Orchids are some of most intricate and unique plants that I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. They’re part of a beautiful and diverse family of herbaceous perennials that contains over 30,000 species, growing on almost every continent of the world. Today, I’m delighted to bring you some of the most unusual types of orchids, with truly exceptional coloring and features.
Types of Orchids, and Their Popularity
It’s no wonder that from years gone by, the orchid family (known as Orchidaceae), were considered fit for royalty. Thanks to its upright, graceful habit, classic elegance, and timeless beauty, the orchid family is still truly fit for a King.
The Orchidaceae family is a large one, containing over 800 genera and some 26 thousand diverse, wonderful species. That doesn’t even include the growing number of hybrid varieties. Growing widely throughout the world, the orchid’s native habitats range from cool European woodlands to the tropical cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru. This proves that these beautiful and ornamental specimen plants have a wide range of growing requirements, each fitting to their native growing conditions.
This may sound a complex species to grow, but fear not! Any eager enthusiast can rise above the worry Experience has long shown that even orchids from the most tropical regions of the globe can grow—and indeed thrive—in ordinary warm-house conditions.
There’s a wide range of orchids available to choose from. Most of the commonly cultivated varieties are in that of the Moth Orchid family, botanically known as Phalaenopsis. These are intricate and exotic winter flowering wonders, suitable for ornamental home growing. Each flower resembles a moth in flight, but in all honesty, I’ve never seen such a beautiful moth. In perfect growing conditions, this orchid will have multiple blooming periods. This of course makes these all the more attractive to own.
Best of the Best Orchid Varieties
The Bee Orchid – “Ophrys apifera“
Anyone reading my blogs will know that I’m in awe of nature’s plant adaptation abilities. The Bee Orchid has one of the most ingenious floral colorings so far. Its flowers resemble a female bee visiting a dusky-pink flower head. This attracts male bees to copulate, whilst also giving off an attractive female scent. The male bee then attempts to mate with the flower, and transfers the pollen in the process. Over time, this orchid’s shape has evolved to guarantee its pollination, which I think is genius.
Native to Europe, including England, Ireland, and Wales, this splendid variety can be found growing in high limestone soils on dry grasslands and open woodlands. At full maturity it will grow to a height of around 50 cm. This is a stunning example of evolution at its best!
The White Egret Orchid – “Habenaria radiata“
The White Egret orchid is a rare terrestrial orchid species, found in grassy wetland areas throughout Asia and Russia. This endangered specimen’s flowers resemble miniature, pearly white birds in flight—both delicate and exquisite. These arrive in summertime with each slim stalk holding up to eight tiny flower heads, each around 4 cm in width. These remarkable flowers are named after the snowy egret bird, and do look remarkably similar.
Unfortunately, it seems that much of their native habitat is used for growing rice throughout Japan and China, which has had devastating consequences to this species. These now only exist in boglands and on high mountain slopes: areas considered unsuitable for alternative use within Japanese agriculture.
The Cycnoches Family
This is a genus of over 30 orchid species with dramatic, showy flower heads. They grow as an epiphytic plant in rainforests throughout South America and southern Mexico. Their native environment provides warm, moist growing conditions for their pendulous inflorescence flower heads, where they grow attached to tropical trees high in the open canopy.
As with many orchids, Cycnoches grow from a pseudo bulb, (which to you and me is a pod-like storage organ), just underneath the leaves. These “pods” contain all the plant needs to grow healthily, even in times of bad weather. Another ingenious piece of nature for you!
With the common name of “Swan Orchid”, these particular flowers are slightly different from many of the others within the Orchidaceae family. They bear separate male and female flowers, rather than the standard hermaphroditic forms.
The Cycnoches are a highly scented genus which can reproduce rapidly, developing a mature flowering plant within about 6 months. In Ancient Greek, this genus means “swan” and “neck”, hence its common name.
The Fly Orchid – “Ophrys insectifera“
This is a further variety of the Ophrys genus—native to much of Europe—and a close relative of the Bee Orchid. Fitting to its common name, it has a flower inflorescence resembling a flying insect. You’ll see that this is another cunning trick to entice wasps and bees to its flower for pollination and reproduction.
The Monkey Face Orchid – “Dracula simia“
This remarkable, rare, but well-publicized orchid which grows high up in Ecuador and Peru’s cloud forests. It’s often seen at elevations of one to two thousand meters on mountainous hillsides. A real beauty, this variety has strongly orange-scented flowers that resemble a monkey’s face. Their fuzzy eyebrows, furry noses and beards are paired with hanging spurs that look a bit like Dracula’s fangs.
The top flowers tend to open in May, then flower heads further down the stem follow suit. In some situations, this plant can bloom all year round. A young Monkey Orchid plant can take up to seven years to flower, and each plant has two oval tubers as storage organs. Because of this, the Greek genus name “Orchis” translates to “testicles”.
