Houseplant of the Week: The Moth Orchid

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Often new plant enthusiasts shy away from orchids, thinking that the plant’s exotic looks mean they are “fussy” and require more gardening expertise than a newbie might have. It’s not true. Here’s what you need to remember about growing orchids: they’re not difficult, just different.

It’s estimated there’s more than 30,000 species of orchids and probably more than 200,000 hybrids. And, yes, some are challenging, even for professional gardeners.

But ones like Phalaenopsis, also known as the moth orchid and available at Warner’s Nursery, really aren’t that hard to cultivate. You just have to be aware of what they need: specialized potting media, careful watering, a way to make sure the roots get air, and bright – but not direct – sunlight.

An air plant in a pot

Most orchids are native to the tropics, where they are essentially air plants, attaching themselves to the bark of trees. Their thick, white roots are able to absorb moisture and nutrients, and because they grow high in the trees, they are used to good air circulation and plenty of light.

Your job is to re-create these conditions in your home and make it possible for this air plant to thrive in a pot. Fortunately it is relatively easy to do that.

Caring for your moth orchid

  • Planting Material: As an epiphyte (fancy word for air plant), moth orchids can’t be grown in soil; their roots would suffocate. Instead pot them with material that’s similar to or comes from a tree, such as bark chips. Having perlite, moss, or coconut husk chips mixed in helps with water retention. You can also buy potting mix that is made special for orchids.
  • Light: Orchids like light, but keep them out of direct sunlight as their leaves will scorch. East- and west-facing windows are good places for them.
  • Watering: There are some orchids that store water, but the moth orchid isn’t one of them, meaning they tend to have a low tolerance for drought. You’ll want to water them about every 7 to 10 days. If the planting material is almost dry and the pot feels light, you should water. Make sure that water doesn’t rest around the stem as that will cause new leaves to rot.
  • Fertilizer: Orchids do love to be fed regularly, but like “light meals.” So take your typical houseplant fertilizer, weaken it by diluting it to about 1/4 strength and feed that to your plant every 7 days. Among orchid growers, this is called the “water weakly, weekly” method.