Meet the Phalaenopsis (Phalaenopsis spp. and hybrids)
The Phalaenopsis, also known as the moth orchid because its flowers resemble moths in flight, is an orchid genus of approximately 60 species. It’s easy-care nature makes it arguably the most popular orchid genus when it comes to choosing one as a houseplant. It is native to China, Taiwan, and the majority of Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia). Phalaenopsis orchids are generally epiphytic, but can also be terrestrial or lithophytic.
Although they are often called the “moth orchid” – Phalaenopsis is actually pollinated by bees! Most Phalaenopsis are not fragrant and rely on showy flowers to attract the pollinator bees (whereas moth-pollinated orchids rely mainly on scent to attract moths, which are most active at night). These bees land on the modified labellum (lip – or lowest petal of the flower) and pollinate each flower by acquiring pollen on their backs. As they go deeper into the flower, they rub that pollen onto the stigmal surface as they reach for the nectar.
Many Phalaenopsis flower once a year, but due to increasing hybridization and polyploidy, many can be induced into blooming twice a year. It has been found that stable, cooler temperatures during the day actually influence flowering time and production. Regular fertilization can also helps.
They belong to the family, Orchidaceae, which is the second-most diverse family of Angiosperms (flowering plants) – second only to Asteraceae (the sunflower family). Like many orchids, and monocots for that matter, there are three sepals and three petals – arranged in a triangle and an inverse triangle, respectively. The lower petal, referred to as the lip or labellum, is usually the most modified part of an orchid. Many orchids have evolved modified flower structures in order to form complex symbiotic relationships with their pollinators.
Because of such diversity within the family Orchidaceae, there is a need to divide plants in groups that are broader than Genera, but more specific than Family, and we call those Tribes. For example, the genus Phalaenopsis is within the tribe Vandeae along with Vanda, Angraecum, Aerangis, and Aerides – to name a few.
Phalaenopsis species generally evolved in three different habitats: seasonally dry areas, seasonally cool areas, and constantly warm and humid areas. In the seasonally dry, or seasonally cool areas, some species are semi-deciduous, losing some of their leaves when the weather becomes unfavorable. Many have evolved some level of succulence, too. However, most Phalaenopsis are evergreen (not deciduous), and the greatest number of species are native to the constantly warm and moist areas of the world – i.e. your Phalaenopsis at home probably prefers bright to moderate, indirect light and high humidity!
Orchid obsession has never gone out of style – and even oligarchs and dictators have had their fair share of it! In 1964, the orchid hybrid ‘Kimilsungia’ was named in honor of the North Korean Leader, Kim Il-sung. It is said that on a diplomatic mission to Indonesia, Il-sung –
“stopped before a particular flower, its stem stretching straight, its leaves spreading fair, giving a cool appearance, and its pink blossoms showing off their elegance and preciousness; he said the plant looked lovely, speaking highly of the success in raising it. Sukarno said that the plant had not yet been named, and that he would name it after Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung declined his offer, but Sukarno insisted earnestly that respected Kim Il Sung was entitled to such a great honour, for he had already performed great exploits for the benefit of mankind.”
Kimilsungia flower shows are held every year in Pyongyang. Traditionally, diplomatic missions & embassies of foreign countries in North Korea each present their own bouquet of the flower to the annual exhibition.
The original fascination with orchids began during the Victorian Era (late 1850s), and “orchid mania” thus ensued – with hundreds of wealthy collectors scouring the world for a sample of all the world’s orchids. It wasn’t until much later in 1921 that the American Orchid Society (AOS) was founded to satiate our own obsession with orchids. Many chapters of the society exist throughout the country, each with its shows, awarding certificates of cultural merit (CCM), and other awards to the best-grown orchids. The largest show on the east coast is the Philadelphia Flower Show, where the American Orchid Society works with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Much of the proceeds of AOS membership go towards orchid conservation, research, and awareness.
PHALAENOPSIS PLANT CARE
SUNLIGHT: Bright to medium, indirect light. Can handle a few hours of direct sun.
WATER: Spritz with purified, warm water daily. Soak once a week. Let orchid dry between waterings. Water more frequently during warmer months, the fertilize during the growing season. Generally drooping and wrinkling will be signs of under-watering. Do not over-water, which will encourage root rot.
SOIL: Plant in orchid mix, never regular potting soil.
HUMIDITY: The more humidity – the better. Normal room humidity is fine, but your plant will want more. Try not to let the air become too dry.
TEMPERATURE: 65°-85°F (18°-30°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F.
COMMON PROBLEMS: It is generally a very easy-going plant. Like all plants – it may get scale and mealybugs. Treat as soon as they appear with weekly sprays of horticultural (Neem) oil and regular wipe-downs.
I. SYMPTOM: Leaves turning brown and crispy at leaf edges
CAUSE: Under watered, low humidity, high salts, or potassium deficiency
II. SYMPTOM: Wilting/wrinkling
CAUSE: Under watered
III. SYMPTOM: Yellowing, possible black stems, mushiness
CAUSE: Rot or root disease; overwatering
PRECAUTIONS: Generally OK (non-toxic) to cats, dogs, and humans if consumed – but best practice is always to keep houseplants out of reach of small children and pets.
P.S. In New York City? Join us in-person for a Plant Care Workshop on the Phalaenopsis this May. Learn more here!