An article by guest writer Lim Toke Feng. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.
Phalaenopsis is also called a moth orchid because of its appearance. The name is essentially a compound Greek word phalaina (which means “moth”) and opsis (which means “appearance”). The natural habitats of these mostly epiphytic orchids are tropical places like South-east Asia, India, southern Nepal, Papua New Guinea, southern China, Taiwan, northern Australia and South America.
Flowering orchids have become one of the most popular and trendy potted plants to purchase in many countries throughout the world. Phalaenopsis, with their refined, graceful beauty and elegant flower form, are the most sought after orchids, accounting for a staggering 3 out of 4 orchid plant sales. They are often purchased as a disposable décor item that can be discarded in a month or more after the last blossoms have faded. This is a pity as they are not only beautiful, they are also among the easiest orchids to grow, whether in greenhouses, in tropical gardens, on windowsills, or under artificial lights; and growers will be rewarded with flowers that can last in almost flawless condition for several months.
These sensuous flowers come in all shades of elegant white, yellow, gold, green, apricot, pink, magenta, purple, dark maroon, and even hues of blue (a desirable colour for all flowers, including orchids). Flowers can be of a single or multiple colours, with different-colored centers or margins or with various patterns including polka dots and stripes. Nowadays the trendy moth orchids are the harlequin Phalaenopsis, which can command a premium price and have unpredictable but usually delightful patterns. The possibilities are seemingly endless. They either have dark fringed edges, marbled patterns, maroon blotches, or any combination of these.
As an added attraction, some phalaenopsis species are exquisitely fragrant and these have been used as parents to produce entirely new varieties of sweet-scented hybrids. They are also several novelty, miniature or compact cultivars with short blooming spikes. These are receiving growing interest from breeders and commercial nurseries as they are more suitable for increasingly smaller homes and office work spaces.
Once prized primarily by orchid hobbyists, phalaenopsis were often frustratingly elusive, finicky, and expensive to purchase. Over the past few decades, researchers and growers have improved production methods and made advancements to the point that phalaenopsis can be scheduled to flower in mass quantities throughout the year, especially for sales at holidays. During the Chinese New Year season when flowers are de rigueur, plant nurseries do a roaring business selling masses of phalaenopsis in glorious, myriad colours and patterns previously unimaginable. Commercial production has become more efficient and thus production costs have gone down, making phalaenopsis affordable plants for orchid hobbyists, connoisseurs and amateurs alike.
Phalaenopsis are produced throughout the world, most notably in Taiwan, Netherlands, Thailand, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Many young plants are propagated by tissue culture in the Netherlands, Taiwan and Thailand, and then are exported to other countries (including Singapore) for subsequent growth and flowering. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of phalaenopsis hybrids and clones available for purchase. Orchid propagators have been intensively breeding phalaenopsis for desirable flowering and plant characteristics including specific flower colours and colour patterns, multi and branched flower spikes, and most recently, fragrance. Breeding continues at a rapid pace, mainly in Taiwan, and a popular cultivar available today may not be commercially available in just a few years.
As with flat-panel TVs and laptops, the once-rare orchid has become a mass-market commodity. Behind the shift are the entrepreneurs of Taiwan, who have brought to orchid-breeding the energy and methods applied to making consumer electronics. One result is familiar to many electronics makers. While global orchid sales are rising, profit margins are thinning. Its efficiency resembles the assembly lines of Taiwanese contractors that make iPhones and other Apple Inc products. A market for rare orchids still exists. But that has been on decline since the mid-20th century when horticulturists figured out how to clone orchids from tissue cells. During past centuries, growing orchids was something of a mystery. Their dust-like seeds would sprout only if they landed on particular types of fungus. They grew best clinging to trees or rocks near to flowing streams, instead of dirt, in the jungles of Southeast Asia and South America. The contemporary orchid-breeding business in Taiwan and its main rival, the Netherlands, centers on the Phalaenopsis.
Although some phalaenopsis are produced from seed, an increasing majority are cloned from a growing point, or meristem. These plants are called “mericlones.” The cloning process reduces variability from plant to plant, so that populations have similar growth and flowering properties. The cloning process also helps ensure consistent flower colours and patterns, whereas plants raised from seeds, especially those of hybrids, are more variable.
Phalaenopsis are propagated in laboratories by tissue culture, and are usually grown in sealed flasks for 10 to 12 months under low light. However, many propagators now place these flasks in greenhouses having much higher light than in the laboratory. When young plants reach a leaf span of about 2 inches (5 cm) or larger, they are ready to be taken out of the flasks and be transplanted. Many plants are shipped while still in flasks because it is relatively easy to ship flasks, and because of restrictions with importing plants growing in a bark or sphagnum-based media. Once plants are removed from their flasks, they are grown for approximately 20 to 30 weeks at 80 to 90 F (27 to 32 C) until they are ready for transplanting into a larger finish container. If plants are grown at cooler temperatures, they develop more slowly. In addition, over time, some young plants may begin to form a small flower spike. Since vegetative growth is promoted by high temperature, many plants are grown until maturity in tropical and subtropical environments.
Phalaenopsis’ growing requirements are quite simple and they can live comfortably at home with you as long as you provide some appropriate care. People also love them because they grow relatively quickly and could flower usually once but sometimes up to twice or more a year. They require more patience than your common garden plants that flower in a few weeks, but for orchids, they are relatively fast-blooming. Flower spikes may re-flower if you cut them back to an old node, so your Phalaenopsis can brighten up your home for several seasons. They are well-worth the investment, especially if they flower more than once.
