Orchids are one of the most beloved families of flowering plants. However, there are a lot of misperceptions about how fragile and difficult growing orchids can be. For the average plant lover, this may make them dismissive of orchids as something they can grow indoors. Orchid flowers need specific care like proper humidity levels and soil, but they are not as delicate as you may think.

Ambius installs and maintains orchid displays in offices and indoor spaces as part of our living floral service. As the experts in interior landscapes, we created the Ultimate Guide to Orchids and Orchid Care to answer common questions about orchids.

Orchid basics

What is an orchid?

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An orchid is a type of flowering plant that is part of the Orchidaceae family. They are in one of the largest families of flowering plants. Today, there is approximately 28,000 accepted and acknowledged species of orchid. Because of the variety of colors and shades, gardeners and plant breeders love orchids for their vibrant indoor beauty.

Orchid flowers have symmetrical petals that look the same on both sides. The blooms are bilateral and symmetrical meaning each side is like a mirror image of the other. Many of the flowers bloom upside down (resupinate). The petals, or labellum, are usually highly modified and orchids have fused stamens and carpels.

Orchids also have extremely tiny seeds housed within a dry capsule. Those capsules hold thousands of the tiny seeds and they lack endosperm.

Are orchids perennials?

This, like so many questions related to orchids, depends on the species you are growing. Most orchids grow anchored to trees and shrubs in the wild as perennial epiphytes. The majority of them prefer tropical and subtropical climates.

Where do orchids grow naturally?

One of the more interesting things about orchids is that they do not grow in soil. In fact, if you try to put orchids in the soil, you will likely kill them.

Orchid roots have a white, moisture-absorbing substance covering them that requires exposure to air. They grow on tree branches, for example, in many cases or they attach to other portions of other plants. Orchids that grow on the ground typically thrive in humus-rich soil, which is an organic matter lacking structure.

Orchids grow in a variety of places and in different sources of light. They tend to need a good amount of light, but not too much intense direct light. They have a reputation of needing to grow in humid areas, but that is not the case for all species.

A large number of orchids grow horizontally. They sent out shoots along their growing medium from the original rhizome. A rhizome is the stem of a plant found underground. These new shoots rise up and flower at that point.

Orchids grow pseudobulbs, which are actually swollen shoots that the plants use to absorb moisture and store it. They get their nutrients from the stored water so that they can survive long periods of drought.

What kinds of orchids grow in the wild?

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While orchids are popular for indoor and private gardens, but they also actively grow in the wild. Many different species of orchids exist around the world.

Some of popular orchids that grow in the wild are:

  • Lady slipper orchids (Cypripedium)
  • Cymbidiums (boat orchids)
  • Dendrobiums
  • Cattleya
  • Oncidiums (dancing-lady orchids)

Wild orchids are found in North America, but more are found in South America, like in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is famous for being the origin of more than 1,400 species of orchid.

Wild orchids are at risk because changes in their environment can kill them quite easily. This includes changes in their soil and weather conditions.

What orchids are endangered?

Orchids thrive in tropical climates, so they are most at risk in North America. There are a variety of reasons why these orchids have become endangered, but a good example is the slow vanishing of Isotria medeoloides.

At one time, Istoria medeoloides were all over North America and common across the United States. These days, however, it is the rarest orchid found east of the Mississippi.

Many North American orchids face endangerment because they depend on specific fungi to thrive. This fungus is known as mycorrhizal fungi which work with the roots of the orchid to help provide them with nutrients. Orchids have a special root system that does not allow them to draw nutrients from the soil like other plants. The hitch here is that not every form of mycorrhizal fungi will work with every kind of orchid.

In a true demonstration of how an ecosystem works, the mycorrhizal fungi require trees upon which to grow. Mycorrhizal fungi generally survive and grow in older forests. Because of deforestation and urban expansion, there are fewer older forests and trees. This endangers mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn puts orchids at risk of becoming endangered.

Where do orchids come from?

Orchids are native to regions in Asia, Australia, the Himalayas and the Philippines. Orchids are now found worldwide.

Where are orchids found naturally?

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Orchids natural habitats have been dying off slowly for years but they can still be found in a lot of places growing in the wild in warmer and tropical climates like Hawaii.

Some areas where orchids grow naturally include:

  • Brazil
  • Ecuador
  • Hawaii
  • India
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Philippines
  • Peru
  • Thailand
  • Indonesia

There are also some species of orchid that grow naturally in North America, but they are very rare and many are considered endangered these days.

How do orchids grow?

