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Growing orchids is a lesson in diversity

If you want to impress fellow gardeners with your horticultural abilities, grow a few orchids. Marcy Leber of Temple Terrace insists they're easy to grow.

But she has the benefit of genetics.

"I have been into orchids since birth, actually in utero," Leber said. "My bio (biological) mom was a gardener, very interested in orchids. I learned about orchids without really even knowing I was learning.

"When my mom died, I went into a foster home," she said. "My foster mom was also a gardener. She's 81 now and still rattles off the Latin names of thousands of plants. She also had a love of orchids."

Leber paid little attention to the Latin names, but she learned all about caring for orchids.

"Mom Lehmann (her foster mother) paid close attention to all the cultural requirements of her orchids," Leber said. "There was always a large pot of orchids in the house with three or four stalks in bloom. It looked like a floral shop."

Leber was hooked and to this day orchids are one of her favorite plants.

One thing that keeps Leber interested in orchids is the diversity. The color range is almost unlimited and there are many varieties that don't look like a typical orchid.

"Orchids are very elegant from the shape of the plant to the wonderful blooms," Leber said.

Understanding the cultural requirements of an orchid leads to greater success and therefore more enjoyment.

With this in mind, I attended a recent University of South Florida Botanical Gardens workshop where Jim Clarkson, orchid curator, shared some of his tricks of the trade.

He began the entertaining, educational, hands-on workshop with a short botanical lesson.

He explained the five distinguishing characteristics of an orchid: 1) It's a zygomorphic flower (capable of division by only one plane of symmetry); 2) it has reproduction parts in a column (gynostemium); 3) it has pollinium (clumped pollen); 4) it contains a rostellum (membrane behind the pollen to keep the flower from self-pollinating); and 5) its seeds have no endosperm (the nutritive tissue in a seed of a flowering plant that surrounds the embryo). It's been awhile since I have concentrated on the botanical aspect of plants and I found it refreshing.

Light, water, growing medium, temperature and air movement are all critical to orchid growing. Unfortunately there is not one hard and fast rule that covers all orchids.

"You must know where the orchid originally came from," Clarkson emphasized. "Not all Phalaenopsis, not all Dendrobium are treated alike. Each may have different requirements."

For the novice, Clarkson recommends looking at what light you have to offer an orchid.

"If you have high light, many Dendrobiums will thrive," he said. "Medium light is good for Vandaceous or Cattleya, and if you have low light try Phalaenopsis."

Water requirements are also different from variety to variety.

"No orchid wants to stand in water," Clarkson said. "Most are happy in a mixture of charcoal, coconut chunks and sponge rock. Some such as Vandas (Vandaceous) need no soil at all."

Vandas _ and many orchids _ are epiphytes, which is a plant that grows on another (such as on a tree) without being parasitic and obtains nutrients from decaying leaves and other debris and moisture from the air without rooting into the soil. They are perfectly happy just hanging from a wire with their roots exposed.

"If the exposed roots are white, they need water," Clarkson said. "Green roots mean they are full of moisture."

Lady Slipper, commonly grown by hobbyists, requires more moisture so is happy in a plastic pot with medium sized coconut chunks. Phalaenopsis has similar cultural requirements but likes to be a little drier, so watering every other week is probably sufficient. A clay pot works well.

If you're trying to figure out the ideal temperature for your orchid, once again, look to its place of origin. Orchids grow naturally everywhere except Antarctica, so you can imagine the variety of growing conditions.

"If you have a hot spot, perhaps in a screened-in pool area, that is perfect for a Vanda," Clarkson said. Move the Cattleya and Phalaenopsis under a covered area such as a lanai and they will be happy, he continued.

Air movement is critical to healthy plants.

"Don't crowd your plants together," Leber said.

"Spread them out so the air can move between them."

She did caution that although orchids like air movement, they do not like drafts from the air conditioner or the heater in your house. "This is the main reason orchids do poorly indoors," she said.

Clarkson highly recommends joining an orchid society.

"You have people there that have grown orchids for years and love to share their information," he said. After 18 years of growing orchids he still considers himself a novice. "The more you learn, the more you learn that you don't know."

If you're new to growing orchids, both Leber and Clarkson recommend starting with a Phalaenopsis.

"These orchids are hardy and bloom for months at a time," Leber said. "Also, they are quite affordable and widely available. Mass merchandisers carry these orchids, usually priced from about $10."

Clarkson explained that Phalaenopsis need a period of chill, when temperatures are around 50-55 degrees, to bloom.

"If you're not getting flowers on a Phalaenopsis, this is probably why," he said. "In the winter, put them outside for a couple of months. When you bring them in start fertilizing with a bloom booster."

Leber and Clarkson also agree that fertilization is important for healthy plants. Clarkson fertilizes his every time he waters with a mild solution.

"A weak fertilizer weekly," he said, cautioning, "You are not trying to get the leaves to be a nice, dark green color. That's not natural. The leaves should be a bit yellow."

Leber's foster mom submerged pot, plant and all into a tall bucket of weak fertilizer solution on a regular basis.

"I just water with a weak solution, but put a bucket under the pot to catch the fertilizer as it runs through the pot so I can reuse it," she said.