The Swaddled Baby Orchid – “Anguloa uniflora“
This Anguloa orchid is in Tulip Orchid family, and native to Peru. It grows in a wide range of habitats, ranging from dry slopes to moist woodlands. Its flowers resemble tiny babies wrapped in white swaddling cloths, hence its common name. Unlike epiphyte orchids, which generally grow in trees, using their roots to anchor themselves, these are terrestrial orchids.
They grow on the ground and possess an intoxicating scent, irresistible to certain male bee species. These unsuspecting males (and other passing insects) are drawn to this scent on the flower’s lower lip. They’re then literally pushed into the liquid pollen, ensuring a good covering. The pollen attracts mates for the male bees in turn, ensuring fertilization. Once again, a fine show of ingenuity in the awesome natural world.
The orchid range is vast, and their growing requirements are diverse. They generally fall into two categories: Epiphytic and Terrestrial.
Growing Epiphytic Orchids
The Right Temperature
Choose a site where the temperature will be around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Most orchids will require tropical temperatures, well away from any cold drafts. Choose your plant carefully: it’s better to buy a plant that’s several years old, as it’ll be stronger and will take less time to flower.
There are two ways to plant these epiphytic orchids. You can either place the plant in a basket-like pot with composted bark and humus, or tie the young plant to an “orchid slab”. The latter is made of cedar or cork bark, cushioned beneath by sphagnum moss. Once you’ve done this, hang the planted slab in a shaded south- or west-facing window.
Most epiphytes will tolerate and adapt to conventional ground dwelling, as long as the growing medium allows air to circulate. Don’t panic if you haven’t got a suitable hanging space.
All orchids like extra humidity. One of the best ways to achieve this is to fill a small tray with hydroponic pebbles and water, and place it near your plant.
Water your plants through the growing medium, ensuring it’s misted damp but never wet through. I use a water sprayer for this on the smallest setting. Never spray the plant itself as it can encourage diseases.
Watering and Feed Requirements
Check on the plant label for your orchid’s individual water and feed requirements. I advise that orchids need to be fed regularly with a weak solution (maybe 1/4 strength), of balanced fertilizer throughout the flowering season. This helps to promote strong growth and flowers. Be careful not to fertilize a dry plant, as this can cause root damage. Wet the soil before you feed it.
One last tip: once you’ve found a good spot to home your orchid, try not to move it around too much.
Growing Terrestrial Orchids
Selecting the Perfect Site
First, always check the plant label to ensure your orchid is suitable for your location. If in any doubt, plant your orchid into a pot. This allows you to find exactly the right spot for it before you commit to planting it in the ground. Most orchids like a partially sunny site: slightly sheltered and out of direct sunlight.
Is your Orchid Happy?
There are certain foliage signs to look out for that tell you if your orchid is in a “happy place”. In a healthy plant, the leaves should be light to mid green. Should your leaves become very light and bleached looking, your plant needs less sunlight. The same applies if the leaves turn a much darker green. You should be able to see a red tinge on mid-green plant foliage when it’s happy with its positioning.
Selecting the Perfect Compost
Make sure you have the right growing medium for your orchid, whether planting into a pot or directly into the garden. This will help create a healthy and happy plant. There are specific orchid composts available that have an ideal draining structure. Alternatively, a good humus rich in sandy soil will make a good growing medium.
Watering and Feed Requirements
When it comes to watering, all orchids need more water throughout the active growing season and less in the dormant winter time.
It is impossible to speculate the watering needs of the entire family as all orchid varieties have different needs. For example, some terrestrial orchids have pseudo bulbs at the plant base which is used as a storage system for water and nutrients. Let these varieties dry out a little after watering them. Keep other varieties moist, and they’ll perform better.
My best piece of advice is to check out the growing requirements on the plant label of your Orchid to ensure you follow the recommended amounts of water and feed for your particular variety of orchid.
Breeding Your Orchids
Once you have an orchid in your home that you’ve fallen in love with, you can take a cutting from the rootstock, to create more of the same plants. As discussed above, most orchids develop special storage organs when they are actively growing. These growths contain all of the nutrients and water that your plant needs. Separate these from the mother plant with a bit of teasing. Do this in springtime, when the bulbs are active and environmental conditions are just right.
First, dry your plant out a little. Then, fill a small, sterilized terracotta plant pot 1/3 full with a broken up and equal mix of 1 part Osmunda fiber, 1 part polypodium and 1 part spagnum moss. My grandfather used this for orchids, and it always worked well for him. It’ll create a perfect, airy compost that will also soak up excess moisture.
Now, gently remove the parent plant from the pot and gently tease off the soil from the roots. Remove any dried-up bulbs and anything that looks unhealthy. Then separate the pseudo bulbs into small groups by hand. You’ll need three bulbs with new growth for each new plant. Place each bulb group into a pot, and then fill it with that potting mixture.
My list only contains a fraction of the great number of really stunning orchids that are available. It really is worth doing your own homework before you go to buy one. You’ll be astounded at the number of quirky, wonderful species that are bound to make you smile and want to get growing!