Orchid growers often get asked: “How can I get my orchid to bloom again?” Ditto for amaryllis. Ditto for Christmas cacti. Certain plants challenge us with specific routines that produce the next round of flowers. Yet even those “special” cases operate on basic horticultural principles: A flower bud is produced when plant roots have absorbed and stored enough of the right nutrients, when the plant’s growing conditions are satisfactory, and when certain factors (temperature, increasing/decreasing light) trigger flower production. Consider how it works for the orchid, amaryllis and Christmas cactus; the knowledge will help you with other plants.
Not all orchids are alike, and some types have very specific requirements. But let’s start with Phalaenopsis, the best beginners’ orchid. Everyone can grow it in normal house conditions, and it blooms long and beautifully.
Requirements for most orchids are simple: Grow it in well-drained bark – just ask for orchid-growing medium, labeled for the type of orchid. Water regularly, so the roots don’t dry out entirely, but never let it stand in water. Provide some humidity in the house. Fertilize regularly, either monthly at full strength (according to the fertilizer recommendations) or whenever you water (typically, weekly) at one-quarter strength. Grow your orchid in bright, indirect light or under supplemental lighting. Repot these orchids every year or two. Like most houseplants, orchids thrive and set bud and bloom best when nighttime temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees lower than daytime temperatures. (If your orchids never rebloom, try turning down the thermostat at night; this can be the missing factor.)
When plant owners worry over reblooming orchids, the key concerns are where and when to cut back the stems. After a stem has produced blooms, experts’ advice varies: Some cut the stem just above the first (lowest) node, and others cut above the second or third node. Given some patience, even with less-than-perfect care, your orchid will probably reward you with exquisite blooms, again and again.
The Niagara Frontier Orchid Society maintains a wonderful orchid collection at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, and offers shows twice a year – including one last weekend – with all the information and supplies you will ever need to grow orchids. You may also enjoy membership, or just stop in to visit them; see www.niagarafrontierorchids.org.
Some Western New York garden centers provide a full line of orchid supplies and a variety of plants. Many fine orchid books have been written, but my favorite is “Orchid Growing for Wimps” by Ellen Zachos (Sterling Press, $17.95), a fine horticulturist and New York City tropical plants maven. Neither owning it nor growing orchids will define you as a wimp.
One common question I hear: “What do I do with this amaryllis after it’s flowered?”
Just like any bulb, cut off the flower stalk at the bottom after the flower fades, but let the leaves grow. Usually the amaryllis is forced to bloom in the winter, so it’s cold outside. That means you should keep the plant inside in good light, and water it when it’s dry. This is the growth phase, so fertilize it according to the instructions on your houseplant fertilizer. Once the risk of frost has passed, move the plant outside and continue to grow it. Those large, beautiful leaves will fortify the bulb so that it can again produce a stalk and flowers. Fertilize and water all summer, and let the natural, seasonal cooling prepare the plant for its rest period.
Before a frost, bring the plant inside, cut off the leaves, and put it in a cool place (ideally, 55 degrees). Don’t water except to prevent extreme dryness. After eight weeks or so, put the plant in a warmer location. Once shoots appear, resume watering. This is a good time to repot it, using fresh, high-quality potting medium. The process will force the plant to produce the flowers you were hoping for.
If your amaryllis (or any bulb) does not rebloom, it is probably because you neglected it during its growing season. Especially in pots, plants are our captives, and they rely on us to supply fertilizer and acceptable growing conditions.
Again, reblooming success depends upon growing the plant in the right conditions – bright, indirect light and regular watering with the opportunity to dry out between soakings. Fertilize them during the spring/summer growth periods and stop as they approach the fall/winter rest period.
This plant is particularly dependent upon natural cues to force it to set buds. In its own natural habitat, the plant would prepare to bloom when daily temperatures cool – nights even more – and natural light begins to decrease. It is possible, but not necessary, to get Christmas cactus to bloom by putting it in a dark location, simulating long nights, in fall for several weeks. But it is much easier to simply let it go through an extended cold period in September. Allow it to spend the summer outside – fertilizing and watering as with any houseplant – and get it in when frost is threatened. Once inside, keep it in a room with cool nighttime temperatures. Don’t move Christmas cacti around, since changes sometimes cause them to drop their buds.
Three case studies; three sets of instructions – but clear patterns. These plants need conditions that simulate their original habitats (temperatures, light, drainage, water, soil fertility). After that, it’s a matter of the right triggers and the right water and fertilizer at the right time.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.