Interflora’s guide to orchids

by Charlotte.Barnes on September 6, 2010

As it’s orchid fortnight we thought we’d give you an insight into these exotic flowers and how to grow them. There are somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 species in the orchid (Orchidaceae) family and they vary widely, but the most popular varieties make great pot plants and cut flowers.

We spoke to Sarah Horne, of Sarah Horne Flowers, to find out more…


Orchids grow on every continent in the world except Antarctica. There are tens of thousands of species, all with differing characteristics.

They were first used as a remedy for a number of illnesses in the Middle Ages. They have also been considered an aphrodisiac and have been used in love potions and even ice cream. There has always been a very strong relationship between people and orchids.

In the 18th century, collecting orchids was well established but they were considered flowers of the wealthy and were studied by only a few botanists. One of those was William Cattley. He first noticed some orchids being used as packing material with other plants that were sent to him.

They were to later be named after him – the Cattleya orchid.

It’s said that in the 19th century, orchids in Europe were being harvested without any regard for conservation. Whole areas were devastated; these days the harvesting of wild orchids is banned.

Hybridisation – the combining of species to create a new one – means orchids are readily available once again and it’s not only the rich who can collect them. It’s estimated that there are around 110,00 different hybrids.

Types of orchid

Orchids can fall into two categories – terrestrial and epiphyte. Terrestrial orchids grow on the ground, while epiphytes grow in trees.

Cymbidium orchids are by far the most popular type of terrestrial orchid. There are around 40 different types, with thousands of hybrids. With proper care, Cymbidium orchids will flower every year. They are a popular orchid for beginners as they are easy to grow.

The term epiphyte doesn’t just refer to orchids; it could be any plant whose roots are above ground level.

Phalaenopsis are the most well known type of epiphyte orchid. They are easy to grow, but require slightly more care than Cymbidiums. They certainly don’t flower as easily.

Sarah Horne says: “The most popular are Phalaenopsis, but we also sell Cambria, Cymbidium and Dendrobium.”

Orchids are also popularly used in wedding arrangements. Sarah Horne adds: “We also use orchids a lot for weddings and again the Phalaenopsis is one of the most popular. We’ve been using the purple Vandas a lot too.

“We have a good supply of orchids all year round, especially the Phalaenopsis. But during the winter the Cymbidiums are more popular.”


The orchid is a symbol of royalty, beauty and love. Because they were so rare they were usually only grown by the upper classes and nobility. Although that’s now changed, they are still associated with royalty and wealth. The orchid is also a symbol of perfection and is cherished for its symmetry. With such a long history, it’s no wonder the orchid has come to be associated with religion. Most popularly, it is said the spots on the orchid represent the blood of Christ. Because of this orchids are very popular in Christmas arrangements.

The Cattleya orchid means mature charm, so is often used in Mother’s Day arrangements. The pink orchid has indicated affection and love for hundreds of years, which is why it is so popular today.

Sarah Horne says: “Orchids are one of my favourite flowers – they are so delicate, beautiful and exotic. Plus, they last a long time, which really appeals to people.”

Orchids in food

By far the best known of the orchid family is the vanilla orchid. There are about 110 species, but only a few are grown for the vanilla flavouring used in food and cosmetics. The most famous of these is the Flat-leafed Vanilla, which is grown on a large scale.

The fruit is called the vanilla bean, but it’s actually a pod filled with tiny seeds. This is where we get the vanilla flavour. The pod ripens gradually for eight to nine months after flowering.

How to look after orchids

With so many types of orchid it’s hard to offer tips on how to grow every type. So here we’ve covered the two most popular.


In the wild these flowers would grow on trees or rocks in hot, humid areas. To ensure your plant keeps flowering you need to mirror these conditions.

Your pot should have holes in the bottom so the water can drain away; otherwise you risk the roots rotting. Although not essential, they might benefit from being above – not in – a tray of water and pebbles to increase the humidity.

In the wild the plants would have grown in the shade, so when indoors they prefer dappled light. So an east- or west-facing window where they get some sunlight would be great. If they don’t get enough sun, they may not flower; too much and it could burn their leaves.

Water the orchid with tepid water, never cold. And, if you can, use rainwater. Let the orchid dry out almost completely before watering it again. Every one to two weeks should be fine. Sarah Horne says: “The piece of advice we give most to our customers is not to give the Phalaenopsis too much water. They should also be within two metres of a light source.”

You should feed your orchid with orchid food; you can buy this from your local garden centre. This should be done every five weeks to ensure the orchid is getting all the nutrients it needs. If you are unsure how often to feed your orchid check the label on the back of the orchid food bottle.


These orchids are best grown in a conservatory or cool greenhouse. When in flower, Cymbidiums like cool temperatures of 15-20ºC. When not in flower, they like hot days (25-29ºC) and cool nights (10-15ºC). This can be achieved by putting them outside during hot summer days (but in the shade so they don’t get burned) then bringing them in at night.

They should be kept in partial sun when indoors, but they require less light when they are in bloom during autumn and winter.

Water once a week unless the plant is in a particularly warm room. Water from the top and allow any excess to drain away to prevent rotting. If the plant is large, then it might be easier to submerge it in a bucket of water for 5-10 minutes before allowing it to drain.

A balanced orchid fertilizer should be used around once a week to ensure good flowers. Every orchid feed is different and they have varying strengths, so check the back of the bottle to ensure you are feeding at the right times.

Sarah Horne advises: “The trick with Cymbidiums is to treat them mean. It’s a panic mechanism that makes them flower. In the summer I keep my Cymbidiums outside and one year I forgot about one. I went out on New Year’s Day to see it rolling around in the snow. I picked it up thinking ‘oh no, it’s dead’ but it had six flowers on it. I brought it inside and it was fine.”

Further information

Sarah Horne runs the award-winning Sarah Horne Flowers in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. For more information call 01926 424826 or visit

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Charlotte Barnes

Post category: Care Tips, Flowers, Knowledge, Orchids  

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rick Canale 07 Sep 2010 at 3:50 pm

Great blog post. not only visually appealling, but a thorough analysis on orchids.

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