How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Phalaenopsis Orchids
Thinking of adding a Phalaenopsis Orchid to your indoor or outdoor plant collection? These popular orchids can be a bit picky about their maintenance needs, but bloom profusely when properly cared for. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss examines everything you need to know about this particular orchid species, including their maintenance and care.
Some of the most common orchids grown indoors are Phalaenopsis orchids. This type of orchid blooms intensely in pink, white, purple, and many colors in between. But as with all types of orchids, they are a bit picky when it comes to their maintenance and care.
These popular flowers make excellent houseplants and prefer more humid environments when available. They make wonderful bathroom or kitchen houseplants. In more tropical and humid climates, they can be grown outdoors.
These popular plants are more than just a uniquely shaped flower. Let’s dive in a little deeper and take a look at everything you need to know about Phalaenopsis orchids and their care.
Phalaenopsis Orchids Overview
Plant Type Perennial Epiphytes and Lithophytes
Pests Aphids, Thrips, Scales
Exposure Moderate to Bright Indirect Light
Diseases Black Rot, Root Rot
Plant Spacing Individual Containers
Species 63 with 7 natural hybrids
Planting Depth Shallow
Soil Type Bark Mix
Native Area Southeast Asia, Indonesia
Height up to 2’ tall
Plant with Palms and Succulents
Hardiness Zone 10-12
Watering Needs Once Per Week
Attracts Pollinating Insects
About Phalaenopsis Orchids
Phalaenopsis orchids are native to Northern Australia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The genus was established in 1825 by Dutch botanist Dr. Karl Lud-wig Blume.
The history of this orchid species is rich and extensive, dating back as far as 1750 when the earliest published account of a member of the genus was recorded as having been discovered on the island of Amboina and published by German born botanist Georg Eberhard Rumphius in the sixth volume of his series Herbarium Amboinense.
These graceful plants are one of the most common genera of orchids in terms of commercial availability. They are easy to find and commonly sold in grocery stores and among florists, as they are easy to care for and do quite well as houseplants.
Once considered delicate and elusive, as a result of hybridization and research, phalaenopsis orchids are now an important cut flower crop. Their hardy, long lasting flowers are a staple among growers, hobbyists, collectors, and novices alike.
There are 63 recognized species, and 7 natural hybrids in the phalaenopsis genus. Natural hybrids refer to hybrids of two or more species that occur naturally, without human intervention. Additionally, there are numerous man-made hybrid varieties of these pretty plants. They are classified as perennial, monopodial epiphytes or lithophytes.
Monopodial refers to the vertical growth of the plant along a single, central rhizome. Where some types of orchids are sympodial, which means that they continue to reproduce horizontally, with each pseudobulb producing only one flower spike during the life of the plant, a monopodial orchid continuously grows upward.
The flower spikes are produced from the rhizome, any number of times over the life of the plant. Monopodial orchids tend to produce more aerial roots than their sympodial cousins, and can have a climbing habit, rather than a running habit.
Epiphytic refers to the plants tendency to establish and grow around trees, essentially making them air plants. They derive nearly all of their moisture and nutrients from the air, rather than soil and decaying organic matter the way a terrestrial plant does.
Most Phalaenopsis orchids fall into this category, and this is the most common growth habit across the orchid family of plants in general.
There are a handful of phalaenopsis orchids that fall into the category of lithophytes. Lithophytic refers to a plant’s habit of growing on rocks. Most of these species are uncommon as houseplants and are mainly found in the wild.
Phalaenopsis pulcherrima is an example of a lithophytic orchid. Found scattered about in much of tropical Asia, this species is threatened as a result of over collection for trade as well as habitat degradation.
Most Phalaenopsis species have similar flower formations, although the shape and sizes of the blooms vary greatly. A dorsal sepal stands upright at the top of the bloom, flanked by a larger, rounded petal to either side.
Two lateral sepals appear just behind and below these two large petals. The labellum, or lip, of the phalaenopsis orchid is complex and beautiful, and often appears in a different shade, variegation, or color altogether than the rest of the flower.
The labellum sits just below the column of the flower, which is the fingerlike structure that houses the reproductive system of the plant. This consists of an anther cap, which protects the pollinia, and stigmata surface.
The labellum acts as a landing platform for pollinators. In phalaenopsis orchids the labellum is made up of two side lobes, a mid-lobe, and a tendril, which in many cultivars resembles the mouth of a serpent. The labellum curves backward into a callus and throat, at which juncture it meets the column and anther cap.
