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Orchids make up the largest family of blooming plants in the world, with over 25,000 different species. Most come from tropical and subtropical lands, including Central and South America, Africa, Asia, New Guinea and Borneo. Yet the conditions that they grow in can vary greatly. For example, orchids that grow in rain forests under a tangle of vegetation receive considerably less light than those that grow on the sides of mountains, in the open. Those that grow at high elevations, however, are well adapted to the cool night temperatures that occur there and would probably languish under warmer conditions. And herein lies the most fundamental rule for successful orchid growing -- give each plant the growing conditions it prefers: that of its native environment. Usually, a novice grower will do best to start out with a variety which will flourish on a home windowsill, rather than one which needs the higher light available only in a greenhouse or sunroom. It cannot hurt to pick your spot first (your kitchen windowsill, for example), then talk to a more experienced grower who can help you determine which orchids will do well there.

For beginners, varieties of Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) and Paphiopedilum (lady slipper orchid) are a good choice. Both of these are well adapted to low light levels and can grow in an east or west-facing window, receiving about the same light needed to bring an African violet into bloom, as long as some adjustments are made to raise humidity around the plant. (While the average home has a humidity level of 10% to 20%, Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum require 50% to 80% humidity.) Humidity can be raised by misting leaves every morning, by grouping plants together so they benefit from the natural process of transpiration (the loss of water from plant leaves), by running a small humidifier or by setting the plants on a pebble tray. To make a pebble tray, fill any shallow container with an inch or so of gravel and then add water to just below the surface of the stones. Set the plant pots on the gravel, making sure that they don’t come into direct contact with the water, which will evaporate gradually to raise humidity levels. However, along with higher humidity levels comes a need for good air circulation, as moist, stagnant air can promote fungal problems. A small fan or slightly opened window can help provide the needed ventilation.

You may also have good luck growing low-light orchids like Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedalum under artificial lights. Apartment dwellers and others who can’t find a suitable window can replace the bulb of a reading lamp with one of the new, energy efficient fluorescent types and place the orchid at its base. A lamp timer may also be helpful, as orchids grown under lights require 12 to 16 hours of light per day.

Beginners who have access to a spot with brighter light, such as a window with a bright western exposure or slightly diffused southern exposure, may want to start out with a Cattleya orchid. Though required light levels are higher with Cattleya than with Phalaenopsis, humidity requirements are lower and these orchids will usually adapt to 20% to 30% humidity. They can also be moved outdoors for the summer as long as precautions are taken against slugs and other pests. Again, it’s important to consult a reference book or more experienced grower before purchasing a Cattleya as a windowsill plant because some varieties can grow quite large. However, the miniature Cattleyas will be quite happy in a six-inch pot, and are capable of producing three-inch flowers.

Many orchid enthusiasts recommend that a beginner start out with a mature plant already in bloom, in order to ensure that the flower’s size, form, color and fragrance are acceptable to you -- not everyone has the same taste. For example, while many growers aim for the showiest flowers possible (such as the classic, corsage-like blooms of the large Cattleyas), others prefer the tiny blooms of species orchids over the more flamboyant hybrids. Diminutive Masdevallia orchids will grow in two-inch pots.

Besides getting a flower that appeals to you, it’s also important to buy an orchid in bloom so that you know the plant has passed the seedling stage and large enough to bloom, before trying to bring it back into bloom a second time. Correct light levels and regular feedings with a diluted liquid fertilizer will help ensure regular blooming. However, many winter blooming orchids, such as Phalaenopsis and some Dendrobiums, also require a drop in night temperatures of ten to twenty degrees Fahrenheit in the fall in order to stimulate the formation of buds. Before purchasing a particular orchid, it’s best to research its blooming requirements and determine how well you can meet them in your home. You can satisfy the temperature drop requirement by moving some of your orchids outside in the summer and leaving them out until the nights turn cool in early fall. Bring them in when the night temperatures threaten to fall below about 55 degrees.

Many orchids naturally grow as epiphytes, meaning they don’t grow on the ground, but anchor themselves to trees or shrubs. Growing this way, the exposed aerial roots pull in moisture from humid, tropical air, but are never exposed to soggy conditions -- this is why overwatering can be fatal to an orchid.

Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes made by beginners. Some growers with a tendency to water too heavily say they prefer clay pots, which wick moisture away from plants, over plastic pots, which hold moisture in. Even when the top of the potting medium appears dry, the bottom portion may still contain plenty of moisture. It may be wise to pick up the pot and examine it through the bottom drainage holes before determining that it needs water.

Choice of potting material can also help to supply the perfect drainage that orchids require. Again, as epiphytes, orchids require a great deal of air around their roots. The preferred potting mixture for most varieties is not soil, which will typically hold too much water, but coarse chunks of fir bark.

Orchid societies give novices the opportunity to benefit from someone else’s experience and mistakes, the chance to see a variety of different plants in bloom and, often, the chance to purchase plants at less than retail prices from members who are propagating orchids from their own stock.