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If you are stuck for new ideas for a novel hostess present, why not consider a phalaenopsis [pron. ‘fay-lee-uh-NOP-sis’] — supermarket orchid?

The proliferation of phals, as they are popularly called, makes orchids accessible to the average person. (Photo credit: Orchid Flasks UK, Phal Taisuco Kaaladian x Cygnus x Morning Moon)

When I was growing up, orchids were the province of wealthy men who cultivated them in their spare time. These multi-millionaires enjoyed collecting obscure varieties from Southeast Asia (e.g. Borneo) and South America (e.g. Amazon rainforest).

During the past few years supermarkets and do-it-yourself big box chains have featured a variety of beautiful phals for sale at relatively reasonable prices. Phals may be at the bottom of the food chain of the orchid hierarchy, but they give the same pleasure that a rare specie will.

SpouseMouse and I received our first a few years ago as a hostess present, accompanied by a bottle of wine. I was terrified. Our guests told us that we didn’t need to do anything with the phal other than a) leave it alone on a windowsill and b) water it every seven to ten days.

Initially, SpouseMouse didn’t care much for the plant. Now, we have three. Two are in flower and one has divided itself and I’m expecting a new flower in a few months’ time, all being well. SpouseMouse is now intrigued by the growth, flowering and rest cycles.

What to look for

1/ If you’re buying a hostess present, look for one in a decorative pot. They will cost a bit more, but that leaves your hostess free to display the plant immediately without having to put it in another pot.

2/ Visible roots should be plump, green and healthy looking. However, if you’ve been attracted to the colours in the flowers, you can remedy a root problem (see below), provided only a few of the roots are shrivelled.

3/ If you can, look at the clear plastic pot to see the planted roots. They should look healthy and insect-free. I’ve never had a problem with bad root systems or pests, although some American buyers have.

4/ Prices vary, however, in a decorative pot a phal might cost between £15 and £20 ($20 or $30). A plant in a clear plastic pot will cost half that. Shops in the UK have special offers from time to time and might cost even less. My readers from the Far East and South America can no doubt often find phals for much less at their local markets, however, those are grown locally and are native to the region.

General notes

1/ Although pure phals exist, nurseries often create and cultivate hybrids. The phal in the photo above is a cross of three varieties: Taisuco Kaaladian, Cygnus and Morning Moon.

2/ It is unlikely that you will find out what the exact hybrid is of the phals on sale in large shops. The most you are likely to get is a label saying phalaenopsis with a few basic care instructions.

3/ Nurseries cultivate phals in gigantic perspex flasks. These are several feet long and two feet high. Each flask can hold a few dozen phals.

4/ Phals have often been excluded from local horticultural exhibitions because most have no traceability. This is why sites such as Orchid Flasks UK tell you what varieties have been crossed. They will sell you a smaller flask with several plants in it which you can then repot later. This is for a more advanced orchid grower. (Disclaimer: I have no financial or personal interest in the company and am using it as an example.) However, lately, more floral exhibitions are beginning to include phals, identified or not, as a special category apart from pure orchid varieties.

Caring for a phal

1/ Phals are rather Garboesque: they like being left alone!

2/ Place them on a windowsill with indirect sunlight. As they grow naturally in rainforests, they do not react well to strong, direct sunlight. Leaves should range from a deep apple green to a dark green, depending on the variety. If the leaves begin turning red, the light is too much; move them to another spot.

3/ Water sparingly once every seven to ten days or only if the centre of the pot is dry. Water more sparingly in winter than the rest of the year. I sometimes water only fortnightly during the winter.

4/ Leave the plant in the clear pot in which it comes. Generally, nurseries use a combination of sphagnum moss and bark as a growing medium. There is rarely any reason to disturb this medium. Phals are accustomed to having their roots compacted. In their natural habitat, they grow in the trunks of trees (see YouTube videos below).

5/ It is normal for a number of roots to grow outside the pot. This is how a phal grows in nature (see videos below).

6/ Use a dedicated pair of secateurs (clippers) to trim old, dry roots and old flower stems. If you don’t have them, please buy a pair. This will avoid contaminating your phal with plant matter or bacteria from other plants.

