Ask the Expert

How to Care for Orchids | Kim DeLong, Greenhouse Manager and Curator

DeLong cares for the greenhouse’s more than 900 orchids, an impressive collection gifted to the College in 1997 by Alan Brout ’51. The orchids are kept in two rooms: a tropical room and a cool room for those native to high elevations in the South American mountains. Orchids are the most labor-intensive plants DeLong cares for, but they needn’t be intimidating. “Orchids, for the most part, thrive on benign neglect,” she says. Here are her top care tips. —Annie Phifer ’20

No Ice Cubes
“Many types of orchids like to dry out between waterings, so we encourage you to feel the medium it’s planted in. If it feels crunchy, it’s time to water. People always tell me about a trick: Put ice cubes on the orchids. I don’t agree with that. It doesn’t totally wet the whole mass of roots, and you really want a thorough soaking and draining afterwards. If you’re at home, the best thing is to put the plant in a bucket and pour distilled water over it. Let it soak a little while, then drain it well.”

Get Shady
“Most types of orchids like bright, indirect sunlight. Let’s say you place your orchid by a window where there’s a patch of light. You don’t want the orchid directly in the sun—you want it just outside the patch of light. It depends on the orchid. If it’s sensitive to intense light, an orchid’s leaves will burn. If it’s a really hot summer, it’ll dry out faster and need watering once a week—in winter, maybe once every two weeks.”

Try Moths
“Moth orchids bloom once or—if you’re lucky—twice per year. They’re pretty much every hobbyist’s starting point. They’ve become common because 20 years ago horticulturalists figured out how to replicate them by taking cells from leaf tips, putting them in gel and growing them. Orchids all have different life spans—one species doesn’t even start to flower until it’s two decades old—but a moth orchid could easily live 20 to 30 years.”

Research
“Knowing what you’re getting into before you purchase an orchid is key. If there’s an orchid you’re interested in, look it up on the Internet to see how to care for it and what to expect. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica—there are even tiny Arctic orchids in Greenland and northern Canada. They all have very different care requirements and life spans, so when you first get an orchid research it to see what it needs, and make sure you have the time to take care of it.”

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