Phalaenopsis Baldan's Kaleidoscope. Photography credit: David J. Stang

Suggestions for Choosing Plants Requiring Minimal Care

THIS SEEMS LIKE AN IDEAL TOPIC for an article. Many of us want to enjoy orchid flowers with a minimum of fuss and I have found that most experienced growers have recommendations for orchids that are comparatively easy to grow. Yet as I began to contemplate and delve into the subject, the more challenging it became.

I had in mind some suggestions of my own, plus I figured I would turn to books in my orchid library whose authors have taken the time to note those hybrids and species they consider easy to grow. I was confident that a quick perusal of those would supply me with plenty of ideas for orchids to include. There are also book titles on this topic, and if those proved insufficient, I was aware that there is even a volume I could turn to about orchids in the contemporary book series that is written for dummies.

Easy orchids seemed like an easy topic. But as I began to think about how to share this topic and started to look through a few of my books, I soon realized that this article would not be as simple a task as its title suggests.

The books I scanned recommended some orchids that had not been sure-fire growers and bloomers for me. Conversely, some of my favorite candidates were listed as moderately difficult or even a challenge to grow by some authors.

The simple truth that quickly became obvious is that those orchids that are easy for one person to grow are not necessarily so for everyone. Still, it seems that one should be able to make a few general recommendations. I made a short list of my own and even consulted a couple of fellow orchid judges on the topic.

First, one must define an easy orchid. For me, it is a relatively undemanding plant that can survive and flower in a somewhat wide range of growing conditions. Ability to withstand occasional neglect or abuse is certainly a plus too.

With these things in mind, one would typically look to hybrid orchids over naturally occurring species. Because species orchids have evolved to thrive in a particular ecology, they can wane if those conditions are not met in cultivation. Hybrids are frequently more tolerant of their environments because they receive genetic material from parents that each may have evolved to thrive in very different situations. Nevertheless, there are some species that tolerate a wide range of growing conditions.

PHALAENOPSIS  One of the first orchids that occurred to me as easy is the popular phalaenopsis. Today you can find flowering examples of these plants for sale not only at most florists, nurseries and garden centers, but also at nearly every supermarket and home improvement center as well. Years ago, if you mentioned the word orchid to an individual, it was likely a cattleya that was envisioned. Now, I wonder if more often than not, the phalaenopsis comes to mind.

One of the main reasons that the phalaenopsis excels is that the hybrids can be grown rather quickly to flowering size. The flowers are pleasing and long lasting and, generally speaking, the hybrids behave like typical houseplants — if you provide them with rather bright indoor light and water them once or twice a week they tend to thrive.

When I chatted briefly with AOS judge Marion Allen of Lakewood, Colorado, about this topic she noted that when looking for orchids that are easier to grow, she would recommend choosing those with pseudobulbs. Indeed, the thick leaves and enlarged stems or pseudobulbs that are found in many types of orchids help the plants withstand periods of drought and stress.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE Allen’s observation brought to mind one of my first orchids, a gift plant received  more than 20 years ago. A good friend brought it to me from an airport in Hawaii on her return from a winter vacation. It was an orchid that today I can only describe as an “Slc.” (Sophrolaeliocattleya), an unlabeled example of the Cattleya alliance that probably had some Cattleya aurantiaca in its lineage based on the appearance of the showy cluster of red-orange flowers it sported.

These were the days before the orchid bug had bitten me, and although I kept a few phalaenopsis orchids with some other houseplants and had reflowered those successfully, I was quite certain that my friend’s well intentioned gift was sure to expire quickly in my centrally heated home in semi-arid Colorado.

I kept the orchid plant in my kitchen, which had good light thanks to some large skylights in the ceiling. I had never grown an orchid of this type, and perhaps because I did not expect the plant to survive, it received minimal care. I watered the orchid weekly and fertilized it seldom as I waited for it to wither. Remarkably, it produced a new lead each autumn and flowered every winter for many years, a tribute to the pseudobulb and the ability of many orchids to thrive with minimal pampering.

VANDAS  Certain types of orchids may have an undeserved reputation for being hard to grow. Vandas, for example, seldom appear on lists of those orchids that are easy keepers. This is probably because the style in which they are typically grown (in open baskets with exposed roots) coupled with their greater water, light and temperature requirements make them difficult to house with other orchid types. Mature vandas can be sizeable plants too. Still, I know one Florida hobbyist who easily mastered the technique for growing breathtaking vandas and ascocendas but was frustrated because he could not successfully grow a cattleya.

If you want to try an easy vanda, look for Vanda coerulea or its offspring. This was a tip I recently heard at an orchid society lecture given by Bob Fuchs of RF Orchids in Homestead, Florida, and it is a good one. Vanda coerulea does best with somewhat cooler temperatures than some of the other Vanda species so it is easier to grow in cattleya conditions. As a bonus, the species and its hybrids tend to have some of the most beautiful shades of blue color that are found in the orchid world.
As I glanced through a few books, I was surprised to see how often authors listed cymbidiums among their suggestions for the simple to grow orchid. While these beauties may be comparatively trouble free, they are another type that has rather exacting cultural needs that are seldom met by the average orchid grower with a diversified collection.

The most common and familiar are the florists’ cymbidiums that are generally the cooler growing types that thrive outdoors in Mediterranean climates. I envy those who live in areas where these orchids, which often grow to the size of small shrubs, are easy garden plants. Warm growing cymbidiums are becoming increasingly available and are better suited to the average hobbyist, in both their cultural needs and size. It is important to know whether you have selected a cool- or warm-growing cymbidium before you buy.

Foolproof orchids do not exist, but there are many that are of com-paratively easy culture. A final bit of advice for having orchids that are easy to grow is to start with healthy, mature plants. Some recommendations are listed below.

10 Easy Orchids

THESE 10 recommendations include both species and hybrids. 

Angraecum sesquipedale — A dramatic species with fragrant and showy star-shaped flowers.

Brassolaelia Yellow Bird (B. nodosa × Richard Mueller) — Like most Brassavola nodosa hybrids, this one is rather fast growing and trouble free.

Cattleya Chocolate Drop (guttata × aurantiaca) — Many cattleyas and their hybrids are of comparatively easy culture, but like many Cattleya aurantiaca hybrids, this one is among the easiest.

Dendrobium Emma ‘White’ (Gillian Leaney × tetragonum) — The genus Dendrobium is extremely diverse in type as well as ease of culture. This one produced multiple sprays of white flowers for me every winter with no fuss.

Prosthechea cochleata (syn. Encyclia cochleata, Epidendrum cochleatum, Anacheillium cochleatum)  — The cockleshell orchid is among the easiest and most free-flowering of orchid species.

Neostylis Lou Sneary (Neo. falcata × Rhy. coelestis) — A charming hybrid of the vandaceous miniature Neofinetia falcata, this one would be ideal for the grower without the room or growing conditions for a full-sized vanda.

Oncidium Sweet Sugar (Aloha Iwanaga × varicosum) — This is just one of many easy-to-grow oncidium hybrids.

Paphiopedilum Maudiae (callosum × lawrenceanum)  — Here is an ideal slipper orchid for the beginner.

Phalaenopsis Baldan’s Kaleidoscope (Hausermann’s Candy × Daryl Lockhart) — Even among the comparatively carefree phalaenopsis, this one stands out.

Zygopetalum mackayi — Most of the Zygopetalum species and their hybrids are rather tolerant of neglect.

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