This overview of how to care for orchid plants provides a firm basis for all orchid genera and species. Tailored care tips for each genus and species of your particular orchid can be found here:
Not sure which type of orchid you have? ProPlants Illustrated Orchid Types Guide and Video will help you make the call.
Do the different types of orchids require different care?
Yes. Over the millennia, 700 genera of orchids branched away from each other, ensuring survival by adapting to distinct climates. They separated not only geographically, but in their characteristics.
To provide one example, the Cymbidium orchid evolved in the cool but sunny, high altitude regions of China and Northern Australia. Because it’s adapted to cooler temperatures, it can withstand a light frost that would kill the Phalaenopsis, a native of the tropical areas of South East Asia. Further, the Phalaenopsis (again because of its heritage) prefers a higher level of humidity. These two orchid plants require different potting mixes, but both thrive on abundant, filtered sunlight.
Basic Orchid Care
Light: Abundant, filtered light. Only the Dendrobiums and Oncidiums can take direct rays on fronds for even an hour or two. If the orchid flower must be in a window, use a sheer, translucent curtain or vertical blind to mute the sunlight.
Temperature: Maximum and minimum temperatures vary by genus, BUT many orchid plants should be kept inside for most of the year. Where the Cymbidium can withstand temperatures as low as 40° and Dendrobiums have been known to survive a full-on frost, the Phalaenopsis needs a toasty 65° at all times to feel well.
Water: Because orchids never evolved in standard, loamy potting soil, their roots are unaccustomed to sitting in the sponge-moist, consistent dampness many house plants appreciate. More, many orchids store water in their roots (or rhizomes) and pseudobulbs (fleshy storage units above ground), and so having soil a bit on the dry side isn’t the death sentence it would be for other house plants.
If you are new to orchids, you may be surprised to find your new plant growing on a board, in corks, in bark or in a strange mix called “perlite.” These “media” or orchid potting mixes should get almost completely dry between waterings in all genera except maybe phapiopedilum (Lady Slipper). In the summer, that may mean the orchid should be watered twice weekly. In the winter, it could mean the orchid gets watered once every two weeks. Roots on almost all orchids but the Paphiopedilum should have the chance to get pretty dry.
Consider spritzing orchid with water daily in the morning so it can be dry by night-time. Do not let water stand on fronds.
Orchid experts like to water the orchid by submersing the whole plant in a bucket of water for a few minutes before lifting it to let the excess water drain. Some growers also run water through the orchid pot several times.
Placement: Orchids in windows or close to heating vents, window and registers should definitely be placed on a “humidity tray.” Cool drafts and hot air currents both dry the plant. East-, west- and south-facing windows all have potential for the most abundant light, with the south facing offering the most. If you don’t have a sheer, set the orchid back from the window, choosing a less sunny kitchen counter or coffee table instead. Orchids that need dormant periods usually spend this time in a north facing window where the light isn’t as strong.
Unless the climate is particularly dry (deserts and high altitudes), most orchids appreciate some time outdoors in the warm months. The more cold-tolerant Cymbidium can even handle late spring and early fall. Unlike Phalaenopsis, one mild frost won’t kill it. Most orchids planted outside need lots of shade.
Orchids often do better with orchid friends around. A crowd of plants creates more humidity.
Fertilizer: In winter, during the Cymbidium and Phalaenopsis orchids’ dormant period, a high phosphorous fertilizer (like 10-30-20) is recommended. Recommended growing season (growing season for leaves and fronds, that is) fertilizer has a high nitrogen balance of 30-10-10. Do not fertilize while in bloom.
While you should check the particular needs of your specific orchid type, in general, fertilize at one-quarter strength every week and flush excess fertilizer once monthly with clear water.
Orchids living on a bark media need a high nitrogen fertilizer.
Supplies that Make Care of Orchids Easy
Adaptations like aerial roots and pseudobulbs have helped the orchid survive since the era of the dinosaurs. Despite their toughness, however, conditions in the typical American home can pose some threats. Forced air heaters dry the air far below an orchid’s beloved 40% humidity level, and well-meaning humans flood them with too much water. The top enemies of orchids are dry air and overwatering.
The following supplies will convince your orchid it is home-sweet-home in the Andean or Himalayan forests, alongside a roiling waterfall, where moisture is abundant in the air and but drains quickly away from roots (they’re often hanging on trees or rocks after all).
- a humidistat: know for sure whether your orchid’s aerial roots are getting the moisture they crave.
- a humidity tray: a natural, hands-free, way to get humidity levels up, particularly advised if your orchid plant is beside a window (you can even make one by lining a cookie sheet with pebbles and filling with water. Place plant on top but don’t allow roots to soak in water.)
- fan or ceiling fan: enlist gentle breezes to waft fungal spores away and keep fronds dry.
- a spritzer: spritz lightly in the morning, allowing the fronds to dry out by evening.
- a maximum-minimum thermometer (each species has a preferred low temperature that tells it to begin flower spikes and blooming).
- some suggest a terrarium or in a pinch, an aquarium with a glass placed over top. Leave top open an inch or two to allow for air flow. Could be useful in dry climates where humidity levels are 20% and under.
- orchid fertilizer: high phosphorous (10-30-20) during dormancy (late fall/winter) and high nitrogen (30-10-10) during growth period (spring/summer), given once a week, three weeks out of the month. For more details, check the care sheet for each genus.
- orchid fungicide and orchid bactericide: applied once a month these will help the orchid avoid a world of problems.
Additional Tips for Orchids Care
- Once you decide on the right spot, try not to move your orchid; the orchid gets acclimated to an area and adjusts its various adaptive systems accordingly. Moving it too frequently can shock it.
- Orchids like to live with orchid friends because they help create a warmer, higher moisture atmosphere.
- Those friends sweat, and so a fan is needed so that there is not too much moisture in one area. Too much moisture on top of leaves results in fungal growth. Move that air!
- The potting mix for many orchids is coarse bark. When that has deteriorated into a more soil-like consistency, its nutrients are depleted. Repot with fresh potting mix.
- Finally, once your orchid acclimates to your home and starts thriving, make a note of the amount of light, fertilizer, heat, pot size, and water it’s using. Aspects of orchid care work in concert; change one and you can throw off a delicate balance, leading to necessary changes in another.
- If black spots, yellow leaves or insect armies begin to invade your orchid plant, resort to ProPlants’ Orchid Diseases, Fungus and Pests Symptom and Solution Chart. Discover the cause of the problem and remedying it is just around the corner.
When caring for orchids, ground yourself by remembering that all species need:
- filtered, rather than direct, sunlight;
- a specialized, airy growing media (perlite, fir bark, moss or a mixture of these);
- less water than the traditional house plant potted in garden soil;
- sufficient air circulation to keep pests, fungi and disease at bay; (a fan in the room)
- humidity levels at 40% or higher;
- a dry period: less moisture in winter during dormant season than during spring and summer growth period
They differ in their needs for:
- potting mix (growing media)
What else can help my orchid live a long time?
Refine your orchids care by using the products that target the needs of the specific genus. For instance, potting mixes both come in Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium form. Where Cymbidium orchids can go for three years before re-potting, it’s best to repot Phalaenopsis every 18 – 24 months. Use your judgment as well. A poorly blooming orchid is trying to tell you it’s time for new soil and more room!