Orchids know about the birds and the bees.
Reproduction is fairly straightforward. There's the male and the female, a little bit of magic and then you're saving for college. In the animal kingdom, beauty often wins the race, whether it's colorful plumage, elaborate dances or bulging biceps.
In the plant kingdom, things aren't always simple. The male and female parts are usually located in the same flower. The trick is getting a third party to work the magic, which is usually an insect. This is where the orchid trumps the game.
Orchids are one of the most visually stunning flowers in the world. They are unique from most plants we're accustomed to growing because they are epiphytes, which means they have roots but don't anchor into soil but rather cling to objects.
According to some sources, there are more than 25,000 species of orchids that can be found in mountains, bogs, grasslands and rainforests. Each species is small in number due to their genetic variability and niche specialization. The flowers are as extravagant as they are varied, featuring alluring petals, sepals and a specialized petal called a lip. A short structure called the column is located above the lip where the reproductive organs are found.
Orchids lure pollinators to do the work of fertilization with sweet scents or, in some cases, rotten odors. Dracula orchids give off smells that, by human standards, are rancid. Rotting meat, urine and decay, however, are delicacies to flies.
Sometimes the pattern and shape of the flower can draw bees or butterflies for pollination. The slipper orchid grows in a way that a prospective pollinator falls inside the flower to pollinate.
Nectar, that sweet reward harvested by pollinators, is a common lure produced by many plants. By some estimates, however, a third of orchids avoid nectar production to conserve energy and instead lure pollinators with some sort of trickery. One of the more twisted pollination ploys techniques employed by orchids is sexual frustration.
Ophrys, otherwise known as the bee orchid, dabbles in biomimicry by copying the mating pheromone of a female pollinator. Pheromones are the calling card in the insect world, a chemical released and detected with antennae to communicate danger, food or mating. The hapless male bee senses the pheromone and searches the flower high and low for his prospective mate and, in the process, fertilizes the flower. The male bee gets nothing for the effort, not even a hint of nectar.
Without a reward, the frustrated male bee avoids Ophrys in the nearby area and finds another far away. By pollinating a faraway orchid, the gene exchange of distant flowers avoids inbreeding that would produce weak progeny. Biodiversity is key to species adaptability.
Fortunately, we don't have to play the orchid's mind games to enjoy their beauty. Given the proper conditions, they are relatively easy to grow. While orchids vary in their requirements, the following are some general guidelines for success.
Improper lighting is a common reasons orchids fail to bloom. In tropical environments, plants often developed shade tolerance to grow beneath dense canopies. However, orchids also have evolved to cling high in the tree where light is plentiful. Learn the light requirements of your type of orchid to give it adequate sun yet to avoid burning. Good lighting isn't difficult in the summer when you can move them outside, but is harder to find inside during the winter.
Contrary to our green thumb, orchids typically have light green to yellow-green foliage when they receive adequate sunlight. Lush green foliage can indicate flower failure is imminent.
Also, avoid stagnant environments by placing the plant under a ceiling fan or wherever a gentle breeze can be found.
Aeration is essential. Orchid potting mix needs to be well-drained and well-aerated. Over-watering is another common reason orchids fail. You can mix your own potting medium, but beginner orchid growers are better off purchasing premixed orchid potting mixes.
Allow rooting medium to dry out before watering. Frequency depends on several conditions, so you may have to test the soil with your finger. Clay pots tend to dry out faster than plastic pots. Add water until it passes through the drain holes. This helps flush out accumulated salts.
Feeding orchids isn't required for flowering, but many sources suggest you'll get better results by doing so. Use a fertilizer that is specially formulated for orchids. Frequency can vary, but a general guideline includes fertilizing once a week during the summer and every other week in fall and winter.
Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, is a low-light orchid that is commonly found at garden centers and one of the easiest to grow. Slipper orchids also are fairly easy for the beginner orchid grower.
Among the local sources for buying orchids are Johns Island Orchids (johnsislandorchids.com), Hyams Garden Center (hyamsgardencenter.com), Abide-A-While Garden Center (abideawhilegardencenter.com). Carter and Holmes Orchids (carterandholmes.com) in Newberry is another well-known source.
Also consider joining Coastal Carolina Orchid Society (www.coastalcarolinaos.org) to learn more.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.