7/ From time to time, you will need to cut dry roots and old stems, possibly old leaves (see step 6).  I bought a phal which, other than the flowers and stem, was suffering. The leaves looked somewhat wrinkly; they needed water. A few of the roots were shrivelling and not the green or silvery green they should have been. I cut these to the base and watered the plant. It’s been fine ever since. Old flower stems will not blossom again; cut them down at the base once the last flower has dried and fallen off. Over time, some leaves at the bottom of the phal serve their purpose and die. Cut them as close to the base as possible once they turn yellow.

8/ Flowers should last several weeks, possibly even a few months. When you buy a phal, some flowers will be open and the rest of the stem will have green bulbous buds. Once ready, a flower can open within 24 hours. You might look at it at breakfast and see it start to blossom. By dinnertime, it might well be fully open. Flowers dry and fall off naturally. More buds will open at the furthest tip of the stem. Once all the flowers have fallen off a stem with one spike of flowers, cut the stem as near to the base as possible. If you have a stem with multiple spikes, you can cut an old stem off just above the next spike to flower.

9/ ‘Nectar’ on buds is a good thing; leave it alone. One of my phals occasionally has a bit of clear moisture on the buds. I have read that this is a sign that the plant is happy. I have also read of people who do not like this nectar (I’m sure there’s a name for it!) and start wiping it off. This makes the plant produce more, sometimes to the point where it drips onto the leaves. Left alone, the phal will produce just what it needs and this secretion will not drip.

10/ Phals do not need feeding. Contrary to what some phal owners say, I practically never feed mine. I have fed only one, the oldest, after two years — and that was only once. It made little difference. The phal instructions I received with my plants allow the use of normal plant food. However, some phals need orchid food, so read the instructions to find out what sort of food yours needs. When you feed, make sure you water the plant the day before so that the root system is hydrated when you feed it (diluting with water according to instructions).

11/ With regard to flowering cycles, phals require patience. After flowering, phals need a period of rest. Some phals need only a few months; others might need three to five years. Sometimes the larger flowered varieties start blooming sooner than those with smaller blossoms. As long as the plant is healthy as it rests — green leaves and plump green or silvery-green roots — leave it be. It will flower when it’s ready. This is why many phal growers have more than one plant; others will flower in the meantime. Another point to bear in mind is that the flowers might grow back a bit smaller or fewer in number or paler in colour. Remember that the nursery has grown them in optimum condition. Your conditions might not match these.

12/ Keep the sticks which come with the plant where they are, if you can. The nursery has placed the support sticks where they are not disturbing the interior root system. Also be careful when attaching the plastic grips to the flower stem. Never try to secure the grip to the stem from a distance. It’s best done with the plant near you as the grips are rather tight; you can’t be too careful in securing the stem to the support. The stem can break or become damaged.

13/ Avoid poking, prodding and touching. People say that orchids — phals included — are difficult to grow. That is more the fault of the grower than the plant! Some people take a healthy plant out of the clear pot straightaway, poke at the root system, repot it and the plant dies. Leave it alone! Also, refrain from touching the leaves, roots and flowers. When you water it, handle it by the pot and make sure that the plants do not touch each other or any adjacent objects.

Phals in their natural habitat

The Malaysian blogger at Sarawak Lens has written about and photographed phals in the Sarawak region in their natural habitat. Readers interested in phals will enjoy seeing what he has to say. You will see a photo of phals growing in the side of a fig tree as well as other specimens which are in full bloom. Some are delicately scented. One of his captions reads:

A swamp deep in the jungle and far from human disturbance is a perfect place for a Phalaenopsis orchid.

He also has a very short YouTube video which shows the phals close up. Note how much of the root system is outside the tree and how long the exterior roots are:

The following video, by someone else, shows a close-up of phals growing on a tree in a Borneo swamp:

This video by Jerry Fischer shows a phal proliferating outdoors. Wow!

I hope that you decide to buy a few phals — for gifts and for yourselves. You’ll really enjoy them!

Phals truly are the gift that keeps on giving!

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