Orchid 101: How to shop for an orchid
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Finding the right orchid can be a little more intense than finding the right houseplant... There are a lot of things to consider! If you are looking online, you might notice there is a much narrower selection widely available to the public if you would like to venture into "rare specimen", and if you are just looking for a pretty phalaenopsis, I'd recommend just checking out your local Lowes or Trader Joes, because this will ensure you bring the healthiest orchid into your home.
Why do I caution against online orchid purchases?
Here's the deal, it would be amazing if we could get all of our beautiful green babies locally, but we don't all have that option, and yes, I have bought several orchids online and most of them did just fine! There are just some plants that you can't find nearby, and if it's a wishlist plant, you'll scoop it up wherever you can find it. But consider a few things prior to purchasing an orchid online, especially if you are new to orchids or are going to spend a pretty penny on them.
Buying from a gifting website isn't ideal for cultivation. A lot of gifting services and companies offer these glorious, beautiful orchids in beautiful pots and setups, but that is their main goal, making the orchid look pretty and handle shipping so the recipient receives a lovely gift. They are not so worried about the cultivation or the orchid's health. If you don't know what you're doing with one of these, it will probably lose its blooms after a few weeks, and eventually, die of root rot. That isn't to say they all will, but I've yet to find a gifting service that pots these plants for prolonged cultivation. That being said, these are still great gifts if you are looking to send someone flowers. If the recipient is familiar with orchids, they will know what to do, if not, it should last longer than a bouquet and may even be a fraction of the price. If you are looking to start cultivating orchids or keeping them as houseplants though, skip over these and look at Etsy or a nursery that grows them from start to finish. After growing them for years, they will take the best care until they are shipped.
Orchids are sensitive to travel & shipping. Orchids are extremely delicate and sensitive to pretty much everything, and in the wrong conditions, even moving your orchid from one room to another or changing the thermostat may cause a negative change in appearance, they are divas! Be aware they may be more work than you are used to when they first arrive. Ordering an orchid the is "in bloom" or "in bud" may look pretty, but the shipping stress can cause them to fade or even fall from the orchid, even if they are packaged carefully. Bloom and bud blast are very real, and buds are the most sensitive part of an orchid and are likely to succumb to this (dry up, yellow, fall off) if the conditions aren't right. This can happen with any orchid, but as shipping is more stressful than a quick drive home, it is more likely to occur with orchids ordered online.
The root system and potting media... these are things that are super important to the orchid's health and you may want to be able to inspect the plant prior to purchasing it. The roots, leaves, spike (or bulbs) and flowers may all have issues prior to being shipped, or they may not be packaged properly and will suffer in transit. Additionally, you may have the option to buy orchids bare-root, which can be fine, but you will want to inquire about what medium they were growing in so you can plan to keep it as happy as possible. Changing mediums (like switching from bark to moss) can sometimes be a problem. I have personally received orchids with visible mold growth all over the roots, root rot, and even rot on a pseudobulb on one of my dendrobiums. You want to make sure the seller is reliable and knows about orchids, and that you can trust what you are paying for as much as possible.
Shipping times & delays. There is always a chance of delay with shipping, especially now, so take that into consideration when making a purchase! Also, consider the weather. Where is the orchid coming from, and where are you? If you are living in Florida and the orchid you ordered is also coming from Florida, you'll probably be okay most of the year. If the orchid is coming from Florida but is supposed to arrive in Arizona in the summer, you have to expect there might be some issues. If you are receiving an orchid in the wintertime, expect issues as a possibility, and if the seller offers heat packs, I'd recommend purchasing one, as orchids are tropical plants.
