A Weekly Column about Plants, Gardens, & Yards

By: Margaret Murphy • ISU Extension Horticulture Educator • Lyon-O’Brien-Osceola-Sioux Counties

Add a Little Visual Warmth Indoors this Winter with Orchids


Orchids are said to represent love, beauty and refinement. It’s easy to understand how they came to symbolize these ideals once you lay eyes on the elegant blooms that abound within the orchid family. Often associated with exotic, tropical environments, orchids are actually native to most regions of the world with several indigenous to Iowa’s prairies and woodlands. There are roughly 30,000 species known today; however, the number is much larger if you take into account all the cultivars. Saddled with the reputation of being difficult to grow, many of you may be happy to hear that there are several varieties that even an orchid greenhorn like me can grow successfully indoors.

Among the easiest to grow as houseplants are the Phalaenopsis. Individuals of this group have flowers that are frequently described as resembling moths in flight and are widely known as moth orchids. Phalaenopsis, like most orchids, are epiphytic meaning they grow atop another plant using it for support. In nature, epiphytic orchids are commonly found attached to trees and obtain moisture and nutrients from the air and rain as well as from debris that gathers around their exposed roots.

If you add a moth orchid to your indoor plant collection this winter, keep in mind that epiphytes do not survive if their roots get waterlogged. So it is very important to have the right growing medium. Commercial mixes typically contain course bark that drains well. The bark should remain moist but not soggy. How often you need to water your orchid will depend on the variety plus the size and type of the pot. Moth orchids should not be allowed to completely dry out between waterings. Use room temperature water and avoid the use of softened water. As a note, orchids growing in a bark medium generally need a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as a 15-5-5. It is recommended that you use a fertilizer formulated for orchids and follow the label instructions.

Most orchids also appreciate being in a humid environment. They don’t need to be in extremely high humidity but since most homes are fairly dry, especially in winter, you can help increase the relative humidity around your orchid by setting the pot on a gravel-filled tray that contains water. Water evaporation from the tray will add moisture to the air. Make sure the plant’s roots are not in the water. A room humidifier can be used to increase the relative humidity as well.

One reason why Phalaenopsis orchids make good houseplants is that they adapt well to indoor lighting. Give them bright, filtered light such as from an east or south exposure and keep them protected from direct, midday sun. Also, their temperature needs are similar to most other indoor plants. Ideally, the temperature should remain above 60 degrees F at night and in the 70s during the day. Nighttime temperatures that are too warm or light conditions that are too low or too bright can be reasons why an orchid may fail to bloom or re-bloom.

Moth orchids have long lasting flowers and can remain in bloom from winter until early spring. A commonly asked question is “What do I do with my orchid after it has finished flowering?”  While some orchids only bloom once a year, moth orchids can re-bloom on the old stem. To encourage a second bloom, the American Orchid Society suggests cutting the stem just above the 2nd node from the bottom. Nodes contain dormant buds and one of the remaining nodes should produce another flower within 8-12 weeks. Always use a sterile cutting tool to prevent the spread of disease.

I was given a moth orchid many years ago. It made a beautiful addition to my home. After it bloomed, I promptly trimmed it back – unfortunately, to the point of no return. However, now that I’m a few years wiser, I’m confident that I will be much more successful this time around. Orchid growing was once a hobby for the wealthy but nowadays they are widely available and affordable through many nurseries and retail stores.

If orchids are your passion, the 4th Annual Orchid Fest put on by Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University in Ames is right around the corner, February 9th and 10th. Many orchids on display are available for purchase.  For more information on orchids visit the American Orchid Society website at Feel free to contact me with any questions at, by phone at (712) 754-3648 or through your local County Extension office.

Contact information: Margaret Murphy • 712 754-3648 (Office) • 605 521-7893 (Cell) •

This entry was posted on Monday, January 7th, 2013 at 11:43 am and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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