Hybrids and species in the orchid genus Phalaenopsis – or Phals, as they’re commonly referred to – might just be the perfect houseplant. Even when not in flower, healthy plants have attractive, broad, glossy, green leaves. A few species and their hybrids have beautiful mottled foliage, too. But of course, we grow these plants for their beautiful and long-lasting flowers. Not too many years ago most of these “moth orchids” (so called because a flowering plant gives the illusion of fluttering moths) only offered white, pink or pink-striped flowers. Thanks to Taiwanese orchid growers taking pioneering efforts to the next level, we can now find Phals in a dizzying array of colors and patterns.

Phalaenopsis 'Baldan’s Kaleidoscope'

Phalaenopsis Baldan’s Kaleidoscope may be the most successful orchid hybrid ever. Its beautiful color and bold patterns make it an excellent orchid to begin with.

Photo Credit: ©2008 Greg Allikas

Phalaenopsis schilleriana

Phalaenopsis schilleriana is a Philippine species with beautiful barred foliage and flowers that have a fragrance reminiscent of rose petals.

Photo Credit: ©2008 Greg Allikas

Botrytis cinerea on a Phalaenopsis

Although the fungus Botrytis cinerea doesn’t harm orchids, it can make a mess out of the flowers.

Photo Credit: ©2008 Greg Allikas

Taiwan Phalaenopsis Grouping

Phalaenopsis orchids make a great “first orchid” for homeowners and come in a dizzying array of colors and patterns.

Photo Credit: ©2008 Greg Allikas

Phalaenopsis flowers

Nothing is more beautiful than an inflorescence of perfectly overlapped Phalaenopsis flowers.

Photo Credit: ©2008 Greg Allikas

Phalaenopsis is an Old World genus of about 50 species generally found in warm lowland forests of tropical Asia east of Sri Lanka to Papua New Guinea and Australia. Species can be found on larger islands within this range, with several desirable ones found in the Philippines. Phalaenopsis are monopodial orchids, meaning that the plants grow upward from a single stem, producing leaves and flowers along that stem.

Although Phals bloom only once a year, the flowers stick around awhile: Depending on climate and growing conditions, blooms can last in excess of two months! Flower production is initiated by the cooler temperatures of autumn. Inflorescences will begin developing by Christmas, and flowers can follow anytime from mid-January through February and March and last through May or later. Most species and hybrids aren’t fragrant, but a few species, notably Phalaenopsis schilleriana and Phalaenopsis violacea, can pass a lovely fragrance on to generations of hybrids.

The best part about Phalaenopsis orchids is that they grow best in the same conditions as people, making them excellent houseplants and a perfect “first orchid.” They grow well in a temperature range of 55-90 degrees F and in relative humidity of 50-75 percent. Maintaining that proper humidity throughout the year can be a problem in heated northern homes and air-conditioned southern ones, but there’s an easy solution: Just place your plant’s container on a tray of pebbles with water in the bottom to create a more humid atmosphere around your orchid. Daily misting also helps.

And while some orchids need very bright light to grow and flower, Phals don’t. A bright windowsill that doesn’t receive any direct sun is a great place to try a plant or two. (They can take a little brighter light, but they’ll need to be gradually acclimated so the leaves don’t get sunburn.) They can also grow under lower light conditions, like inside an office, but they may not receive enough light to flower. (So if your orchids don’t bloom, look to the light.)

Phalaenopsis orchids don’t have any water-storage capabilities like Cattleya or Dendrobium orchids do, so you should pot them in a moisture-retentive orchid media (not dirt!) and try to keep the plant evenly moist. Don’t keep the media wet or sopping, and don’t place the plants directly in a tray of water. They should be watered a day before the media is about to dry out. And when you water your Phals, water just the potting media, not the leaves – Phalaenopsis are susceptible to crown rot if water is left standing in the center of the plant (where the leaves all meet).

All plants require nutrients to survive and flower, and orchids are no different. But giving your Phalaenopsis a dose of “bloom booster” isn’t going to make it flower. It’s proper culture that gives you a healthy plant that blooms on its own. There’s a saying among orchid growers that goes “fertilize weekly weakly.” In other words, fertilize orchids regularly, but with a half-strength solution of whatever the fertilizer maker recommends. Orchids are generally slow growers, which is both good and bad. Yes, it can be maddeningly slow waiting for your plants to flower, but the good news is orchids give you time to correct any mistakes you might be making in growing them.

Phalaenopsis plants also benefit from being repotted. While most other orchids are repotted after two years of growth, most growers try to repot their Phals every year. (They seem to really put on a spurt of growth when given a new pot with fresh media in it, too.) Fortunately, they’re also very easy to repot. High-quality sphagnum moss makes a good potting media, but you can also find proprietary mixes (usually based on chunky peat) developed specifically for these orchids. Plastic pots tend to be best for most growers because they don’t dry out as quickly as clay containers. The best time to repot Phals is after they’re finished flowering, usually by May or June. Make sure there are active green root tips before potting any orchid!

Finally, if you live in a temperate area where the summers are mild, most orchids appreciate spending the summer outdoors on a porch or shaded patio – or even under a shady tree. Make sure that all danger of frost has passed and be sure to bring the plants back in early enough in the fall. Also remember that “out of sight” doesn’t equal “out of mind!” Breezy outdoor conditions may cause plants to dry out more quickly, so keep a watchful eye.

If you’ve ever dreamed about growing orchids, try a Phalaenopsis or two. They’re the prefect introduction to the wonderful world of orchids. Just be warned: Success with Phals can turn you into an “orchid addict!”