Product transparency. If you are going to order online, try to communicate with the seller and ask a few things if possible prior to making a purchase, such as if the sender cultivates the orchids, or if they import them or resell them. For the best bet, I recommend purchasing a plant in spike or near/ at blooming size but not in bud or bloom. Flowering orchids are the most sensitive and will have a harder time bouncing back, and if you repot a new orchid that is in bloom, it may very well lose all of its flowers from transplant shock- so if it arrives with mold or rot, you're kind of in a pickle. Additionally, usually, orchids that are flowering or about to flower cost more, so it may end up costing you money and time and flowers to order them this way!
What should you look for when buying an orchid at a nursery or store?
Orchids are gorgeous and very rewarding to grow if you learn a little bit about them! Considering how intense the germination process is and how long it takes them to mature to blooming size, you can find a large phalaenopsis orchid for a decent price at a lot of big box stores, and even grocery stores. If you have a local flower shop or nursery that sells them, that's even better! Here are some things to consider before choosing the orchid you are going to bring home to ensure it's as healthy as possible.
The overall orchid should look happy & healthy. If you are a novice grower of orchids, (even if you have many houseplants) I would recommend buying a healthy, mature orchid that's in healthy condition to start. If you haven't kept orchids (alive) before I wouldn't start off with an orchid that's in the bargain bin or needs to be rehabbed. You can also buy an orchid that has lost its flowers, but since most stores don't order orchids sans-flowers, it is a pretty good indicator the plant has been sitting around there a while. If you are at a big box store like Lowes, fading orchids might be okay, there might have been someone familiar with orchid cultivation there caring for them, but the odds are the overall health of the orchid won't be great, if you're buying one from the supermarket, I would have even less confidence that the proper care has been taken with them either, so there is a good chance if you buy a dying orchid, it won't make it to bloom again. In some locations, there is even a chance that the orchid is already dying but doesn't have visible signs of this, so your best bet is finding one that at least looks healthy. I've seen a lot of people get discouraged by this! For the best results bringing orchids into your home, try and find a healthy one using these tips, if you can get one that was just brought into the store, even better!
So what is a healthy orchid? How do I know if it's not in great health? Well, there are some indicators to look out for, but there are some things that may impact the health that you can't see without removing the orchid from its pot... not many stores would appreciate that. That being said, don't be discouraged if the first orchid you brought home appeared to be healthy but died after a few months, it might have not been your fault! Here are the big things to consider when purchasing an orchid: The roots, the leaves, the inflorescence (the spike, buds, and flowers), the potting medium type, and consistency (is it really dry or really wet?) and investigate for pests or ailments. The variety of orchid, as well as the size, will (likely) impact the kind of potting medium it is in since the most popular and widely available are phalaenopsis, this section is pretty much exclusively referring to that variety, keep in mind there are several small variations in the type of phalaenopsis.
The biggest signs to look for, the quick guide:
4. The Deep Dive
Here we have a few phalaenopsis and each of these is fully grown! The smaller varieties have been cultivated to stay small, think of them as mini orchids. The little guys are really what I would recommend for beginning with orchids, they are usually potted in sphagnum moss and the smaller root system is just easier to manage when starting out. Since they are smaller, they need less of everything, less potting medium, less water, less fertilizer, etc. I also feel like I see less rot with these orchids just because there isn't a lot of room for excess medium. They will almost always be potted in sphagnum moss, not bark or any other chunkier medium because it's simply too big for them. The larger varieties, on the other hand, can be found potted with several different kinds of medium, but you will usually find them in either a bark mix or sphagnum moss if you buy from a big box store or market.
