By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
"All of you orchid people are collectors at heart. Like a dog chasing a car, you chase that new orchid. The question is what to do with it when you get it home," Peter Kochalakus, a bromeliad and orchid specialist, recently told to Key West Garden Club members. "Each of you lives in a separate universe. I can't tell you to hang it with a west exposure because everyone's west exposure is different."
The phalaenopsis orchid is the most frequently murdered orchid. People buy it, bring its lovely arching sprays home, overwater it, watch it die and repeat the process. There are a couple of tricks to keeping these beauties alive. First, keep the orchid in the shade, as it is a low-light lover. In the wild, it grows underneath a canopy of taller trees.
Second, do not let water sit in the bottom of its pot. Phalaenopsis' roots like air circulation and moisture. It is good to take this orchid out of its plastic pot and put it in a wooden frame box so water can drain out of the bottom and not remain soaking the sphagnum moss. Clay pots that breathe also can be used.
Good drainage is vital to the health of this orchid. Water frequently, but the roots cannot soak in water. Leaves should be dry by afternoon. If you leave town, make sure the orchids are sideways so water does not collect in the center.
There are two schools of thought about what to do when the blooms are gone. One group cuts the stem just below the last blossom in hopes that the orchid will bloom again. Kochalakus believes it is good to cut the stem off at the base with a sharp sterile knife because new blooms will weaken the plant.
"Vandas are kissing cousins to the phals, but they behave differently," he said. They like bright, filtered light and lots of air. They thrive in a windy spot and love high humidity. Their long aerial roots do not need moss or dirt.
"Vandas are heavy drinkers," he advised. "Their roots absorb water like a sponge."
Water vandas first, move on, then water them again at the end. The roots consist of a thin inner core and an outer covering of velamen that is made up of dead cells that absorb water. The roots die after a couple of years and are replaced with new growth. Many orchids can photosynthesize through their roots.
Remember your first orchid that you bought or received at prom? That was a cattleya that graced the shoulder of the girl. These orchids like bright light. They grow lots of roots that do not like a lot of watering. That is because they have pseudobulbs that hold water. They are easy because they don't need anything to grow on except a tree branch or a piece of driftwood.
"More cattleyas are killed by overwatering," Kochalakus said. "Don't get carried away with putting anything in the pot. Cattleyas should have light green leaves. If they are dark green, they are not getting enough light. If they don't bloom, put them into more sun."
"If you leave it in a plastic pot, it will suffocate."
Here in the Florida Keys, orchids can be tied into the trees. Kochalakus recommends using cable ties because they don't break down quickly, allowing the roots to get established in the tree branch. "Pantyhose (make it) look like the plant is mummified; they rot slowly and it looks grungy."
Some people use twine or string, especially for places that are hard to reach in the trees.
"Remember, these flowers were not put here for your enjoyment. They were put here to procreate," he said, telling us a little more than we wanted to know.
• The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Garden Club Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books,. "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots, Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Key West Garden Club and on Amazon.com. Visit www.sorapublishing.com for more information. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit www.keywestgardenclub.com for more information.