There are two ways to propagate orchids, the first is by division, and the second is by seed. One of these methods is significantly more effective and successful. The other is incredibly complex and requires at the least, a sterile environment, and ideally, a laboratory setting, to achieve.
Division is the easiest, most successful way to propagate orchids. This is universal across genera, and species. Phalaenopsis are monopodial orchids as I mentioned earlier, so in order to understand the process of division, let’s briefly discuss what that means,
All orchids have a rhizome, or central root/stem along which they grow. Some orchids reproduce horizontally (sympodial), where the rhizome runs sideways, and sends up individual pseudobulbs.
The pseudobulbs each produce one (unifoliate) or two (bifoliate) leaves, and either a single flower or a single flower spike with multiple flowers. When the flower spike drops, the pseudobulb is considered spent, and will never produce another bloom.
Phalaenopsis orchids do not fit into this category, as their central rhizome runs vertically up the center of the plant, and produces leaves, and flower spikes, continuously throughout its lifespan.
The plant has a root system at the bottom, where it takes in nutrients and water from the air around it, as well as producing aerial roots along the rhizome, which, in a potted orchid, will be the roots that are visible above the potting medium. In nature, these aerial roots act as anchors for the orchid by which it clings to the tree upon which it lives and grows.
To divide a monopodial orchid, using a clean, sharp blade or tool, slice through the rhizome in-between two sets of leaves. There should be at least two leaves left on each division in order for the division to be successful.
The bottom portion of the orchid can remain in its original container, where it will continue to produce upward growth from the area where it was cut.
The top portion of the orchid will, likewise, continue to grow from the top. This portion should be potted and tended to with a bit of extra care and attention, until it has formed a root system of its own. In this manner, you now have two orchids that are exactly alike, the offspring will be an exact replica of the parent plant.
Propagating orchids from seed is incredibly difficult, time consuming, and involved. Orchid seeds are very, very tiny. If you have ever opened a vanilla bean pod and scraped the inside to use for baking some delectable dessert, you have seen firsthand just how tiny orchid seeds are. That’s right, all those tiny black specks are the seeds of the vanilla orchid.
The seeds are so small that they have no nutrient or energy reserves of their own. In their native environment, they attach themselves to other substances to utilize energy in order to germinate. These tiny seeds are highly susceptible to bacterial and fungal diseases.
This combination of factors makes orchid seed germination a very complex practice in cultivation outside of their natural habitat. If you love a challenge and are set on growing an orchid from seed, it can be done in one of two ways, symbiotically, or asymbiotically.
Symbiotic germination is the process by which an orchid seed attaches itself to mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi have the ability to absorb the nutrients that the orchid seeds need to create photosynthesis and make use of them for their own growth.
It is nearly impossible to recreate this process outside of a sterile, controlled laboratory environment. Since most hobby gardeners do not have a sterile laboratory available to them, I will stop here, and not bore you with the details of this process.
Asymbiotic germination, while it is not as simple as division, can be achieved by most determined gardeners with the patience and precision to carry out this rather lengthy process. I will say this, the process is painstakingly long, so if you are hoping to have an orchid baby that blooms within the next few years, you may as well skip this section.
The most commonly used method of asymbiotic germination is known as flasking. Flasking is, essentially, the in vitro fertilization of orchid propagation.
Without the symbiotic relationship that orchid seeds have with fungi in nature, they have no energy available to them to cause germination and help them grow. Because this process is so difficult to replicate, this flasking method is a way to achieve a similar effect in a controlled environment.
During this process, the orchid seed is germinated inside of a glass flask using a nutrient rich substance. This substance is bioavailable to the seeds and allows the seeds to germinate inside of the flask. As I mentioned this is a long-term project.
The seeds will need to remain in the flask for up to 2 years in some instances, and then will take several more years before you have a mature plant that is able to produce flowers.
Growing Phalaenopsis Orchids
Growing orchids is quite easy if you live in the right climate. Orchids thrive outdoors in zones 10-12 and can live outside almost all year in zone 9 as well. In these climates, growing orchids is as easy as placing them in a spot with bright, filtered light and watering them once a week, maybe twice a week in the hotter months.
