Pages

21 November 2008

How to buy an orchid at the grocery store

It's winter in the northern hemisphere and Phalaenopsis orchids are literally everywhere. The elegant moth orchid can now be found not only near the register at most garden centres, but also at your local greengrocer, favourite supermarket, and the houseplant section of many large department stores. The single best place to buy an orchid is, of course, from a local orchid nursery. Such orchids are fresh and raised under expert care. Plus, it's always a good idea to support the local hobbyists: they are often talented breeders in their own right, and make exciting and exclusive new crosses available to the community. However, sometimes those sexy Phalaenopsis at the store can be so tempting that you almost don't realize you've got one propped between the corn flakes and fat-free yoghurt, until you're unpacking your trolley at the conveyor belt.

I am not a total orchid snob; those store-bought plants can be rewarding. Indeed, most of them originate from giant nurseries in such places as Taiwan and Florida, where they are bred to be appealing and raised to be vigorous. Problems arise when the plants are delivered to the point of sale - supermarkets are not the best of growing environments, and store attendants tend to give the orchids the same treatment as conventional houseplants. How often have neighbours complained of the mysterious and untimely demise of their latest acquisition, mere weeks after purchase! Well, fret no more, folks! The Electric Orchid Hunter is happy to provide some essential buying tips you should know before succumbing to orchid fever in the produce aisle.
  1. Buy your orchids as fresh as possible. The ideal would be to get them as soon as they are unpacked, but it is seldom possible to gauge in advance when the next delivery will arrive in the store. The dry supermarket atmosphere can severely shorten the life span of the flowers, and cause unopened buds to abort. Flowers should be waxy, not papery, and buds should be swollen and unwrinkled.
  2. Check for any instore damage. This includes cracked leaves, snapped aerial roots, bruised flower spikes and torn petals. 
  3. Make sure the plant is in prime health. Leaves should be mid to dark green, not yellow, firm and slightly succulent. Look in between the leaves at the crown of the plant - if this is damaged in any way, a Phalaenopsis will usually be unable to recover and will eventually just fade away. Most commercially grown orchids are sold in clear plastic pots to allow the green aerial roots to grow into the medium. These are sometimes slipped inside more aesthetically pleasing clay pots - take out the plastic pot and inspect the roots for healthy growing tips.
  4. Consider the type and condition of the growing medium. Don't buy anything slick with algae or with little ferns sprouting in it. Avoid plants struggling in mushy medium that has completely broken down - you don't want to have to repot your purchase as soon as you get it home. Consider what you're comfortable with: are these orchids planted in bark, or sphagnum moss? Moss holds onto moisture for longer, but bark can be more forgiving of mistakes. Remember that orchid roots need air in addition to water.
  5. Look for a bargain. Sometimes resellers will discount Phalaenopsis once the flowers are spent. It's pretty much a lucky dip at this stage; you won't know whether you've got a large white or a dainty pink candy stripe until you get it to flower again. If the leaves have some red pigmentation at the bases or underneath, that's sometimes an indication of darker-coloured flowers. Unfortunately, commercial varieties are almost never shipped with name tags, and if they are, these rarely provide a clue to the colours you can expect. Bargain bin anonymous orchids might be worthwhile if the plants are still vigorous. Avoid orchids that are marked down because they are obviously on the brink of death.
  6. Go for quality, not quantity. A plant with flowers of good shape and substance and with bold colours will be more rewarding at subsequent flowerings than one that has a few more blooms but the flowers of which are insipid or of poor shape. Perhaps I am an orchid snob, after all.
Let's prevent further disillusionment and unwitting cruelty to houseplants. Two final pieces of easy advice that will help you on the road to success with your new moth orchid:
  • If you're unsure of whether your orchid is getting sufficient light, that means you should move it to a brighter location. 
  • If you're unsure of whether to water it, that means you should wait another day before you do so. 

Photography credits: potted Phalaenopsis by Thomas Tamayo; dead Phalaenopsis by Kristin; helathy Phalaenopsis roots by Andrea K. Please visit the photostreams of these Flickr users for more flights of photographic fancy.

15 comments:

Shimmerrings said...

I recently bought my significant other a brassavola nodosa... very pretty white heart shaped flowers, but not blooming yet. I had to re-pot my raisin pie, it wasn't doing well in the metal container that it came in... well, he re-potted it for me, after he saw that it wasn't doing well. He said it wasn't able to breathe and the moss wasn't working well... he changed it over to wood chips. I hope it will survive, it's perked up, already, but I may have damaged one of the root tubers thingies.

arcadia said...

hmmm...ek was al baie tempted om van die wat by woolworths is te koop, maar is altyd skrikkerig dat dit crappy gaan uitdraai. maar die tips klink goed :-)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Shimmerings: I love B. nodosa - may it bring much happiness. Always make sure your potting medium has sufficient drainage.

arcadia: I can resist everything except temptation.

Anonymous said...

Our grocery store moth orchid bloomed from Dec to Aug. Many family & friends thought it was fake it stayed so perfect so long(it is real).

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

That's nine months! Well done. A tribute to modern breeding and expert care by the grower, no doubt ;)

ChrisEldin said...

You're not an orchid snob.
:-)

Angela said...

I'm a total flower snob - having been virtually raised in the flower shop my mom opened when I was 9. However, I bought a bunch of orange tulips for Thanksgiving dinner and they were gorgeous and perfect! You're right. The keys are to know what you're looking for and definitely go for quality. I may be encouraged now to attempt a moth orchid if I come across a good, healthy one.

Wendy said...

Your orchid of the week is stunning. However, I don't think I will ever own an orchid, no matter how beautiful is or where I can buy it from because I am sure to kill it. I don't think you would forgive me if I did.

Twanji Kalula said...

We need to submit this guide to a magazine, and get you paid for it!
So comprehensive - thanks for the education :)

maximumdose said...

Have to admit I've been tempted by grocery store orchids too with their convenience and price. Walking into my local asian department store (named Don Quijote) I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of Miltonia hyrids for sale (typically they have chrysanthemums or carnations) a few months ago. I purchased a nice seedling with an eye catching black mask on dark flowers like Milt. Hajime Ono 'Black Falls'. Since it's not a clone I'll be naming it with my own varietal name, maybe when it blooms next season.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Best of luck with your Miltonia, maximumdose. The weirdest I think I've seen in the grocery store was when Woolworths in South Africa started stocking a selection of Disa hybrids. Already tricky for experienced growers, I wondered what the desperate housewives of Bellville would make of them!

eves said...

Well let's hope our two current orchids don't croak. We have also taught the maid not to water it - I suspect that's how the previous one drowned...

Carl said...

I have always had bad luck with supermarket orchids. They always seem to end up dying or looking very sick. I will have to look around for some local orchid growers and get these flowers from them. I will see if I have better luck next time.

potluckkate said...

Liked your article, thanks. I have 2 supermarket orchids, both in front of a summy window, southish facing.

One has put out a floweering shoot, 5 buds, and the other, small, her a vigorous baby orchid on a stem! Do I do anything with the baby shoot? Will any other growing medium do to pot it into?

Emily33 said...

Holy cow that's awesome!!!! What did you do/not do? Did you keep it in same pot, how did you water?
I want to buy one soooo bad, but I feel so awful when I bring a new plant home and it dosent do well. I brought a beautiful calathea with orange spiked blooms home, I was sooo in love with it. But it got spider mites, its still alive but looks pitiful. I would be crushed if something happend to an orchid. Its my "dream plant" to own one day.