I sometimes wonder where plants get their reputations from, especially when that reputation is not remotely close to my experience of them. Take orchids for example. Lots of people seem think of them as being gorgeous but tricky-to-grow plants. Well, if I knew nothing of their reputation and was asked to describe them after growing them for the last 18 years, I'd say they're tough as old boots, indestructible, trouble-free. The only part of their 'reputation' that I'd agree with is that yes, they are gorgeous.
Right now there are two very different types of orchids blooming in my garden. One is large and lovely, and the other is a tiny, dainty little native orchid, and I'm excited because it's the first time my native orchid has bloomed for me.
This is the big one in bloom, a common cymbidium orchid. These make the most extraordinary cut flowers for vases indoors, where they last for several weeks. Pammy swoops on my orchid pots, secateurs in hand, ready to cut off whole branches of blooms, as soon as she sees them unfolding. I always have to make sure that she leaves enough behind to decorate my outdoor room, too!
As well as this white/pink one, which blooms in September, there's a maroon-brown one which blooms earlier in winter, around June. Both of my orchids came into my garden as potted gifts, and since then each plant has thrived and been divided every few years, and now I have about five pots of each. Picking the ideal growing spot for them was easy. The previous owner of our house, Angela, also grew cymbidium orchids (which were lovely), so all I did was put my orchids in the same spot where Angela grew hers. For the record, it's in brightly lit shade against a side fence, but oddly enough this spot does get an hour or so of direct overhead sunshine every day of the year. I've been told a bit of direct sunshine is good for orchids, and so it has proved. The plants are grown in pots, in orchid potting mix and they're fed monthly with orchid plant food, applied via a watering can. That's it.
While I'm pleased to see our cymbidiums in bloom again, I've become a bit complacent about their trouble-free reliability. Pictured above is something that's genuinely exciting. It's our first-ever native orchid bloom. It's tiny, just 2cm (3/4 inch) across from wingtip to wingtip. By comparison, the cymbidiums measure 9cm (3.5 inches) across. But it's dainty, pretty and, as they say about babies, small but perfectly formed.
To take a few photos I dragged the native orchid pot from its usual spot in orchid land, plonking it on a chair on the pathway. As you can see it's not exactly covered in blooms, but as these are the first blooms we're not bothered by that. Unfortunately we don't know its botanical name (correction! now I do – it's a Dendrobium orchid). Pam bought it at the annual Marrickville Community Street Fair one year, where they close off the main road and set up music stages, food stalls and well-organised mayhem for a happy, multi-cultural community day of celebration. We're not even sure how long ago Pammy bought the orchid, but it's probably three or four years ago. I think one of the reasons it hasn't flowered is simple – I hadn't fed it enough. The general rule with Aussie native plants is that over-feeding can kill them, and feeding them the wrong stuff can kill them, too. So I was timid. Then one day I asked our resident horticultural guru, Geoffrey, about feeding them and learned that the orchid food I feed the cymbidiums is fine for our native orchids, too. Bingo! Flowers in the first year. Thank you once again, Geoffrey.
In the process of moving the pot out for photography a few bits just fell out. As they had roots attached and as I've learned that you should never give up on orchids, I've potted them up.
Hardly the most impressive sight but it's a beginning. I always have a bag of orchid potting mix on hand, as I also use orchid mix when repotting bromeliads (a job which I plan to do very soon and blog about). In nature, orchids don't even grow in soil – they're ephiphytes which grow on rocks, in the crotches between tree trunks and branches, etc. In pots, all they need is a very, very free-draining medium to hold them upright and provide somewhere for roots to go. My orchid potting mix is mostly chunky bark bits.
There are several other native orchid blooms yet to make an appearance, and hopefully next year there'll be even more. This plant had been growing and getting bigger over the last few years, but it just wasn't flowering. While it was almost certainly the feeding which promoted the flowers, there's a chance that it also didn't start flowering until its roots filled the pots. I'm not sure how true this is, but I have heard several people say that orchids bloom better when they're crowded in their pots. So, I have a simple plan for this one. Leave it alone! It will keep on getting its monthly dose of liquid food, but that's it.
Maybe this last comment is only really relevant to people in mild, temperate climates such as mine, but if you have a garden which gets only a bit of sunshine during the day, cymbidium orchids are something well worth trying. They are tough plants, and they flower so spectacularly and for such a long time. As cut blooms indoors it's really special to be able to say "yes" when visitors ask – "did you grow these?"
Cymbidiums are a perfect fit for so many inner-city backyards. They're the easiest and least fussy of the orchids and the colour range is enormous. And finding a good one is easy. Just buy one you like when it's in bloom.