Orchids are some of the most enchanting, versatile, and diverse plants on our planet. Treasured by gardeners, botanists, and florists alike for their captivating blooms and stunning scents, Orchids are sure to delight anyone who grows them, and enthral anyone who sees them.
With so many different and unique varieties available, there is an Orchid for everyone, regardless of space, environmental conditions, horticultural ability, or aesthetic preference.
Here is our ultimate guide to the very best Orchid varieties and how to care for them!
What is an orchid?
Orchids comprise a vast group of flowering perennial herb plants belonging to the Orchidaceae family. There are currently over 28,000 recognised species of Orchid, with a further 100,000 cultivars and hybrid varieties, making them the largest species in the plant kingdom.
Orchids grow naturally across almost every corner of the globe, from barren deserts to tropical jungles to arctic tundras. The only landscapes without Orchids are glaciers. They can be terrestrial (growing from the ground), epiphytic (growing from other plants or trees), or lithophytic (growing from rocks).
This fascinating flora family is prized for its intricate, ornate, and vivid flowers, which come in an almost infinite variety of colours, shapes, and sizes. Some species also give off beautiful aromas which fill a room with fruity, sweet, or spicy fragrances.
What Is the Meaning of Orchids?
The unparalleled beauty of Orchids has captivated the human imagination, and they have been revered symbolically across many cultures for millennia.
In ancient Aztec civilisations, the vanilla Orchid was thought to bring great strength, power, and courage to warriors who consumed its beans.
In Ancient Greece, they signified fertility and virility. It was believed that if an expectant mother ate an Orchid tuber, she would give birth to a girl, while if the father of the unborn child ate a tuber, the baby would be a boy.
In Victorian Britain, the beauty and symmetry of Orchids meant they were associated with the most beautiful women. The scarcity and exoticism also signified opulence, luxury, and wealth for those who could afford them.
In ancient China, Orchid flowers were known as ‘Lan Hua’, meaning that they embodied perfection, and they were also associated with fertility, though to bring many children to those who kept them.
In Christianity, The red spots on the petals of some Orchid species are thought to represent the blood of Christ.
What do Orchid colours mean?
Orchids grow in a huge range of colours, and each hue has its own unique meaning attached to it.
- Red orchids signify desire, lust, passion, strength, and courage.
- Pink orchids symbolise femininity and happiness and are often given as gifts for a 28th wedding anniversary.
- White orchids symbolise innocence, purity, and elegance.
- Yellow orchids signify positivity and friendship.
- Orange orchids represent boldness, vivacity, and pride.
- Green orchids symbolise health, fortune, and longevity
- ‘True’ blue is the only colour that doesn’t occur naturally in orchids, so any flowers with a blue tint to them are thought to represent rarity and uniqueness.
- There are twice as many species of Orchids as there are birds and four times as many species of Orchids as there are mammals!
- Prehistoric fossil evidence shows that Orchids first evolved around 80 to 100 million years ago, coexisting with dinosaurs, and having already developed a symbiotic relationship with early pollinating ancestors of bees.
- The rarest Orchid in Great Britain is the ‘Ghost Orchid’ Dendrophylax lindenii. Although it is native to the tropical climate of Cuba, there have been a handful of sightings of this ethereal and enigmatic flower in British woodlands since the 1900s. The Ghost Orchid lives mostly underground and only blooms once in a decade.
- Some types of Orchids give off foul stenches to attract their chosen pollinators. Their aromas have been likened to rotting meats, fish, faeces, and even rotting flesh!
- Vanilla beans come from an orchid! The ‘Vanilla Orchid‘ Vanilla planifolia is the only commercially harvested orchid, cultivated for its sweet beans which are used in food and perfumes.
How to Care for Orchids
Caring for Orchids is slightly different to caring for other houseplants. They have specific needs because of their unusual growth habits. Remember, requirements will vary slightly from species to species, so always check the care guide on the packaging for specifics when purchasing a new Orchid.
Generally, Orchids do best when they receive plenty of bright but indirect light. Direct sunlight can scorch their delicate petals, but too little light prevents them from flowering. East or west-facing windowsills are ideal, but you can position some species in a south-facing window, provided there is a blind or voile to diffuse the sunlight.
A good indicator of an Orchids’ light requirement is their foliage. If your orchid has thick, succulent-like foliage, it probably needs more light than a species with softer, more delicate foliage. Orchids need around twelve hours of light each day.
Temperature and Humidity
Most Orchids that we can grow in our homes will have originated in the humid environments of jungles and rainforests, so they like a moderately moist atmosphere, in a kitchen or bathroom for example. You can replicate tropical conditions by placing your orchid on a pebble tray filled with water but make sure the bottom of the pot isn’t submerged.
You can also mist your Orchid, but avoid misting the petals as this can create problems with fungus. A humidity level between 40 and 70 percent should keep your Orchid perfectly satisfied.