If you live outside of these zones, you will have to bring your orchids indoors for at least part of the year. Growing orchids indoors is slightly more complicated, but it can be done successfully if you create the right environment.
Orchids need a lot of air circulation around their roots. They are very susceptible to root rot, so it is important that their potting medium does not remain moist for very long. Standard potting mix will nearly always mean death for an orchid.
When you purchase a phalaenopsis orchid, it will very likely be packed into a small pot filled with sphagnum moss. This is great for the orchid while it is in bloom, as the flowers will need some extra moisture to sustain themselves.
However, this potting medium will hold too much moisture once the blooms fall, so you will want to repot the orchid once it has finished blooming. Avoid repotting any plant while it is in bloom, as this will almost certainly shorten the life of the flowers.
Commercial orchid bark is a great medium for most orchids. It is predominantly made from bark, perlite, charcoal or pumice and sometimes coconut husk.
All of these ingredients combine to make a loose medium that drains quickly and completely and does not hold moisture. Phalaenopsis orchids do like a bit more moisture than some other types of orchids, so it’s ok to mix some sphagnum moss in with your potting medium for these orchids.
Specialty orchid pots are the best containers for orchids. There are a few different types of orchid pots that do a great job of containing an orchid without holding water, and thus, causing the roots to rot.
The first, and my personal favorite, are hanging wooden orchid baskets. These open weave baskets do a great job of mimicking the natural environment of an epiphytic orchid. They allow for maximum airflow and water drainage.
I do find that I have to water my orchids in this type of container more frequently, as they really do not hold any water at all. They can also be a bit messy indoors as they tend to drop any bits of potting medium that fit between the slats. But these baskets are perfect for orchids kept outdoors.
Terracotta orchid pots are wonderful as well. Terracotta naturally wicks water away from the roots, but it retains moisture better than wooden baskets, so you don’t have to water as often. These typically look like a run of the mill terracotta pot, but have more drainage holes, on the sides as well as the bottom.
You will find similar ceramic, glazed pots in specialty stores. These work well, but don’t have the same wicking property as the terracotta. They are visually pleasing for indoor orchids though. Just be careful about pots with attached dishes. You never want to let an orchid’s roots sit in water.
Orchids really don’t need to be contained at all as long as they have enough humidity in the air and are not exposed to too much light. However, potting them makes care easier.
When potting an orchid, place the orchid in the pot so that the roots are completely contained, and then fill in around the roots with your potting medium. Depth is not important but covering the roots will help hold the plant in place and give it something to hold onto.
Phalaenopsis orchids are lower light orchids. Some orchids like a lot of bright light. Phalaenopsis needs bright light, but it needs to be filtered or indirect. Direct sunlight will burn the glossy leaves of this plant, and once they burn there is no bringing them back. Burned leaves tend to rot and will have to be removed or they will eventually lead to whole plant death.
Placing your phalaenopsis near a brightly lit window, but not in the direct sun, is perfect. Another option is to use a sheer curtain to filter the light. Either of these options will keep your phalaenopsis orchid happy and help it to produce flowers. A phalaenopsis orchid will survive low light conditions, but it won’t flower without sufficient light.
Orchids don’t like to stay wet in between waterings. The fastest way to kill an orchid is overwatering. Orchid roots are highly susceptible to bacteria and fungus, and when they sit in water for very long, they begin to deteriorate, which lets the bad guys in. Once an orchid’s roots begin to rot, it is a complicated and precarious process to bring it back to health.
Kept indoors, an orchid should only be watered once per week. It should be watered thoroughly and then allowed to drain completely and dry out between waterings. When an orchid is about to bloom, and while the flowers are present on the plant, their moisture needs to increase slightly, but care should still be taken to keep the roots from staying wet.
Outdoor orchids can tolerate more frequent watering. If kept outdoors in a pot with ample drainage, an orchid can be watered every few days, particularly if you live in a climate with lower humidity levels, or during times of little rainfall.
Climate and Temperature
The ideal temperature for a phalaenopsis orchid is between 65° and 80°, which is fairly tolerable for most humans. However, their ideal humidity level is between 55 and 75%, which is slightly higher than most people prefer to have in the home.
A sunny bathroom is a great place for an orchid to live. The humidity in bathrooms tends to be higher than other parts of the home. If you don’t have a bathroom with a window, or you have your heart set on keeping your orchid in a different room, make sure it gets enough light.
