Step away from the orchids



On a cold Saturday afternoon, we have stopped for a drink at a lakefront restaurant, so we can watch the ice fisherman as we sip our martinis. My friend Cheryl: “What about those orchids you left in the car?” Me, shrugging: “Yeah. I’m a bit concerned.” The bartender and cocktail waitress are looking at us, wide-eyed and kind of dismayed. “You have kids in the car?” one blurts. (We were able to clear it up before the police came.)


Orchids may as well be children for all the worry and fuss that surround their maintenance. I have just dipped my toe into the world of orchid growing, with the purchase of three: a dendrobium, a phalaenopsis, and a cattleya. Two were bought yesterday at the annual orchid show at the Botanical Gardens; one a couple weeks before at Home Depot. I also have an orchid wheel, which, when properly manipulated, will help me solve all my orchid problems.

We saw a few outstanding orchid displays at the show. And by that I mean those that were not cluttered with tiny frogs and little stone signs saying “Welcome to my garden.” (Seriously: you have gorgeous orchids; why bother with the tchotchkes?) This is a show that invites local gardeners to create displays of their best orchids. Then, in the back greenhouses, they have some area vendors, doing very brisk business—everyone I saw leaving the joint had a bag of orchid plants clutched in their fist. What will happen to all these plants? If Cheryl’s experience is indication, maybe half of these people will kill their orchids before the year is out.


And that’s the thing. Except for maybe the durable phalaenopsis, which puts up with our dry, dim Northeastern home conditions rather well, most orchids are … difficult. One exhibitor (the best: he had several amazing slipper varieties, some pictured here) looked grave when I mentioned I had just purchased a dendrobium nobile. “You know that needs a chilling period; you have to let it go dry … did you talk to your vendor? Did they give you a care sheet?” “Um, no. I have an orchid wheel, though.”


Every orchid expert I have talked to is a guy. But the reason I’m getting into them is my late mother-in-law; she loved them and always assured me I’d have no problem keeping a few alive. We’ll see. According to my wheel, here’s what might happen: petal blight, leaf spot, shriveled leaves, no flowers, yellow leaves (I’m very familiar with that one), dry black patches (ew), soft rotting areas (lovely!) and, er, lack of vigor.

But I know many Rant readers have orchids and do very well with them; I may be calling on you to share your wisdom!

P.S.: The chocolate-scented oncidium Sharry Baby DOES smell like chocolate.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Well, I don’t call $35 quite like a tulip, which is what I paid for the dendrobium nobile, admittedly a bigger one, but many of the Home Depot phals are pretty cheap. Still, a tulip bulb is less than a buck.

  2. The most unlikely friend does really well with orchids in New York City. She has them in surprisingly sunny windows and mists them regularly. They not only live, they bloom!

    I’ve been able to keep them alive, and sulking, but always wind up composting them because I just can’t coax a second blooming out of them.

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