Sunday, 23 September 2012

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)

Living Frugally
Yew Growing On Rock

‘Outdoors, grow in fertile, well- drained soil in full sun.’ – this is a direct quote from a gardening book and it is referring to Buddleia. Now have a look at a derelict site and see the them growing through tiny cracks in concrete. Similarly, you can see the way they thrive in the mortar twenty feet up an old wall, accompanying the willow growing from the side of the chimney pot and the elderberry thriving in the gutter. My point is, that plants grow where they want, not having read the gardening books. If mankind were to be wiped out by some catastrophe, you can bet your life that in very few years signs of our civilisation would disappear under a forest of growth. The annoying thing, however, is that you can sometimes give the things 'perfect' conditions and they repay you by snuffing it.

Fig Tree Growing In Vertical Wall
While the Buddleias and others are simply opportunists, some plants have adapted to grow in what, to us, are poor conditions but for very good reasons. The moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) is a prime example and one useful to know about because it is probably the country's favourite houseplant. Its native habitat is in forests in the Himalayas, South East Asia and Northern Australia and, on the ground, the light is very poor due to the trees having filched it on the way. As this orchid, like most other plants, needs sunlight to photosynthesise the sugars which give the energy for growth, this presents a problem. It is solved by hitching a ride to the sun:  the plant simply grows on niches on the branches of trees, thriving in a compost of dead leaves and twigs, possibly enriched by the occasional bird-dropping butty.
Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)
Knowing about this native background gives us the logical make-up of a compost to grow the plant in: it should be airy, well drained and not too rich in nutrient. With this in mind, I usually make up a mixture of small broken birch twigs from the trees at the end of the garden, mixed with moss, a bit of leaf-mould and possibly some perlite. It may be interesting to further emulate natural conditions by encouraging the budgy to have the occasional bowel movement into the compost. However, teaching it the accuracy of a bomber pilot may take some doing. Another aspect of the natural habitat of this orchid is that it can be dry for long periods, highlighting how so many people manage to kill them - they over water.
The white aerial roots are capable of taking in water, so occasional spraying of these will relieve the stresses of a centrally heated room. They are a good indicator of the health of the plant and if they start to go brown, cut back on the watering and make sure it isn't standing in water. While most books recommend the addition of a high potash feed (tomato feed will do), I usually give a weak feed of a balanced fertilizer about once a month. An annual re potting is a good idea but resist the temptation to over pot - these plants thrive on a minimalist approach.


  1. How can that yew tree manage to survive? Amazing.
    Your moth orchid looks beautiful and it is so interesting to see how it grows in the wild.

  2. I like your yew photo. I took a friend to see the 1300y old one in Martindale Churchyard Cumbria yesterday and the 4000y old one in Crowhurst Surrey but the one one the rock takes some beating. Graham