Orchids come in two different types in terms of growth. They are:

  • Monopodial – which means “single foot.” The roots of these orchids will grow in a kind of a tangled up mess, usually below the preferred growth medium, however, they will also stick up through the surface of that medium, too. They have a “single foot” with the stem, leaves, and flower growing up from that ball of roots. Monopodial orchids usually bend into the infamous orchid plant arch when the flowers bloom because the weight of the flowers causes that to happen.
  • Sympodial – these orchid flowers grow horizontally along a growing medium such as a tree. They produce a number of thick stems that are bulbous in shape. These bulbs are known as rhizomes and they spread out in a horizontal pattern from the original plant. These rhizomes are usually at least partially visible above the growing medium and the new plants shoot up from them. The rhizomes can produce multiple shoots, but each will at least produce one.

How do orchids propagate?

In the wild, orchids propagate, or reproduce, much the same way other plants do. They are pollinated and the pollen and seeds spread to other areas. When they find a favorable growing medium, they will put down the meager roots that they have and grow. Orchids pollinate through a number of different means, much the way other plants do.

People who grow orchids on their own can propagate their orchids through a number of ways, as well. There are usually three methods for growers to propagate orchids:

  • Division – when the plant gets too large for the pot in which it’s growing, the grower can divide the plant and then put the portion that has been split off in another pot and grow another plant. Since some species of orchid have a number of shoots, these can be repotted and grown into additional orchids.
  • Back bulbs – back bulbs are the older, dormant bulbs that usually are at the “back” of a group of orchids. The viable back bulbs are dormant, but still, have an active “eye” that a grower can actually force back into an active growth mode. By carefully cutting through the roots at a specific place and at a very specific and certain time. This can cause them to have another active blooming and growth mode that can create a batch of new flowers.
  • Offshoots – this is really a viable option depending upon the type of orchid that you’re growing. Some species will develop offshoots. An offshoot basically looks like a smaller, individual, plant similar to the main shoot. Just like with back bulbs, these offshoots can be removed and repotted.
  • Micropropagation – also known as tissue culture. This is a method of rapidly reproducing plants. Select samples are taken from the original plants and put into a sterile environment. This can be as small as a single cell taken from the original plant. The plant is allowed to grow in a growth medium. Tissue samples are taken from those plants that have grown from the cells. Once growth happens, root growth is encouraged and the plants eventually transferred and allowed to grow as new plants. It can be very complicated and usually done in a laboratory.

When are orchids in season? How long to orchids bloom?

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There are a wide variety of orchid species and home growers can continue to have orchids year round if they have a room or greenhouse where they can regulate temperature, humidity and light levels. Given the wide variety of orchid species, it is hard to say exactly when they are in season. The answer is – it depends.

There are over 28,000 species of orchids and some of them bloom just once, but others bloom multiple times. Various species bloom at different times of the year and under varying conditions. In fact, orchids are popular among those who want to have blooming flowers in their homes or indoors during the winter because of the number of species that bloom during that time, if conditions are kept right.

Do orchids prefer more sun or less sun?

It depends on the species. If you receive orchids in the mail or purchase them from a nursery, be sure to ask questions about the species you are buying and get the instructions for light care. There are low light orchids and those which require more light.

In general, bright, direct, sunlight is not good for orchids. This can actually burn the leaves and the plant. Orchids placed behind curtains that let some light through, or window blinds that do the same, is good for most species.

Be sure to research and ask questions about the specific species of orchid you are purchasing. Some of them thrive in low light or medium light. They may also need varying levels of temperature and humidity.

Are orchids edible? Are orchids poisonous to pets?

It is an old myth that orchid flowers are not edible. Most species of orchids are actually safe for humans to eat. It is not recommended that anyone run out and eat a bunch of orchids, as it is possible that there might be some stomach irritation for sensitive digestive systems.

There is also a myth that orchids are poisonous to dogs, cats, and horses. This is an old wives' tale, as well. However, each animal has its own unique sensitivities and allergies and it is recommended that you keep all your plants and flowers away from pets and not let them eat houseplants at will. It is possible they could have a bad reaction regardless of the overall toxicity of the plant.

Do orchids grow in soil? What soil is best for growing orchids? How are orchids rooted?

The answer to the question of whether or not the orchids you have grown in soil is a resounding – maybe! It all depends on the species of orchid you have and are trying to grow.

Terrestrial orchids such as the Venus slipper (paphiopedilums) grow in soil. Boat orchids (cymbidiums) also have some varieties that grow in soil. However, the vast majority of orchids that people grow in their homes and gardens are of the tropical variety. These types of orchids are epiphytes which means they grow in the open air rather than in soil.

For tropical orchids, their roots are covered with a white fleshy substance. The substance is velamen, which actually has sponge-like properties that allow the orchids to absorb and store water. The coating also protects the root from heat and the loss of that moisture due to the heat. Tropical orchids tend to need a lot of room for proper air circulation around the roots, too. Orchids are also designed to require relatively low amounts of water, absorbing quite a bit out of the air itself. The open-air root system allows the excess moisture to drain properly.