Orchids do best when temperatures in the home closely resemble those of their native environment. Research the origins of your chosen orchid species to be sure you can replicate this. The majority of Orchid species need a ten to fifteen-degree drop between daytime and nighttime temperatures to encourage them to bloom.
Orchids have unique substrate requirements because of their largely epiphytic growth habits. The roots need plenty of oxygen and aeration to breathe. Avoid standard potting mixes as they will be too heavy and retain too much water, suffocating your Orchid. Orchids like a slightly acidic substrate with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.
You must choose a chunky growing medium that promotes air circulation and allows water to drain freely. Materials like coco coir, bark, sphagnum moss, sand, charcoal, perlite, and pebbles are all great choices if you want to make your own Orchid potting mix, alternatively, there are plenty of specialist Orchid substrates on the market.
Finding the right watering balance is crucial for thriving Orchids. Their roots quickly rot if left in standing water. Orchids can withstand short periods of drought, but overwatering is the quickest and most common way to inadvertently kill your Orchid.
The best way to water your Orchid is to stand the pot in a bucket or sink filled with water until the substrate is saturated, then remove it from the water and leave the pot to drain thoroughly.
During warmer months and blooming periods, you should water your Orchid weekly, but reduce this to fortnightly or even monthly during the winter months. If the leaves start to look crinkled, it’s a sign that your Orchid needs a drink. Allow the substrate to dry out fully between watering.
Potting and Repotting
Orchids need pots with plenty of drainage holes, as they do not tolerate standing in water for any length of time. Specialised Orchid pots are available with extra holes in the sides of the pot to improve air circulation to the roots. Terracotta pots are also a good choice as they are breathable.
Some Orchids have photosynthetic roots, so some enthusiasts use clear pots, allowing the roots to gain energy from sunlight, although this is not always necessary. Photosynthetic roots are green in colour because they contain chlorophyll, the chemical which enables photosynthesis to take place and which gives plants their green hue.
Orchids love being slightly root-bound, so don’t need to be re-potted too often. As a general rule, you should repot your Orchid every two to three years. You only need to choose a pot around an inch bigger than the previous pot. Much larger pots will hold unnecessary growing medium that will hold on to excess moisture and suffocate the roots.
Once removed from its old pot, you should gently tease out the roots a little and remove any dead roots before placing it into the new pot. It’s a good idea to refresh the substrate each time you repot. Substrates break down and become more porous over time, meaning they hold more water which isn’t good for the roots.
Don’t be alarmed if your Orchid seems to stop growing after being repotted, most species will become dormant for several months when their pot is changed. You can reduce watering during this time.
Because Orchids can’t be grown in standard soil-based potting mixes, their substrate is often very nutrient-poor so they need extra food to promote healthy growth and abundant blooms. You should only fertilise your Orchid when it is actively growing in the warmer months, but stop feeding whenever your Orchid is in bloom or dormant.
Opt for a well-balanced liquid feed, and be consistent. Try to fertilise monthly at least, but fortnightly feeds will encourage the most vigorous growth. The root systems of Orchids tend to be quite fragile, so you should dilute the fertiliser to a weaker strength than for other houseplants.
Types of Orchid
Now that you know all about caring for Orchids, let’s take a look at eleven of the best and most beautiful varieties that you can have a go at growing.
Brassovola orchids are unique in that they have a vining, trailing, or climbing growth habit, so look great in hanging baskets. They have delicate, elegant white flowers which give off a strong, citrus scent at nighttime, earning them the nickname ‘Lady of the Night’. Brassovola can bloom several times a year and are very low maintenance.
Brassovola like bright, indirect light. Because they are often hung or mounted, the substrate tends to dry out quicker, so they can tolerate being watered a couple of times a week during active growth periods. They will produce more blooms in higher humidity.
Cambria or Vuylstekeara Orchids are a hybrid variety created in 1911. They do not grow in the wild, so are perfectly suited to the home environment. Cambria produces long-lasting and beautifully scented blooms during winter.
Cambria Orchids are fairly easy to care for, so are perfect for beginners. They like plenty of bright, indirect light and temperatures of around 20°C. They are fairly sensitive to dramatic changes in temperature, so place them away from drafts, air conditioning units, or radiators. Cambria orchids are some of the more moisture-loving varieties, so don’t let the substrate dry out completely between waterings.
Catasetum Orchids have sturdy, waxy, often architectural blooms. They are fairly low maintenance, so long as they are kept consistently warm. In their native habitat of the rainforests of the Americas, Catasetum Orchids grow in the canopies, where they receive plenty of bright light, so they are one of the more light tolerant varieties.
These orchids prefer a more moist substrate than most varieties, so add plenty of sphagnum moss or perhaps even a little soil. The substrate should remain moist throughout the whole of their relatively short growing season. Once active growth ceases, they can be left to dry out completely.
Cattleya is a group of Orchids with particularly vibrant and showy blooms, originating from South and Central America. They are available in many different colours, often with large, showy inflorescences. Some species have intricately striped, spotted, or multicoloured petals.