Growing good orchids requires skillful and attentive watering. The succulent phalaenopsis roots should dry slightly before being wet again. Orchids with pseudobulbs (enlarged stem), such as cattleyas, store water and can withstand periods of drought. However, phalaenopsis lack pseudobulbs and, therefore, are intolerant of extended dry conditions. Phalaenopsis have succulent leaves that do not show signs of stress until several days’ water deficiency.
Inexperienced hobbyists often overwater plants sold in sphagnum moss, leading to root rot and plant decline. In the wild, phalaenopsis species grow perched on the branches of trees along which the fleshy roots run a distance for anchorage. They are frequently deluged with tropical rains but as the roots are exposed to the air, they quickly dry again. In cultivation, emulate this by thoroughly watering the plants and, very importantly, allowing the potting medium to become almost dry before thoroughly watering again.
Managing the root zone of potted orchids can be one of the most critical aspects to growing a healthy crop. If one can grow plants with healthy roots, making them flower is a much easier task. Most phalaenopsis species are epiphytic plants, meaning that they grow on tree trunks and limbs. Their roots are exposed to air movement and absorb moisture from the humid air, as well as from rains and dews. In view of this, when we grow phalaenopsis in containers filled with an artificial medium for our convenience, we must consider aeration, capillary action, water and nutrient-holding capacities, stability and weight of the medium components. Coarse materials are often used to allow for plenty of air movement through the medium.
Plants that are planted too deep in pots may have more disease problems and could rot, and those planted too shallow may not root into the medium properly and may not have adequate support for flowers. Research in the past decade has revealed that phalaenopsis are moderate feeders when grown in more water-absorptive media. Feed phalaenopsis with an inorganic fertilizer or proprietary orchid food, to aid both growth and flowering. Ensure that the nitrogen it contains is urea-free as the orchid cannot use urea-based nitrogen (check label). Fertilising should be done weakly (ie more diluted than normally recommended) weekly (ie every 7 days).
Even though their light requirement is not particularly high, they do not do well in dark rooms. The best indoor place for them is by the window with morning sun or indirect sun all day. Higher temperatures by day and cooler conditions at night is the secret of success to set flower spikes. Therefore, the day and night temperature difference typical of the year-end raining season in Singapore is needed to trigger flowering. The constant temperature typical in office buildings does not work for them.
Mealybugs are aphid-like insects which secrete a white woolly substance around themselves in which they lay their eggs. They also secrete a sugary substance which makes the surrounding leaves and stems sticky. Mealybugs do not restrict themselves to the plant but also collect on the pot. They may be eradicated by regular plant inspection, and if present, scraping them off, sponging the leaves with soapy water, or applying white oil. Eradication entails persistence so mealybugs may be avoided by placing the plants away from infested plants and in locations with the right amount of light, humidity, and aeration for healthy growth.
My Hobby Growing Phalaenopsis
Before Chinese New Year, some 8 or 10 years ago, like many Chinese individuals I bought 3 pots of phalaenopsis to fulfill the customary festive décor need. When the flowers faded, I tossed them, with nary a thought, into some old orchid pots that I found hanging on the fence and forgot about them totally. Lo and behold, when I least expected it, after a particularly cool and raining season two years later, I found one of them blooming. I was delighted and intrigued. I was just awed by a plant that gave me such stunning blooms despite my indifference and neglect! That ignited my interest to grow them as a hobby.
A couple of years later, I took my phalaenopsis growing beyond one of trial and error by attending the workshop, ‘Orchid Growing: The Basics’ most ably conducted by Dr Gillian Khew in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. (See footnote below for a noteworthy snippet on her)
Phalaenopsis with blooms that are past their peak condition may be bought at about 50% off from nurseries situated near MacRitchie Reservoir and on Bukit Timah Road. Alternatively, you may buy those totally without blooms at S$5. (They used to cost only an irresistible S$2 each.) The disadvantage of buying the latter is that you do not know whether they are common varieties or more exotic cultivars or the colour of the flowers when the plants bloom. On the other hand, you are sometimes rewarded with wonderful surprises for the chance you take at such a small cost. Another plant source is the orchid sales on the 1st Sunday of every month at Botanic Gardens by the nurseries Woon Leng and Song Orchids.
I was not contented with just planting them in orchid clay pots using charcoal as a potting medium. My restless curiosity compelled me to experiment with planting them in coconut husks, nursery–bought teak ‘baskets’, and rattan baskets. I also mounted them on driftwood, thick pieces of hard bark, and mature plumeria trees. I achieved the most satisfying results of long flower spikes with the plumeria-mounted ones but the driftwood-mounted ones and the ones in pots and coconut husks afforded me the possibility to bring them indoors and hang them in my patio when they bloom during Chinese New Year.
The precise parentage, ie the father and mother, of Singapore’s national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim stayed unclear for more than 100 years, until Dr Gillian Khew joined the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2009 and established a new molecular biology laboratory.
The senior researcher worked with others to determine what roles Vanda Miss Joaquim’s parents had played. In a scientific paper published in 2011 outlining her findings, she wrote: “The precise identification of an orchid hybrid’s parentage is of utmost importance to botanists, breeders, and enthusiasts alike.”
Dr Khew said that she sequenced the DNA of specific genes in the orchid that are contributed by only its mother. Initial tests were done with fresh specimens of Vanda Miss Joaquim. To confirm results, Dr Khew tested a bit of tissue from the original 1893 specimen that been preserved in the Gardens’ herbarium.
“Vanda teres was the mother. By elimination, Vanda hookeriana was the father,” she said.
About the Writer
Toke Feng (or Feng in short) worked in the telecommunications industry for 34 years in various capacities before going into semi-retirement 10 years ago to do adjunct lecturing and working from home, writing reports on a free-lance basis. She is now leading a more serendipitous life keeping fit, growing phalaenopsis and plumerias, as well as guiding, on a voluntary basis, at a private international art museum.