There are several ways to raise the humidity around your orchid. Using a humidifier works best, but a daily, light misting can be effective, and so can a dish of water placed beneath the orchid’s pot.
Orchids should be fertilized regularly. Once per week while they are blooming, use a balanced fertilizer, a 10-10-10 standard fertilizer at half strength is great if you don’t feel like purchasing a fertilizer made specifically for orchids.
During their growing season, when not in bloom, once every two weeks is adequate, and off season, reduce to once every 3-4 weeks.
This means that when your orchid is in bloom, you should fertilize every time you water it. Once every few weeks, flush the potting mix with plain water to wash away any salt buildup on the root system.
If your orchid is potted in the right medium, and the correct type of pot, you are halfway to ideal maintenance. Making sure that your orchid gets the right balance of light, water and moisture is about all there is otherwise to handle, until it is time to repot it.
A Phalaenopsis orchid doesn’t need repotting very often, as it will continue to grow upward and thus, it will not overflow the container. If you feel as though the orchid is looking pot bound, this is a great time to divide and repot, and now you have two beautiful orchids!
Orchids require little to no pruning. Once per year, your phalaenopsis orchid’s oldest pair of leaves will turn yellow, then brown. This is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.
When you notice this happening, wait until the leaves begin to dry out before you remove them, as the older leaves provide water and nutrients to new growth. Using a clean, sharp tool, slice the leaves off close to the rhizome.
The only other time you will need to prune a healthy phalaenopsis orchid is after it has dropped blooms and has a bare flower spike. Pruning off the spent flower spike about an inch above the first node will redirect energy back to the plant, and sometimes, can result in a second spike forming, and an additional bloom, which is wonderful when it happens!
There are a number of popular varieties, many of which can be found easily at local plant stores and online. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular, with names and pictures of each!
|botanical name Phalaenopsis aff. Harlequin gx
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 10-12
This unique variety is the result of a breeding mistake. In 1983 a grower in Taiwan cloned two spotted yellow orchids hoping to get a resulting orchid with more intense spots. They were successful and the resulting plant was named Golden Peoker.
Through a deformity, a plant occurred with overlapping spots that looked more like blotches. While this was not desired, it caught the attention of the American Orchid Society, who gave the plant an award of “Judges Commendation.”
The plant took off among breeders and one of the resulting plants was the Harlequin variety. This white orchid is covered in irregular purple blotches. The blotches are different on each flower that a single plant produces, with the first bloom that opens looking quite different from successive flowers on the same spike.
|botanical name Phalaenopsis Yu Pink Lemonade
|sun requirements Medium Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 10-12
This pretty phalaenopsis is a long bloomer, remaining in bloom for 3-5 months at a time! Pink Lemonade has large (4”) flowers in a bright pink, with a hint of yellow.
The back side of the petals and sepals are a rich, warm yellow that shows through the pink front side with deeper pink veining. The lip of this variety is striking. A deep reddish pink with just a hint of yellow speckling on the throat, the labellum of this orchid is a real standout.
This variety also comes in a dwarf size with paler yellow petals that have a whisper of pink toward the center and a pink and white labellum. Dwarf Phalaenopsis orchids are prized for their compact size and ease of care.
|botanical name Phalaenopsis Jiuhbao Fairy
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 10-12
This orchid is a stunner. Once in a while I come across an orchid that I just can’t pass over and this fits that category. Another hybrid bred in Taiwan, ‘Jiuhbao Fairy’, has the most wonderful blooms. This highly sought after orchid can be difficult to find, but can be ordered online if you are willing to pay a premium.
The flowers are large and colorful. Petals and sepals are orchid pink with deep magenta markings that fade from speckles into a solid band just inside the margin of both the petals and sepals. The lip is somewhat less spectacular, yellow and inconspicuous, but those petals are a thing of dreams.
|botanical name Phalaenopsis Mini Mark ‘Holm’
|sun requirements Medium Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 10-12
This sweet miniature phalaenopsis is a hybrid cross between P. Micro Nova and P. philippinensis. It is known for its long (3 months) and variable blooming time. This pretty orchid can bloom any time of year with the right care and conditions.
