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.
- 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.
- Check for any instore damage. This includes cracked leaves, snapped aerial roots, bruised flower spikes and torn petals.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.