The Leaves The leaves on an orchid can tell you a lot! Healthy orchids will have deep green leaves that are shiny, firm, and hold their form. They should not be pliable or easily bend, in fact, it should feel like the leaf is going to break if you bend it. If you can easily bend or flop the leaves around, steer clear of that orchid! It's not healthy. Limp, wrinkly leaves are a sign of an issue. Another, more obvious sign to look out for with orchid leaves is the color, like most plants, yellowing or browning of the leaves is a bad sign. You should also inspect the leaves for pests, or other spots. Even otherwise healthy looking orchids could have pests or ailments that haven't yet impacted the overall health of the orchid, but soon will, and could spread to other plants in your home. Brown or black spots on any part of the orchid, especially the leaves, is a bad sign; black rot is very real, and while it can be treated, why take on an orchid that already has issues? You'll also want to check for signs of fungal infections and ringspots, while these are less likely, they are possible! Orchids are also fairly prone to viruses and other issues, any open wound could let in something bad for the plant! That being said, you also want to look for mechanical damage like tears or broken leaves, while this may be fine, it could also be trouble. To learn more about how to analyze an orchid by its leaves, check out this video from missorchidgirl, she's amazing! Once you've established the orchid's leaves look healthy, there are a few other leafy things to consider! An orchid needs to have a certain number of leaves in order for a new flower spike to grow, so the more leaves that the orchid has, the better! Many leaves can also be a sign of good health and age. This isn't necessary, as orchids do tend to shed lower leaves to make energy for new growth, but you will notice that any orchid in spike has this growth coming from beneath the second or third leaf from the top, an orchid cannot produce a spike from beneath the first leaf, so if the orchid only has one leaf above the spike, it's likely a sign it's recently lost top leaves, and perhaps you should pass on that orchid.
If you're still not quite sure what to look for, the orchid's leaves should look something like this!
The Roots & Potting Medium
I'm kind of lumping these two categories together because if you are shopping for an orchid, you likely are looking at an already potted plant, not something bare root. If you are looking at something in a decorative pot, it should have a clear nursery pot inside that that you can remove and inspect without disturbing the plant, you'll be able to get an idea of the roots even though you won't be able to pull them out and give them a thorough examination. You'll want to inspect what you can see as closely as possible to make sure the root system looks good and that the medium is right! If the orchid is potted directly in a decorative pot without drainage or ventilation, I recommend skipping that one as this is not an ideal life for these plants and it may have done some unnoticeable damage to the roots. If you are looking at a large size orchid, I pretty much recommend steering clear of anything potted solely in sphagnum moss also... In my experience, there is just too much possibility of stem rot, but you can decide! If it's a mini phal, it will probably be in sphagnum moss, and that's perfectly fine. For larger phals, be sure to check out the potting medium, if it is a mixture it should include some kind of bark, and should not be too broken down or finely graded. the smallest pieces of bark should approximately be about the size of a Chiclet. If the mixture is too fine, it may be slowly suffocating the orchid. The root system should be partially visible in the clear nursery pot, and the roots that you can see should be anywhere between light green/white to green or silvery green. Anything brown, yellow/papery, stringy, or black should be an immediate no! Be aware of any signs of mold or fungus, while also noting that a drainage medium like perlite of a certain grade may be included in the mixture and that is totally fine. Any kind of residue on the nursery pot that looks strange should also be avoided.
If the roots are vibrant green and healthy, the pot & medium will likely be noticeably moist, this is a sign that the orchid was recently watered! If the medium is so wet that water drips from it, it is too wet, (unless you just saw someone water the orchid) and it is likely the roots won't look healthy either. Orchid roots don't like to sit in excess water- they're epiphytes and like some airflow! If the roots are silvery green, they are also healthy! That is what the orchid roots look like after they have dried a bit from the previous watering. The medium should be dry, or very, very slightly damp. Here is a great photo from evaychan.com illustrating an example of what you might see:
The orchids you see for sale probably won't have an amazing root system of this size, but you should be able to see some of the roots. If you're lucky, the store will also have phals available with aerial roots, if that is the case, I highly recommend snagging one of those!
