It's no wonder the subject of orchids can seem daunting to the novice. The Orchidaceae is the largest and one of the most advanced and specialised of all of the plant families. But with nearly 900 genera and more than 22,000 species — and many thousands more cultivated varieties — there is plenty to choose from for the enterprising garden centre manager.
Found across the world in both temperate and tropical regions, it is the tropical members of the orchid family that have been most prized since the craze for them began in the early 19th century. They are often considered difficult plants to grow, but given the correct conditions they will continue to produce their exotic-looking blooms for years.
They are generally designated into four growing groups: "warm", requiring a minimum temperature of 20 degsC; "intermediate" (14 degsC and above), "cool" (10 degsC and up); and "hardy". Then there are the three growth forms: epiphytic (mainly tree-dwelling) such as Sophronites coccinea; terrestrial (ground growing) such as Paphiopedilum gratrixianum; and lithophytic (a combination of the two) such as Phragmipedium besseae.
At retail, most are grown in pots for easy handling and display, although epiphytes such as species of Coelogyne and Oncidium can be attached securely to pieces of cork bark to help create a more natural appearance. Given their particular growth requirements, specialist companies now provide a range of accessories from display stands through containers and fertilisers to flower clips and supports, providing ample opportunities for linked sales.
Most growers concentrate on producing reliable varieties with the more familiar genera such as Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium. Phalaenopsis in particular, which is also known as the moth orchid, is a reliable production item — simple to maintain and well suited to fast turnover sales.
Plant breeders have taken advantage of orchids' natural tendency to cross-pollinate by producing more than 100,000 hybrids. Understandably, giving all these hybrids individual names would be nigh on impossible, so the majority are given numbers until they are successful.
Routine care of the plants includes potting them on every couple of years into a free-draining mix such as bark and sphagnum moss. Use a proprietary feed during the growing season and maintain the correct temperature, while deadheading to encourage further flowering. Watering should be regular but sparing because saturated roots will quickly rot. All common glasshouse pests can be problematic and should be monitored and dealt with accordingly.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Tim Morris, director, Hollyoak Orchids, Worcestershire "We produce 20 different colours of Phalaenopsis for a range of garden retailers and florists. We are competing with imported plants but our main problem is determining how the buying public perceives the costs of UK-grown plants to foreign imports.
"Our plants are larger with better flower colour due to our growing methods, which means that we can fill a niche at the top end of the market. Customers are also offered suitable sundries to sell alongside our plants, such as growing media, and our website provides aftercare advice."
Mark Riley, quality manager, Double H Nurseries, Hampshire "Phalaenopsis is the only orchid genus that we produce, though we have more than 50 different types, which we sell mainly to Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's.
"Producing 12,000 plants every week, our trade remains constant throughout the year with increased orders during specific times, such as Christmas and Mother's Day.
"Aftercare of these plants is genuinely low for our customer's customer, but in production they are high-maintenance plants, needing high temperatures in the early stages, which can lead to increased pest and disease activity. This is followed by a period of low temperature to instigate flowering, which can be a challenge."
SARA RITTERSHAUSEN, Burnham Nurseries "We have the largest range of species and hybrids in the country and do produce our own plants, but due to the numbers that we are selling we have to buy in as well.
"We have a range of customer needs and we cater for the complete orchid beginner through to the more experienced, with suitable plants for all. For example, the standard Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum types are more suited to beginners, while more experienced customers are often looking for something a little different, such as Coelogynes and Dendrobium."
Jonathan Briers, manager, Gordale Nursery and Garden Centre, Cheshire "Orchids are our leading selling house plant this year and are now competing well with poinsettias. We sell a range of around 10 traditional orchids such as Phalaenopsis, Cymbidium, Dendrobium and Cattleya throughout the year and direct to the public in our garden centre.
"We make more of an effort with them during certain times of the year, such as Christmas and during this month's orchid festival, when we increase our range and invite additional growers to exhibit with us. We dress the plants up more to help create an ambience with interesting displays incorporating water features, moss and bark."
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
Brassia is a small group of evergreen epiphytes from Central and South America, characterised by their long and thin petals and sepals.
Brassia verrucosa has 15cm-long symmetrical flowers appearing in early summer and is a "cool" growing plant.
Cattleya are tropical epiphytes and the first to be grown in cultivation for their showy blooms. There are around 50 species, of which thousands of hybrids have been created. They are generally "intermediate" plants.
Cattleya 'Andean Mist' has been line-bred to produce a pure white flower of which one to three blooms are produced during summer.
Laeliocattleya 'Carrie Johnson' features cream and crimson blooms that appear on long stems in spring. Can be grown "cool".
Sophrolaeliocattleya Jewel Box 'Dark Waters' has clusters of Sophronitis-style vivid crimson flowers in spring.
Coelogyne is a large genus of evergreen epiphytes with characteristic white flowers. Himalayan types are suited for a "cool" climate, whereas Malaysian types are "intermediate".
Coelogyne corymbosa is originally from Darjeeling and has a profusion of pristine white flowers. The flower spikes are arched below the foliage, making it ideal for growing in a basket.
Cymbidium is "cool" growing, with a huge range of colours and sizes with flowers lasting months in the right situation. Flower spikes may require staking in top-heavy hybrids.
Cymbidium Embers 'Yowie Bay' can be grown indoors or outside during the summer, though its pinkish purple blooms appear in winter.
Phalaenopsis is the most widely available orchid, aimed at the beginner through to the luxury market. The large showy blooms can be produced year-round on some hybrids.
Phalaenopsis 'Little Skipper' is a group of miniature hybrids. They produce branching sprays of numerous pale pink flowers.