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Gayle Smith Care & Handling: November-December 2011

Orchids on Offer

Written by Gayle Smith
Close your eyes and think of the most popular blooming plant in the past five years. Did the orchid come to mind? No longer considered a specialty plant, orchids are available in high-end flower shops to big-box stores. Orchid popularity (both cut flowers and flowering plants) has soared in less than a decade. It’s impossible to window shop or peruse a magazine without noticing orchids featured somewhere in the design and décor.

Through aggressive marketing programs and increased availability, consumers are learning that orchids are a lot tougher than they look. Orchids have something to offer everyone. Consider the return on investment alone – a plant in bloom provides flowering beauty for two to four months after purchase. Who can deny that exotic orchids are intriguing and, well . . . exotic! 

Who is today’s orchid buyer? Consumer surveys conducted by Green Circle Growers of Oberlin, Ohio, indicate that the average orchid consumer is a 50- to 65-year-old married woman who owns her home and has a high school diploma. She likes to display orchids in her living room and prefers the pot colour to match home décor rather than the season or specific holiday. Eighty per cent of orchid consumers surveyed indicated they are beginners and 78 per cent are first-time orchid purchasers. Fifty-nine per cent purchased for themselves and 41 per cent surveyed received the orchid as a gift. Green Circle Grower’s survey results clearly indicate consumers need care information when purchasing a plant. As with many floral offerings, the product’s beauty draws them in, but as industry experts, it’s important we provide information to ensure consumers have a positive experience.

Orchids are generally categorized into four categories. The category most important for the floral trade is called epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that have roots in the bark of trees. Commercial orchid plants are potted in bark or moss to allow exchange of moisture and nutrients in a media that provides plenty of air circulation. To aerate the root zone, the grower’s pot has side vents and a concave bottom.
   Orchids like their roots crowded, so don’t repot for the first year or two after purchase. Plants prefer to be moist, not wet. A fast way to kill a plant is let it sit in water because orchid roots need air and die if under water for any length of time. The rule of thumb for watering an orchid planted in moss is to water it every seven to nine days. If it’s planted in bark, water the plant every eight to 10 days. Adjust your watering to the seasons, giving slightly more often in summer than at other times.

What about food? Orchids like to drink water with fertilizer once a month, but never fertilize a dry plant. Dilute the fertilizer by following mixing instructions. Then water the plant (take it out of the deco pot) by letting it sit in tepid water for roughly 30 minutes to allow moss and bark to become thoroughly wet. Allow plants to drain for another 60 minutes before placing back in the deco pot. Keep in mind, orchids love humidity. If the environment is super-dry, consider placing the pot on a tray filled with water and pebbles but keep water level shallow so pot is positioned above, not in, the water.

Orchids need bright, but not hot, sunlight. South- or east-facing windows are best. Orchid roots photosynthesize and breathe, so they reach towards light and air. Green roots indicate a healthy plant. Don’t cut off those crazy roots at the “soil” surface. Display plants in areas with good air movement. They love their native tropical breezes – think, a room with ceiling fan.

When it comes to ethylene gas, orchids are very sensitive. Gas exposure causes florets to look veiny, white blooms to turn a weird chartreuse-green colour and buds to shrivel, flop and drop off. Very low levels of ethylene gas kill these beautiful blooms. Ethylene damage is irreversible, so it is important to avoid exposure from sources of ethylene such as cigarette smoke, or fruit and food in the cooler. At the consumer level, watch out for fireplaces that don’t draw well or barbecue smoke drifting from the patio. 

As with any other flower, temperature is important. Most orchids suffer chill damage when held colder than 10 C (50 F), but that’s not to say they don’t require cooling as they move through the chain. Hold and transport orchids at between 10-15 C with 90-95 per cent humidity. Cool temperatures reduce stress and water loss. Store in a cooler with high humidity, but keep petals dry to avoid Botrytis fungus infection. Follow good sanitary procedures such as disinfecting work tables and tools several times a day, and dispose of infected flower parts immediately, as Botrytis spreads.

Finally, when designing with orchids, lightly mist blooms with Hawaiian Floral Mist. This spray slows down water loss and prevents dehydration. Allow blooms to dry before placing in the cooler. Mist the flower once every two days to keep blooms looking great.

No doubt, increased availability and sharp pricing have opened the door to new potential flower buyers who see orchids as the perfect beginner plant. Your expertise will help ensure that their first floral experience is a great one and that it won’t be their last.

Gayle Smith draws information from more than 30 years of floral industry experience. She currently works at the technical manager for Chrysal, USA.
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