Here is what you absolutely want to avoid if you see signs in the pot or poking out of the medium on top of the soil:
papery, dried up dead roots
stringy roots with no sign of velamen
dark or mushy portions of roots
visible signs of mold or fungus
Ae flower spike and it's blooms or buds will likely be the easiest part of the orchid for you to identify as healthy or not. Essentially, you'll want to choose an orchid with some blooms, and a few buds that look full and gorgeous. If you are out on a day of shopping, be sure to make this your last stop, as orchids are very sensitive to environmental changes and may succumb to bud blast or some other issue after only being left in a car or carried around for a few hours. Keeping that in mind, as long as the flowers are looking happy and are in a colorway that you enjoy, you should be able to distinguish if an orchid's inflorescence is healthy or not.
The flowers on your orchid should be full and somewhat velvety. You should choose an orchid with several open blooms and ideally at least one healthy bud, just to ensure the longest bloom period. If you are planning on being out for a little longer, fewer buds are better, as these are the most sensitive part of the plant, and can wither and fade easily. Also, the smaller the bud, the more chance for budblast. For more info on bud blast, check out one of my favorite orchid blogs, Orchidbliss- her post on bud blast is super informative and this photo depicting bud blast is from her site.
The flowers should be full and velvety, not wrinkly or semi-translucent or floppy & the buds should be plump and shiny or waxy- they are usually green in color or have colors of the blooms. Papery, wrinkled, yellowing, or brown buds should be avoided completely, these buds (like those pictured above) will not bounce back, and can be an indicator of another issue. Some other things to consider are that the blooms and buds should be happily secured on the flower spike, if you pick up, move or touch the orchid, the flowers should not fall off or show any signs of distress. There should be no dark spots on any part of the inflorescence, if the blooms have black spots, it is likely ill and should be avoided.
The flower spike is pretty easy to judge. It should be deep green, thick, and firm. It should not move, be soft, bendy, or hard and crispy. It will likely be staked vertically with bamboo or something similar, that is not part of the plant. The spike should not have any yellowing, be sure to check the top of the spike for this. The spike should not be brown or have any weird dark spots. Be aware that flower spikes have nodes, these nodes are growth points and may have a brown, papery sheath covering them, this is fine!
Pests & Ailments
The last thing you need to do before buying an orchid, or any plant for that matter, is check that the orchid does not have visible signs of pests or disease. I have already told you what to look for to indicate a healthy plant, but there is always a chance something new has just arrived and has not yet made a noticable impact on the plant's overall health and appearance. Disease will be most easily avoided by choosing a plant that does not have any of the signs noted above! There is always a chance that an orchid does have something that you can't possibly know about. Orchids are very susceptible to viruses, whenever making changes, repotting, or cutting an old flower spike, it is very important to use clean, sharp, sterilized tools to keep your orchid safe. If you see cuts or callused areas anywhere on the orchid, it's a good move to pass on it. It could be nothing, but it could be an indicator of pests or that someone made a cut to the plant, and you don't know if it was done in a sterile environment or not. The biggest sign of disease you need to lookout for are black spots or splotches which can indicate black rot, it spreads quickly and has to be completely removed if you want to give the orchid a chance. You'll also want to look for bacterial infections like brown rot as well as molds, fungal disease, and botrytis Here are a few good resources for more information on these:
St. Augustine Orchid Society also includes great photo examples of the ailments they list, but do not allow them to be reposted, so you will have to check out the link!
Orchidbliss also has some great advice on pests & disease, and even includes care tips if your orchid takes a turn, so check that out!
Pests are (in my experience) less likely if you are at a big box store like Lowes, but that could vary. The big pests to look out for are mealybugs, mites & scale on the orchid foliage, and smaller, less expected things like fungus gnats, snails, and bugs in (or coming from) the potting medium. These photos below are from the American Orchid Society website. Personally, I have never seen bush snails anywhere but in the medium, munching on roots, but I supposed depending on where you live and if you keep your orchids outside, they might munch the flowers also!
You'll also want to check the pot and medium for signs of mold (fluffy white or white growths) and fungus (variety of colors, and even mushrooms can grow if the medium is kept too moist for too long)
Esentially, just make sure that there isn't anything weird or foreign on the orchid you are bringing to your home (:
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