In Defense of Orchids | Letters | Chicago Reader

In Defense of Orchids 

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Dear Field & Street editor,

If Jill Riddell was trying to break down the stereotype of orchids as finicky plants (Field & Street, January 19) then the best I can say is that she damned orchids with her faint praise.

She referred to the "word on the street" that orchids need "peculiar light and perpetual feeding, and require you to keep your home chilly by day and cold at night." Her reference to temperature requirements is particularly baffling, since all the orchids on permanent display at the Chicago Botanic Garden grow in the tropical greenhouse along with the banana trees.

In truth, orchids, which are by far the largest family of flowering plants (an estimated 70,000 species and hybrids), occupy almost every ecological niche in the world. What this means is that orchids of one type or another will thrive in any home, apartment, or office, provided you know which orchid is right for your indoor environment.

Riddell chose to start with a member of the Phalaenopsis tribe, commonly known as moth orchids. It was a smart choice. The "big four" in the orchid trade are the moth orchids, the Paphiopedilums (lady slipper orchids), Cattleyas (corsage orchids), and Dendrobiums (sometimes known as cane orchids). These orchids, each with hundreds of species and hybrids, are among the easiest to grow and most adaptable to indoor conditions. The only thing that separates them from more typical houseplants is their need for a special potting mix--bark chips. Bags of orchid growing mix are available at Frank's Nurseries and most other garden centers in and around Chicago. Otherwise most orchids do perfectly fine with ordinary indoor plant fertilizers and ordinary window light or fluorescent plant lights. Probably the biggest mistake people new to orchids make is overwatering them. Most orchids like their growing mix to nearly dry out between waterings.

The greatest injustice done to orchids in Riddell's article is when she appeared to blame her orchid, which she admits flowered faithfully for months, for becoming infested with "sticky little parasites." I assume she's referring to scale, which will attack most houseplants without discrimination and which can be controlled if not allowed to develop into what Riddell called "a raging infection."

Ironically, the second orchid Riddell decided to try, a Haemaria, or jewel orchid, is one of the finicky orchids--it will usually die within a year unless grown in a terrarium.

You can buy many orchids for as little as $4 at Hausermann's, where Riddell got her orchids, and during the Illinois Orchid Society's shows at the Chicago Botanic Garden, usually held in February and September. These will be young plants, still a year or two from bloom, but more fun to grow in my opinion. They're cheaper and you get to watch them send up their flowering spikes and bud out.

Tom Cosgrove


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