Growing orchids in Alaska

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Stuart Cohen

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I am an orchid enthusiast from Southeast Alaska. Our low winter humidity and extremely short, dim photoperiods in winter present some challenges, as do wives who are getting impatient with orchids in every windowsill.

In summer, my main windowsill might have 3600 FC at midday. In winter, that figure might be 12-15 FC (not a typo) and even that is for a relatively few hours. Since I love Cattleyas, I recently started a lighting setup in a tiny closet. This is problematic because I can't vary the light very much in this small setting, and some Cattleyas seem to be a bit overlit. It's only about 3 feet high inside.

I have a Maudieae type paph that blooms every two years, but has not yet put out more than one lead. I also have a Rothschildianum that is very very slowly increasing in size. I've had it at least 4 years and it is a long way from blooming. Just have to be patient...

I'd like to get some Phragmipediums, but would like to buy some with multiple growths, rather than simply one. Does anyone have recommendations? Also, do Phrags do well in low light, or do they need Cattleya-levels of light, like Multifloral Paphs?
 

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Cattleya level light is okay for some Phrags.

You'll probably need to consider sticking with hybrids, though. I think most of the species will be tricky in your conditions for a variety of reasons including: Smaller species that like high light tend to be stoloniferous and need lots of floor space, and the others that aren't as stoloniferous tend to prefer shadier conditions or are a bit trickier to grow and bloom for beginners.

There are some compact growing varieties of Phrag. longifolium that might be suited for this, but you have to look around for those and you should probably stick with a reputable vendor because the typical sized varieties are huge. Many Phrag species would probably fit in your closet space when they are growing, but the flower spikes can grow quite tall and a 3 foot tall space may not be sufficient.

Some of the Phrag. caudatum types might work (ex: humboldtii and warscewiczianum), but these have a reputation of being a little trickier than typical Phrags, so perhaps not the best choice to start. Not that you can't be successful with them right off the bat, though.

For hybrids, you may want to stick with things that have Phrag. pearcei or Phrag. klotzschianum in their ancestry, since those are some of the species with the shortest stature even when in bloom which can also handle higher light settings and tolerate a variety of temperature ranges. Hybrids with Phrag. caracinum or hirtzii will be a bit taller (and their spikes could outgrow your space potentially), but may still be viable options. Although caudatum and its relatives may not be the best fit, intersectional hybrids with species like humboldtii and warscewiczianum crossed to species that don't have super long petals are usually much easier to grow, tend to stay fairly compact, and usually have shorter flower spikes.

If your growing space gets warm to hot from the lights, you may struggle with hybrids with heavy influence from the species in the besseae & schlimii complex. They tend to prefer slightly shadier conditions and more intermediate temperatures, and their bloom colors tend to be much better in cooler temps. However, most of their hybrids are easy to grow, especially intersectional hybrids.
 
Thanks! This is super helpful. I guess I can find the ancestry of a given hybrid on OrchidRoots?

When plants are in bloom, they will be out on display, not in the closet, and if this happens in March through September, that's adequate light that they are unlikely to go into shock. My lights generate no heat.

Do phrags bloom twice off the same lead, or do they go through the same dying, resprouting, blooming cycle as mottled leaf Paphs?

I am currently revamping my collection, as I was given (or purchased early-on) some large orchids that I just don't have room for. Your advice will be very useful. thanks!
 
Do phrags bloom twice off the same lead, or do they go through the same dying, resprouting, blooming cycle as mottled leaf Paphs?

They bloom once per growth, like a Paph. But they can bloom multiple times per year once they have many growths.

I guess I can find the ancestry of a given hybrid on OrchidRoots?

Yep, that's what I typically do when a vendor only shows the hybrid name. But a lot of vendors (at least most that I purchase from regularly) will show the parents as well, or they'll mention some of the more prominent background species.

With so many Phrag hybrids out there, it's tough to give suggestions -- especially since I don't know what's currently available at vendors you'd be using. But, as you said ... OrchidRoots could be a good starting point, and from there you could cross reference with your favorite vendors.

