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Orchids on Your Windowsill

by Gerry Oliver

The tendency is to equate orchids with steaming jungles, fancy corsages and a rotund Nero Wolfe tending his rare beauties in a glass garden. No so for thousands of casual indoor gardeners across the country. They think of orchids not in relation to the tropics or fat, fictional detectives, but in terms of an addictive and rather uncomplicated hobby. In fact, despite myths surrounding the aristocrat of flowers, those who’ve tried growing orchids on their windowsills insist they’ve discovered an easy, rewarding and inexpensive pastime.

The image of temperamental, high-priced orchids is rooted in history and legend. Confucius wrote that orchids were flowers of great refinement to be held in high esteem. Until the 18th century, orchids were revered and heralded as medicinal remedies and aphrodisiacs. During the late 1700s, plant fanciers became captivated by exotic orchids imported from mysterious parts of the globe. Serious collectors were willing to pay thousands of dollars for an unusual specimen. Since that time, orchid raising has been thought of as the passion of wealthy hobbyists.

Fortunately, these days you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to start your orchid collection. For a small expenditure, your Growise Center can get you going with a plant suitable for your growing conditions and expertise.

Like most beginners, Jim Shuler, now a resident physician in emergency medicine in Lansing, Michigan, began his love affair with orchids while growing a few specimens on his windowsill. He went on to become the orchid grower at a large Colorado greenhouse while pursuing an undergraduate degree in botany. He still stresses that a greenhouse is not mandatory to fully enjoy orchids. "Many varieties can be grown on a tray of pebbles in the same window environment as African violets. They will also bloom under a 40-watt fluorescent light. The trick is selecting the right orchid for the right spot."

When it comes to selection, orchid varieties are infinitely easier to grow than to identify and spell. Dr. Shuler admits almost everyone starts out having trouble with the tongue-tying orchid names. "Many beginners are intimidated by the use of so many technical names. But since there are so many varieties of orchids, you almost have to know them by the Latin designation." Shuler recommends the Paphiopedilum or "slipper" orchids for low-light areas such as a north facing window, and the Phalaenopsis, known as the "moth" orchid for medium light. Both are good choices for beginners. The more adventurous might try a Cymbidium which is ideally suited to brightly lit environments.

 Orchids do not want to be fretted or fussed over. In fact, experts claim orchids don’t mind a little neglect and that too much attention can be deadly. The major rule is don’t over water -- a soggy specimen is doomed. Also keep in mind that too much sunlight can be as bad as too little. When it comes to environment, orchids can live happily in the temperatures maintained in most homes. To boost humidity, place your orchids on a tray filled with gravel. Add water until the stones are almost covered. As for fertilizing, the watchwords are "weakly, weekly." Water once a week with a 20-20-20 solution that is about 1/4 of the strength recommended. In autumn, switch to a bloom-booster such as 10-30-20.

Although care is relatively easy, the waiting game while anticipating the bloom can be one of the orchid lover’s most difficult tasks. Any hobbyist will quickly add, however, that good things are in store for those with patience. The beauty of the flower and variety of colors and bloom sizes stagger the imagination. Orchid blooms can be small as a thimble or as large as a dinner plate, with many boasting delicious fragrances as a bonus to their fragile beauty. In addition, some orchids stay in bloom for as long as three months.

So by now you are hopefully tempted to try growing orchids on your windowsill or under lights. Be warned that something magical is likely to happen. Orchids can cast a spell and a casual interest might just become a relentless obsession. One hobbyist started with a single plant in her living room and now has three jam-packed greenhouses and a thriving orchid business. You’ll discover that orchids aren’t hard to grow, they’re just different. And you’ll discover a hardy dependable plant is disguised by layers of mystery and supposed fragility.

Jim Shuler sums up the experience: "Orchids are a disease."

He’s the doctor. He should know.

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