Cattleya Orchids are another beginner-friendly variety. They prefer a position in an east or west-facing window where they will receive plenty of bright, indirect light. Allow the substrate to dry out fully between waterings.
Cypripedium Orchids are also known as ‘Lady’s Slippers’ because of the pouched shape of their petals. They are hardy enough to be grown outside, even in cooler climates. They are also one of the easiest Orchids to grow but have some of the most intricate and interesting blooms.
Lady’s Slippers are tolerant of temperatures ranging from 4 – 30°C but should be positioned in a sheltered spot where they won’t receive direct sunlight. They are one of the only types of Orchids which can survive in a standard, soil-based substrate, provided it is well-draining. With the right conditions, Cypripedium Orchids have been known to live up to 40 years.
Dendrobium Orchids originate from jungle regions of Asia. They are one of the largest and most diverse Orchid groups, and some can grow to huge sizes, with each plant bearing hundreds of flowers in their natural habitat.
Dendrobium are some of the more demanding varieties and can be particular about their environment. They like to be root-bound, so choose a small pot. They will need regular watering during the growing season, and plenty of indirect light. They also love humidity, so you should mist their foliage regularly.
Miltonia Orchids are another of the more particular varieties, requiring quite specific conditions, so they are best avoided by complete beginners. If you do decide to commit to a Miltonia, you will be handsomely rewarded by their cheerful and decorative blooms. They are often nicknamed the ‘pansy Orchid’ since they resemble smiling faces when the petals emerge.
These orchids like moderately warm and humid conditions, but won’t bloom if temperatures get above 26˚C. They have rather specific light requirements, needing a sheltered spot in a bright room, but they shouldn’t receive any direct light at all. Miltonias need watering every seven to ten days, with plenty of misting in between.
Odontoglossum Orchids are sometimes called ‘butterfly Orchids’ because they display intricately patterned petals, reminiscent of butterfly wings. Native to tropical areas of Central and South America, they need consistent warmth so are perfect for centrally heated homes.
Butterfly Orchids like to be watered regularly but allowed to drain thoroughly. They also need fairly high levels of humidity but good air circulation. They need bright, indirect light for around twelve hours per day.
Oncidium Orchids are often called ‘dancing ladies’ because the flowers look like the voluminous dresses of Latin American dancers, where they are endemic. They produce large sprays of vibrant flowers, usually in the autumn.
Oncidium Orchids are well suited to indoor growing, as they like consistent warmth. They are more light-tolerant than other Orchids and can cope with direct light in the mornings and evenings when the sun is less powerful.
Phalaenopsis or ‘Moth’ Orchids are probably the most popular variety of Orchids amongst houseplant enthusiasts. They are native to tropical areas of Asia and Australia and are available with a huge array of different coloured, shaped, and sized blooms.
Moth Orchids require plenty of bright, indirect light, and can tolerate being placed in a south-facing window over the winter months. Too little light will cause the foliage to become dark and dull. Moth Orchids don’t tolerate drought well at all, so will need to be watered fairly regularly. Their exposed roots will turn white to indicate that they are thirsty.
Vanda Orchids originate from Asia and Oceana and have ornate, beautiful blooms. They prefer to have their roots exposed, so are often grown without pots or any growing medium at all. They love warm temperatures, so adapt well to centrally heated homes, and will bloom several times a year in the right conditions.
These Orchids like plenty of bright light and high humidity, so a south-facing bathroom windowsill is a great location. Exposed roots will need daily misting, so they are some of the more high-maintenance Orchids.
What do Orchids smell like?
Some Orchids give off strong aromas which help them to attract their chosen pollinators. These scents can range from fresh, fruity fragrances, to deep, sweet, chocolatey scents. The majority of nursery-grown and shop-bought Orchids are generally hybridised so they don’t produce any scent at all.
How long do Orchids flower for?
Most orchids will bloom once a year, although many varieties are capable of blooming several times per year when conditions are right. Blooms usually last for around six to ten weeks.
Are Orchids difficult to grow?
Care and maintenance requirements vary greatly depending on the species. It’s worth checking out the specific needs of a variety before you purchase to make sure that it suits your level of expertise, the conditions of your home, and the amount of time you can dedicate to it.
How long do Orchids live?
Wild orchids usually have a lifespan of around twenty years in their natural habitat. Often, Orchids grown indoors in pots have shorter lifespans, although they can still be expected to live for ten to fifteen years, provided they receive plenty of care and all their needs are met.
With almost 30,000 varieties to choose from, there is a perfect Orchid for everyone. Whether you seek stunning, symmetrical elegance from your blooms, or perhaps you prefer a fragrant aroma, or a show-stopping, flamboyant flower, there’s something to suit every space and every skill level.
They truly are some of the most rewarding and enchanting plants to nurture, and will certainly bring a touch of dramatic beauty to any home, no matter what variety you choose to grow.