Let the Buyer Beware


by Ken Slump

Posted by Sys Admin almost 3 years ago.

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Savvy Shoppers Check a Plant Top to Bottom Before Making a Purchase

A QUALITY ORCHID COLLECTION starts with healthy plants, but purchasing such plants is not always as easy as it might seem. While most commercial orchid growers are reputable and offer stock of good quality, the quest can become more difficult at orchid society events such as auctions, raffles, divisions tables and hobbyist sales. Furthermore, big-box retailers, who now frequently serve as orchid purveyors, often receive healthy stock but may lack the staff with the knowledge, inclination or talent to keep it that way over the long haul. A few guidelines can help you avoid the pitfalls of buying plants that may take months or years to recover from past abuse or neglect. Before acquiring new orchids, take a few minutes to look them over carefully.

LEAVES FIRST  The plant’s foliage is the first area to examine. Allowing for variations among species and type, most orchids should have leaves that are a healthy, medium-green color. Yellowish foliage is indicative of stressed plants that may have received too much light or be suffering nutritional deficiencies.

Foliage may actually be too dark green in color too, indicating that the plants may have been grown with insufficient illumination. Such plants will rarely appear in flower, or have evidence of past flowering, even though they may be large enough that you would expect it. That is not necessarily a bad plant to purchase, but you need to be aware that its light level may need to be increased gradually to avoid burning the foliage.

Excepting special cases, such as mottled-leaved paphiopedilums, orchid foliage should be of even coloration. Reddish pigmentation in the form of small spots or blushing on leaves and pseudobulbs is typical in some orchids, particularly when grown in high light. Orchid foliage should not be pitted, blotched or have dark streaks of color. It should be smooth, not wrinkled. Brown leaf tips may simply indicate that humidity levels were too low in the plant’s growing environment. One should expect that the plant’s newest leaves appear the healthiest, and it is not unusual for the oldest ones on a plant to yellow or otherwise discolor as they age and prepare to die.

Remember to look at the underside of the foliage, too. This is where many orchid pests prefer to make their homes. It is normal for some types of orchids to have reddish pigmentation on the underside of their leaves.

On those orchids that have pseudobulbs,  examination of them is another good indicator of the plant’s cultural history. They, too, should not be overly wrinkled or shriveled, but again, you would expect that the newest ones be in the best condition. If there are dry sheaths remaining about the pseudobulbs, you may want to carefully peel them back to see what they conceal. Hopefully, you will find a plump, healthy pseudobulb underneath, but the sheaths may provide cover for insect pests too. One expects that each pseudobulb will be at least as big or bigger than the preceding one, particularly on immature plants.

ROOTS  Perhaps the most difficult but essential part of the plant to evaluate is the root system. I firmly believe that as the roots thrive, so thrives the plant, yet on more than a few occasions I have acquired potted plants without that sine qua non. Because most of the orchids we grow are tropical evergreens, they often exhibit symptoms of poor culture slowly. It is quite possible for the top of the plant to appear healthy, or even be in flower, despite a rotten root system that may have been destroyed by overwatering. Many growers also believe that struggling orchids will sometimes flower unexpectedly in an attempt to reproduce themselves before they expire, so if the plant does not look strong enough to bloom, be suspicious.

Unless they have been recently repotted, most container-grown or-chids would be expected to have visible evidence of strong root growth about the base of the plant. Even with some healthy root growth in view, however, one can’t be sure of what lies below the surface. After purchasing more rootless orchid plants than I care to admit, I began to poke carefully around in the growing medium a bit and will even give prospective purchases a gentle tug to help me determine exactly how well developed the root system is. It is certainly not impossible to save an orchid purchased without good roots, but one should not be expected to pay top dollar for such a plant.

Imported bare-root orchid plants, which are occasionally available at orchid fairs and large shows are a different case, but even those should show evidence of past healthy root systems on a plant that appears strong enough to repeat the process. If there is not a new eye swelling into growth or nodules of new root growth emerging, the plant should at least appear plump and healthy, not shriveled and dehydrated.

When you have the opportunity to select from a number of specimens of the same kind of orchid, choose the plant with two or more growths or leads. You’ll have a specimen plant much sooner. 

If it is a blooming-size plant you are considering for purchase, whether to select a plant in flower is a matter of personal preference. It makes little difference on mericloned plants, which are expected to be carbon copies of one another. In that case, I usually opt for the plant in spike or bud over one in full flower, since I will be able to enjoy the blossoms longer.

Taste in flowers varies between individuals, but if you want to assemble a collection of plants with superior-quality orchid flowers and you don’t know how to begin, you can hardly go wrong if you purchase mericlones of AOS-awarded plants. On the other hand, I often prefer to acquire flowering examples from seedling populations, since considerable variation in the flowers may occur.

Never buy an infested plant or one that appears diseased, even if it is a species or clone you have been seeking for years. Those almost never rebound into healthy specimens, and if it is truly a worthwhile orchid, you can be fairly certain that you will encounter a healthy plant of the same in the future. If possible, isolate new purchases from the rest of your orchid collection. I usually like to repot new acquisitions as soon as possible too.

With the popularity of mail order and the variety of orchids it can bring to your doorstep, screening prospective purchases is not possible. Still, you should talk to your orchid buddies about their mail order experiences and strive to make sure the companies you order from are reputable. Before you place your order, ask mail order growers about their policy regarding plants that arrive in poor condition, realizing that they have little control over a live product after it leaves their hands. With a bit of knowledge and careful observation, it is easy to make sure that each new plant you add to your orchid collection is healthy and of good quality.

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