This is why most orchids grow on trees and shrubbery. There are also orchids that do very well in types of moss, fir bark and other medium that allow increased air circulation and moisture drainage.

The roots of many species of orchid attach to trees and shrubs in order to absorb moisture and nutrients through the special velamen coating. These types of rooting systems are known as air roots and are common in most species of orchid.

What atmosphere do you need to keep orchids?

If talking about the general humidity in the atmosphere, it is generally well documented that most species of orchids prefer a denser, more humid atmosphere. Like with other issues regarding growing orchids, a lot depends on the species of orchid being grown and asking questions from experts and following directions.

Tropical orchids are grown in very humid and moisture-rich atmospheres in the wild. Fifty percent humidity or more may be required for some species of orchid, which is way more than most homes have in the rooms where people congregate. This is why growers who get deep into growing orchids tend to have greenhouses or special rooms where they grow their orchids, controlling heat, light and humidity levels.

How do orchids know when to bloom?

There are various triggers involved in when an orchid, just like with any blooming plant, actually blooms. The right light and humidity levels are important, for example. The plants have their own internal clocks and systems that tell it when it’s time to bloom.

The interesting things about orchids are that their blooms can go dormant. For the uninitiated, it may appear that the orchid has died, but it has not. Orchids can often be coaxed into reblooming. This requires some special attention on the orchid, using fertilizer and careful monitoring of moisture. It also requires monitoring and possibly adjusting the humidity levels in the room where the orchids are being kept. If done properly, a second bloom can happen with the orchid.

How are orchid seeds dispersed? How do orchids reproduce?

Over time, like most plants and flowers, orchids have developed a method of dispersing their seeds so that they can grow and not become too crowded in one place. Orchids have very small, light, seeds, which makes them ideal for the seeds to blow away in the wind and to find a new place to grow. This is necessary to keep the plants alive otherwise too many can grow in one spot, reducing the nutrients and resources the plants need to thrive.

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What do orchids need to survive?

This is a young orchid growing in a foam-like material that holds moisture and abundant air needed for root growth.

Orchids are like any other plant. They need:

  • Light
  • Water
  • Proper growing medium
  • Air

The difference is that orchids need specialized atmospheres, humidity levels, water, sunlight growing mediums based on the species of orchid that is being grown. The best bet is to follow the growing instructions that come with the plants and to ask a plant specialist for assistance if you have purchased the orchids from a store or nursery.

What orchids bloom all year?

It is possible to have orchid blooms all year long, but it requires some careful planning on the types of orchids you bring into the home and cultivate. No plant will last for a full year, although orchids can bloom, go dormant, and be coaxed in reblooming.

Since there are thousands and thousands of species of orchid, it would be nearly impossible to list all of the species, the times the bloom and the length of their bloom times. However, if you do your research, ask other orchid experts and ask questions from the people from which you buy the orchids, you can plant and cultivate a number of different species of orchids with varying bloom season, times and other factors. By doing this it’s possible to have orchids blooming all year long in your home.

Are orchids good for indoors?

There is a myth out there that orchids are very fragile and hard to grow. Although orchids do require some unique growing mediums and require special watering and humidity levels, most of these are not out of the realm of the average plant lover and homeowner to keep orchids alive and well in their homes. There is a reason that orchids are generally some of the most popular blooming plants for indoor use.

Growing orchids in your home or office is not something that necessarily requires creating a special room for them, either. Although, if you want to do such a thing you can, it is not necessary. There are plenty of species of orchid that can grow inside the average family home or even an office without those special needs. Nearly all species of orchids are famous for their colorful flowers and blooms and can be used to enhance the appearance of an interior space.

What orchids live in the rainforest?

There are many thousands of species of orchid that grow in tropical climates, including rainforests. Estimates vary as to just how many species of orchid are known and recognized, but it can be anywhere between 25 – 30K. Some estimates indicate that as many as 10K may live in tropical or rainforest type of conditions.

Just a few examples of rainforest orchid include:

  • Vanilla Orchid
  • Bucket Orchids or Coryanthes
  • Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta)
  • Tualang (Koompassia Excelsa)

Caring for orchids

Are orchids difficult to grow?

There is a misconception out in the world that orchids are very fragile, frustrating plants to try and grow. That is not actually the case. Yes, there are certain steps and conditions that are favorable to growing orchids, but the fact is, there are species of orchids capable of growing all over the world, including some that have been grown right near the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Given this fact, there is more than likely a species of orchid that you could find to grow in your home or office. Of course, there are special needs required, but that is true of all plants. Plants are wide and varied and some need more water, some less, some more light and some less. Some are hardy and can thrive in desert-like conditions, while others require a more tropical and moist atmosphere.

