. What is important to remember is that a genus name is always capitalized, while a species name is never capitalized.

Sometimes you'll see names like this: Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. The "var." stands for "variety", and it is a taxonomic term that further subdivides a species based on minor differences between populations. You'll also see names like this: Paphiopedilum fairrieanum f. bohlmannianum. The "f." stands for "forma", and it is yet another taxonomic term that is used to distinguish a very small population within a species that differs slightly from other populations. Usually this is either a dwarf, a large growth form, or a color form, with the latter being the most common. In informal situations (such as a catalogue) you'll often see the "f." replaced by "var.", or the name instead written as a cultivar (which we'll get to in a moment).

 

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