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Formerly rare orchid now a ubiquitous bloom: New techniques mass-produce some varieties

Pots of Phalaenopsis orchids appear at one of Hong Kong’s largest orchid farms, located at Hong Kong’s rural New Territories, on Jan. 14. Not so long ago, orchids were regarded as rare and exotic. But these days, thanks to new propagation techniques, certain varieties are mass-produced. Moth orchids, or Phalaenopsis, gorgeous but common with sweet patterned faces, are widely sold by supermarkets and other retailers. (AP photo/Kin Cheung, file)

Not so long ago, orchids were regarded as rare and exotic. But these days, thanks to new propagation techniques, certain varieties are mass-produced. Moth orchids, gorgeous but common, with sweet patterned faces, are widely sold by supermarkets and other retailers.

In fact, orchids are now “the most popular blooming florist crop in the world,” says Marc Hachadourian, senior orchid curator at the New York Botanical Garden. “Not only are they beautiful, now bred in a rainbow of colors and patterns, they are ideal for the home and the blooms are long lasting.”

Indeed, orchid flowers can last for weeks. With many of us stuck at home, they offer an easy, inexpensive way to brighten up a room.

Once the flowers die, it might be tempting to toss the plant. But you can get that $10 orchid to bloom again. In fact, coaxing an orchid to rebloom is a great pandemic project. Just one catch: The pandemic might be over by the time you succeed.

“Most of the orchids available for purchase bloom once a year,” said Blanche Wagner, orchid curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has a world-renowned orchid collection that dates to the late 19th century. “It takes an amazing amount of energy to produce their blooms, and they need a full year to build up enough energy to flower again.”

An orchid purchased at Trader Joe's grocery store that has rebloomed is pictured on March 4, 2021, in Atlanta. Once the flowers on an orchid die, though it's tempting to toss the plant, that orchid can bloom again. (AP Photo/Ali Kaufman)

She suggests putting a date-of-purchase tag on your orchids to keep your timetable for reblooming realistic.

And don’t neglect them just because they’re not in bloom. After the flowers die “is the most important time to care for your plants, making sure they get the best available light, water and fertilizer to make sure they grow their best before flowering again,” said Hachadourian, author of “Orchid Modern: Living and Designing with the World’s Most Elegant Houseplants.”

Orchids grow wild in rainforests, so they prefer warm, humid environments. Morning sun is best, says Kenya Friend-Daniel, speaking on behalf of the plants and flowers team at Trader Joe’s, which sells orchids. “But avoid direct sunlight, which “can sunburn the plants’ leaves and burn the bloom.”

Watering orchids just right is tricky. Spraying the roots daily with a spray bottle is the best technique, Friend-Daniel said. Alternatively, provide a half-cup of water once a week for plants potted in bark, and a quarter-cup once a week for plants in moss. In warmer months, water every four to five days.

Never let the roots sit in water, because they will rot.

Two small inexpensive orchids awaiting rebloom are pictured on March 4 in an apartment in the Brooklyn borough of New York. These plants were in flower last year. Orchid flowers can last for weeks, but once they shed their blossoms, it can take a year for them to rebloom. Getting the right amount of water, along with sunlight and temperature, is key to their regrowth. (Beth Harpaz via AP)

“Most failures with orchids are because of overwatering,” said Hachadourian. “If the plants are potted in moss, allow it to dry slightly between watering.”

Some orchid lovers swear by giving their plants nothing more than an ice cube or two weekly, but Hachadourian says that doesn’t provide enough water for long-term growth. He says tepid water is better for them in any case.

You can also fertilize, but sparingly. Too much can kill the roots.

Once the first flowers are gone, Friend-Daniel’s team advises cutting the stem off to the base, removing the growing medium (moss or bark), and transplanting to a slightly larger pot filled with fresh bark or sphagnum moss.

“New growth should start coming from the middle of the plant within three to four months,” Friend-Daniel said. It will take seven months total to produce a flower spike, and 12 months for a fully bloomed spike.

The ideal temperature while awaiting new growth is 85 degrees; once there’s new foliage, 70 to 75 degrees. Too complicated? “No one said it was easy,” Friend-Daniel said. “It’s work.”

If you do get new flowers, you may be in for a surprise. Some growers inject dye into orchid stems to get them blooming bright blue, yellow, orange or green. Those dyed orchids rebloom white.

Whatever color your new blooms are, Hachadourian says the “take-home message” is a good one: “People are reblooming their orchids more than once.”

This is typically when botanical gardens host orchid shows, but many have been canceled.

In the meantime, head to Trader Joe’s or other retailers and pick up an orchid to enjoy at home. If it reblooms next spring, it will be a good reminder, hopefully, of how different things were this year.

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