Sandy’s Garden ... Orchids - well one very popular orchid

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The amateur gardener who consults a botanical dictionary to discover the pukka name of a common plant will find himself or herself puzzled by the entry for ‘orchid.’

Bee orchid, black orchid, butterfly orchid, common spotted orchid, cradle orchid … the list continues through most of the letters of the alphabet, virtually every individual entry referring to a different botanical family. The truth is that the term ‘orchid’ covers more than 100 000 different plants and is a term described in my copy of Chamber’s English Dictionary as: ‘any plant or flower of the Orchidaceae or Orchideae, a family of monocotyledons, including many tropical epiphytes, with highly specialised, often showy, flowers.’ And the typical amateur gardener will require to spend further time looking up what ‘monocotyledons’ (don’t bother – it’s wholly technical!) and ‘epiphytes’ are. In the interests of science, an epiphyte is ‘a plant growing on another plant without being parasitic.’ Suffice to say, then, that the clue to the popularity of orchids lies in their ‘often showy flowers.’

But … and this is a very big but … most plants which are members of the Orchidaceae family are wholly unsuitable for cultivation by the average amateur gardener. Out of the 100 000 plus members of the orchid family, there are, perhaps, as many as five which are regarded as relatively easy to grow; and of that five, the miniature Cymbidium is often seen as the beginner’s orchid. The Cymbidium is sometimes referred to as ‘the greenhouse orchid’, a term which, in itself, reveals one of the fundamental reasons for its suitability as a house plant, with the descriptive adjective ‘miniature’ telling more about its house-friendly characteristics.

And now we come to another ‘but.’ Cymbidiums make popular presents, especially at Christmas, for they can readily be persuaded … by professional growers … to be in flower during December and it is widely known that they are quite expensive and therefore represent generous gifts. The reason they are pretty expensive is, of course, not their rarity value but the fact that it has taken the grower some five years to grow the plants to the point where they are ready to go to retailers to be offered for sale to the public. Hopefully, recipients of Cymbidiums last month read and followed the instructions which, no doubt, came with the plant, telling its new owner to be sure to keep it in a warm room with a daytime temperature of no less than 15°C, say 60°F, and a night time temperature of no less than 10°C, say 50°F. Then the plant will have been enjoying a good fifteen hours of light, the short daylight hours being supplemented by its being kept in a lit room throughout the evening, while the plant was watered sparingly with soft, tepid water and had its leaves misted occasionally. And that list of care needs is the ‘but.’ Beginner’s orchid the Cymbidium may be, but it is only relatively easy to grow and it certainly won’t thrive if its needs are not met.

Then the instructions very possibly also suggested that this orchid could well have quite a lengthy life-span. And yes, it can … but it’s non-too-easy to persuade it to come back into flower after its first year. Ideally, the Cymbidium will be carefully watered only when that is necessary, for the plant will fail if its roots are allowed to become waterlogged; it will be fed with a weak, high-potash fertiliser in three out of every four waterings during the summer months, when it will also enjoy plenty of bright light but not much direct sunlight in a greenhouse or a porch letting it feel the first chill of an autumn evening before it is returned to the heart of the family, for it needs a touch of the cold to initiate the flower production process. And I hope that Dame Fortune will choose to smile on both the grower and plant!