Celebrating Orchids

Dark dreary days getting you down? Brighten up the winter months by adding an orchid or two to your houseplant collection. They are readily available at nurseries and garden centers and can even be found in supermarkets and big box stores too.

Photography by Chuck Andersen

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants in the world with around 28,000 different species and over 120,000 hybrids, so you’ll have plenty to choose from. Other than availability, how will you decide? The most common advice from seasoned orchid growers is to get a plant that likes the conditions you already have in your house rather than trying to change the environment to suit the plant. Since orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica and grow in a wide range of habitats, there are many options. A word of caution, orchids can become habit-forming. Once you have successfully grown one, you’ll probably want more.

A Slippery Slope

Sue Labonville of Shelburne found out just how addictive orchids are after going to her first orchid show.  “The first time I attended the New Hampshire Orchid Society (NHOS) show in the middle of winter and walked into a room full of gorgeous flowers, I was hooked,” she says. She bought her first orchid at the show but, like many newbies, had killed it within three months. “It was a paphiopedilum and I found out too late that overwatering was the killer.”

The following year when she attended the show, someone from the society talked her into joining, guaranteeing that if she joined she would be able to grow orchids in her home. Even though she doubted she would attend many meetings since she lives more than two hours from Bedford where the monthly meetings are held, he convinced her that even if she attended only occasionally, she would enjoy the meetings and would learn a lot.

“That was 13 years ago. Since then, I have acquired more than 300 orchids and rarely lose one,” she says. “He was definitely correct when he said I would enjoy the meetings and learn how to grow orchids, and now I rarely miss attending.” Her favorites are the slipper orchids—paphiopedilum and phragmipedium—but she also grows many other kinds of orchids as well, including cattleyas, dendrobiums, phalaenopsis and cymbidiums. “Orchids are in every window of our house, and I have a grow room set up in the basement equipped with highly efficient LED grow lights,” she says. “I also have two large repurposed aquariums set up with lights and small fans for smaller orchids that require high humidity.”

Each year she looks forward to the NHOS show, and since becoming a member she and her husband have attended and helped out at almost every one. “Orchid growing is truly an amazing and rewarding hobby that anyone can share in,” she says.

Orchids in the Mist

Gardeners know that the place to go for shade-loving plants is Mason Hollow Nursery. Chuck and Sue Andersen have been selling wildflowers, ferns, perennials, carnivorous bog plants, trees, shrubs and their specialty, hostas, for over 20 years. Most of these plants are displayed outside at the three-acre nursery, but a step into their 50-by-35-foot greenhouse offers a glimpse into another world. Here thousands of orchids—most native to cloud forest regions around the world—fill the humid environment from top to bottom. Most are epiphytes, quite content to grow clinging to a cut branch or piece of bark or cork hung on a rack to make the most of the space, while the larger ones grow in pots of moss on shelves and tables. Many are miniatures with flowers ranging from one-eighth to one-half inch across, while others have large blossoms.

“If you are not expecting it, it can be overwhelming. Most people are amazed,” says Chuck.  “It’s like a jungle with a new discovery around every corner.” Though cloud forest orchids are from the tropics, they live at high elevations where they are used to cooler temperatures, a blessing when trying to provide them with heat in a New Hampshire winter. “While 70s and 80s are okay during the day, they prefer night temperatures in the low 50s,” he says. To keep it cool in the summer, a fan blows across a special cooling pad, and to maintain humidity year round, a fogger blows a fine mist of rain water that is collected off the greenhouse roof and stored in an underground cistern. “Rainwater is best, because it doesn’t have the minerals found in well water,” he explains.

Typical homeowners are not going to go to such extremes for their first foray into orchids, but Chuck says that many miniature orchids can be grown in a terrarium with the new LED grow lights. “Some people have converted wine coolers into grow spaces for cool growing, high-humidity plants such as draculas that need 90 percent humidity,” he says. “Most people can keep their orchids happy and blossoming by growing them in a bright, humid room with a nighttime temperature drop of 10 to 15 degrees and fertilizing on a regular basis. Many people move their orchids outdoors for the summer.” Chuck recommends cattleyas, dendrobiums, oncidiums, paphiopedilums and miltonias as types to try after you’ve had success with your first grocery-store orchid. “Mini-cattleyas are particularly nice,” he says. “They don’t take up a lot of space, and they will do just fine on a sunny windowsill or under lights.”

As lifetime members of the New Hampshire Orchid Society, the Andersens create some of the displays for the annual show and also sell some of their plants there.

Growing Under Glass

After struggling for 20 years to grow orchids, and killing many in the process, Susan Usseglio of Hollis turned to the experts at the NHOS for help. At their monthly meetings, there is a show table with three classes of growers: hobbyist, advanced and expert.  “I was drawn to the plants in the expert category,” Usseglio says. “They were so unique and grown exceptionally well.” She became friendly with some of the growers and sought their help to determine what was right for her environment. “I was growing on a windowsill,” she explains. “Paphiopedilums caught my eye and one of our members, Bob Cleveland, was very successful with them. After picking his brain and taking his advice, I was able to get them to flower. Then I was really hooked.”

Later she started noticing dendrobiums and masdevallias.  “I really liked the cool growers but was not set up to grow them,” she says. “I asked Chuck Andersen to tutor me on the basics as well as the intricacies of growing different types of orchids.” He showed her the kinds of medium, how to water and fertilize and the different culture requirements. He also suggested the plants he felt were a good fit for her situation.

It was at this point that she began experimenting with terrariums. “It was the closest I could get to a greenhouse environment. The terrariums allowed me to have a good light source, keep the humidity up, and prevented me from overwatering. I now have a total of five tanks,” she says. “I will be forever grateful for the help and kindness Chuck and Sue Andersen showed me and continue to show me.”

Usseglio’s advice to beginners is to take a look at their growing situation and get plants that will fit that environment. Then they can branch out, experimenting with different kinds of growing habitats. “Try not to make the mistake of ‘go big or go home.’ Gradually expand your collection to your comfort level and experience. The funny thing about orchid collections is that they do change over time,” she says. Today her collection is a combination of hybrids and species. “Dendrobiums are a favorite of mine as well as paphiopedilums and mini-cattleyas, but I am always open to anything new and interesting. If I think I can grow it and get it to flower, then I will try,” she says. “I have had more successes than failures lately, but as any orchid grower will tell you, if you don’t have a collection of tags from your dead soldiers then you are not an orchid grower,” she says with a laugh.

Show Time: “Celebrating Orchids”  

Susan Usseglio has been the secretary of NHOS for 10 years and is co-vice chair of the show committee, ribbon judging chair, member/vendor auction chair and helps with a lot of behind-the-scenes duties that are needed to accomplish a successful show. This year’s theme for their 30th anniversary show is “Celebrating Orchids.” The show will be held February 10-12, 2023 at the Courtyard by Marriott on Southwood Drive in Nashua. Admission price is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, a three-day pass for $20 and children get in for free. Additional information can be found on their website, nhorchids.org.

Take a break from winter! Make plans to attend the show and enjoy the floral displays, but beware, you too may become hooked on these seductive plants.

Categories: Gardening & Landscape