Holm features five uniform petals and sepals in a creamy white shade with tiny purple freckles. The column is pronounced and pure white. It is the lip that this variety is known for, though. The labellum is as large as the petals, and brilliant orange with a yellow streak down the center. This orchid is lightly fragrant as well, which is an added bonus!
|botanical name Phalaenopsis bellina
|sun requirements Bright Indirect Light
|hardiness zones 10-12
This is a species rather than a variety, but it is spectacular, so it deserves a spot on the list. This small orchid is native to rainforests in Borneo where it grows in pendant-like clusters in tree canopies. It only produces 2 or 3 flowers at a time, but they are so beautiful, more would seem like too much beauty to stand.
The flowers are highly fragrant, which would be enough to sell me on this species. Their coloration is stunning though. Magenta in the center, they fade first to white and then pale green at the edges.
The tips of the five uniform petals and sepals are pointed and curve lightly forward. The column and labellum are small in comparison, and deep purple with yellow accents. A very inviting specimen for pollinators.
Pests and Diseases
Sadly, orchids are susceptible to quite a few pests and diseases because of their tender new growth, and vulnerability to overwatering.
The best way to avoid and mitigate pest and disease damage from wreaking havoc on your prized phalaenopsis is by using your powers of observation. When watering weekly, inspect your orchid’s leaves and flowers, as well as any visible roots, for damage or rot. Early intervention is imperative.
An aphid’s favorite food is plant sap, and orchids have this in spades, particularly in their new and forming buds. When aphids attack a bud, they can completely destroy the flower and then your orchid won’t bloom at all. Aphids also leave behind honey dew, a sticky secretion which causes mold to grow on orchids which can lead to rot.
Aphids will also suck the life out of tender new growth, leaving an orchid stunted and shriveled. These little, green insects can decimate an orchid quickly.
They usually enter the home on infected plants, so be sure to inspect any new plants you purchase before introducing them into the home. If you see these little killers, isolate the plant, and treat with an insecticide until there is no trace of these little bugs.
Scales are the absolute worst enemy of plants. They reproduce very quickly and can take over and take down an orchid just as fast. They are usually introduced on new plants, so again, prevention is the best medicine.
Scales leave a white moldy mess behind and leave plants looking lifeless and wilted. If you end up with a case of scale, you must be vigilant about treating because of their rapid reproduction. Repotting the orchid is a must, dispose of old potting medium away from plants. Scale can be treated with neem oil or other natural insecticides. You are likely to have to treat it more than once.
This is another sap sucking insect that will drain your orchids of their precious fluids and cause foliage and flowers to shrivel and die. The danger of thrips is their size.
They are so tiny that they are difficult to detect until the damage is progressed. An orchid with thrips needs to be isolated and treated with an insecticide, either natural or chemical, so that the insects do not spread and infect other plants.
Black rot is a fungal disease that travels by water. It is typically introduced by bringing home an infected plant and allowing water to splash from one to another while watering.
Black rot is different from root rot. It shows up on new growth first and can cause young plants to die altogether. On older growth it will show up first as black spots and then swaths of black.
Keep your orchids off the ground, and trim off any affected tissue as soon as you notice these spots. Practicing good plant hygiene is the way to avoid this issue. Keeping your orchids in an area with good air circulation will help as well.
This is, by far, the greatest killer of all types of orchids. Orchid’s roots are completely exposed in their natural environment, which means maximum air circulation. Orchid roots need to dry out completely on a regular basis, so when an orchid is potted incorrectly, or watered too often, the roots will begin to deteriorate, leaving them vulnerable to fungus and bacterial infection.
Root rot will show up first as mushy, dark brown roots, but if your orchid’s roots are rotting, they probably aren’t visible. The first signs above the roots will be droopy, yellowing leaves. Eventually, the leaves will turn brown and fall off. Once root rot is progressed there is very little that can be done to rescue a plant.
At the first sign of rot, an orchid needs to be repotted and treated with sulfur or another fungicide. Remove the orchid from its container and gently loosen any potting medium, taking care to keep the roots as intact as possible. Trim off any damaged tissue. Dust the roots with cinnamon, sulfur or other fungicidal agent and repot properly, with new potting mix. Water sparingly until the plant has recovered.
Phalaenopsis orchids are one of the easiest orchids to care for, they like a moderate amount of light and water, and they tolerate indoor temperatures very well. When potted and cared for properly, a phalaenopsis orchid will live for many years and can produce flowers more than once per year, unlike most types of orchids.
Orchids can be intimidating with their unique needs, but once you’ve got the hang of it, they are relatively easy to maintain and absolutely breathtaking when they bloom.