The main problem that most novice home orchid growers run into has to do with the roots. For those accustomed to plants that thrive buried in soil, it looks weird to see the grayish, worm-like appendages that spread off from the main plant. The grower may be tempted to cut those off or back, but those are the roots and if you do pot the plant, they should be allowed to grow as much as possible.

One thing that ultimately kills all houseplants is either under or overwatering. This holds just as true for orchids as it does any other indoor plant. Remember that orchids, in general, do not require as much watering as other plants – but it may depend on the species. Follow watering, light and cultivating instructions carefully when you purchase an orchid.

The fact is that orchids share many characteristics as succulents, which are famous for being hardy plants that can survive well with limited water, irregular soil, and low light situations.

Are orchids hard or easy to care for?

Orchids are a plant that has gotten a fearsome reputation for being hard to care for. This is probably not earned as much as one would think. Yes, orchids need special lighting, watering, fertilizing needs, but that is true of any plant. A lot depends on the species of orchid you are attempting to grow.

Orchids do require certain humidity levels and may require some growing medium that you are unfamiliar with, but with the proper discipline, the average grower can find orchid growing a very rewarding experience. They are tougher plants than most people realize and given their minimal watering needs, are easier in some ways than other plants.

How often do you water orchids?

The watering needs of your orchids depend a lot on the type of orchids you are trying to grow. All instructions for watering that come with the plants you have ordered and planted should be followed implicitly.

Watering orchids once a week is usually a fairly good rule of thumb, but that can change based on the climate you are in and species. The size of the container the orchid is in can also affect the watering schedule and a good rule of thumb on that is that a 6-inch pot will likely need water every 7 days, but a 4-inch pot will need water every 5 to 6 days.

Other factors that can affect how often your orchid needs watering include the potting or growing medium you are using. The quality of the water being used might be another factor since most urban water systems add chlorine to their water and that has the possibility of affecting plant growth and water needs.

Can orchids grow on hydroponics?

Some species of orchid can lend themselves to hydroponic growing. For example, terrestrial orchid species are more likely to do well with hydroponic growing than epiphytic orchids.

Hydroponics will provide a consistent amount of food and moisture and terrestrial orchids, which grow in loose, moist soil benefit more from this kind of system than other species.

Why do orchids wilt? Why do orchids turn yellow?

Just like any plant, an orchid can wilt. They can wilt for a wide variety of reasons. It can be a lack of water, lack of fertilizer, lack of light or other factors. Overwatering can cause plants to wilt and die. Having the wrong growing medium can cause the orchids to wilt and die. With orchids, the wrong humidity levels can also cause problems that will damage or kill the plant.

Of course, if you fix the problem and adjust the water and other factors, can cause the orchids to come back and perk up again. It is even possible to take an orchid that has gone dormant and cause them to bloom again.

In addition to wilting, the plants can turn yellow. The same issues that cause the wilting can cause the yellowing.

Why do orchids droop?

Some species of orchid droop because of their nature. They grow up the stem and the weight of the blooms cause the flower to droop, giving the orchid plant a trademark drooped look. This is not a problem unless the petals are dropping off or the flower turns brown. The drooping is normal.

If the blooming plant is wilted and drooping, it could be a problem with watering and humidity levels. Adjusting those can make them better and fix the problem.

Why do orchid stems turn red?

There are certain species of orchid which have stems that will turn red if they get too much sun. For example, phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, are known to have stems which turn red if they get too much sun.

Why do orchids lose their flowers?

There are a variety of orchids that will lose their flowers for a number of different reasons. They can lose their flowers if they do not have the right amount of watering, humidity or light and they die. In those cases, the flowers will shrivel and die and the flower petals can fall off.

Orchids can be a bit like the perennial flowers that you plant in a garden, too. They can go dormant. Some beginners might assume that the flower is dead and throw the plant away, but with the right love and care, it’s possible to bring the orchid back. Among orchid fans, this is known as reblooming.

Orchids, just like most plants, require a lot of energy to grow and bloom. When they deplete that energy, they fall dormant and the stem can appear dried and shrivel up. The flowers can droop and become sickly looking. The colors might fade. By adjusting the watering, plant food, and other factors, it is possible to bring the flower back and cause a rebloom.

Why do orchids die?

Orchids are just like any other plant. The reason they die varies depending on a number of factors. Each species of orchid has its own growing seasons as well as watering, light and humidity needs. Although orchids are not nearly as fragile as legend would have it, they must be treated and grown in the right medium, watered properly, given light and the right humidity levels. If these needs are not met, the flower will die.

The most common reasons that plants die is due to overwatering and underwatering. Most people end up guessing about the plant’s watering needs and either overdo it or don’t do it enough.

Even though orchids can go dormant, they also can die simply because plants do have a lifecycle and will die at some point, too. The reasons an orchid dies is wide and varied and it is impossible to know for sure and would need to be reviewed on a case by case basis.