Plus I'm assuming others will chime in with more specific suggestions (I hope)!

When plants are in bloom, they will be out on display, not in the closet,

That will open up more possibilities then. Something to consider though is that a lot of Phrag hybrids can bloom throughout the year and start spiking up at any time of the year. In fact, some hybrids will bloom more than once a year (but not more than once per growth). Most Phrag hybrids (and pretty much all intersectional hybrids) are sequential bloomers. Each flower is fairly short lived by orchid standards (maybe 1 - 3 weeks), but the spike itself can produce many, many blooms, grow very tall, and stay in bloom for many months or more.
 
There is a lot I could say about growing under lights. There are so many different types of lights and many different sizes and styles of fixtures.
I have been growing orchids for almost 50 years now, the last 6 being indoors under lights. I have included my newest light fixture. Under the lights I am growing Cattleyas and strap leaf Paphs.
8ADC879E-6154-48B7-A64D-037B0C2D0D9F.jpeg429519D2-8798-4255-B4DD-46F5479362D1.jpeg
This is roughly a 4’ x4’ growing area. The fixture features 8 46” tubes, 6,500k and are sold as HO= High output. Each bulb is 54 watts.
I also have two, three shelved plant carts that hold additional orchids. Those include compact Cattleyas, Paphiopedilums, some smaller Phrags. and some Zygopetulums.
They too generate little heat. I have about 170 plants under approximately 60 square feet of growing space.
 
Welcome from NYC. It's pretty hard to get multiple growth plants from vendors, unless you ask. BTW, one of the best orchid growers I have met, Naoki, lived in Alaska until he moved to Florida, another, Ibn, I don't remember his screen name, grows in a basement in British Columbia, Canada.
 
There is a lot I could say about growing under lights. There are so many different types of lights and many different sizes and styles of fixtures.
I have been growing orchids for almost 50 years now, the last 6 being indoors under lights. I have included my newest light fixture. Under the lights I am growing Cattleyas and strap leaf Paphs.
View attachment 45737View attachment 45738
This is roughly a 4’ x4’ growing area. The fixture features 8 46” tubes, 6,500k and are sold as HO= High output. Each bulb is 54 watts.
I also have two, three shelved plant carts that hold additional orchids. Those include compact Cattleyas, Paphiopedilums, some smaller Phrags. and some Zygopetulums.
They too generate little heat. I have about 170 plants under approximately 60 square feet of growing space.
I see there are some very pretty things happening at your house! 🥰
 
There is a lot I could say about growing under lights. There are so many different types of lights and many different sizes and styles of fixtures.
I have been growing orchids for almost 50 years now, the last 6 being indoors under lights. I have included my newest light fixture. Under the lights I am growing Cattleyas and strap leaf Paphs.
View attachment 45737View attachment 45738
This is roughly a 4’ x4’ growing area. The fixture features 8 46” tubes, 6,500k and are sold as HO= High output. Each bulb is 54 watts.
I also have two, three shelved plant carts that hold additional orchids. Those include compact Cattleyas, Paphiopedilums, some smaller Phrags. and some Zygopetulums.
They too generate little heat. I have about 170 plants under approximately 60 square feet of growing space.
This is very encouraging, especially since your Paphs in bloom are not super huge, like all the specimen paphs I see which feel unattainable.
The problem I have in my little grow space is also that some of the Catts seem to tolerate more light than others, and some are looking a bit yellow and bleached, as you may be able to make out in the attached photo, if you look at the front and rear orchids on the left side. My total growing space is about 6 square feet, so I don't have alot of lattitude in creating different light intensities.
I'm also confused about light intensity. I do vary the photoperiods per some advice from Fred Clarke, of SVO, but I'm not sure how many footcandles I should be dropping on these guys because as you know the light is steady, rather than varying through the day as with natural sunlight. Catts supposedly like 2400 FC, but I felt like I was hammering them, and now it's down to maybe 1400 fc. Any insight on light intensity under artificial lights?
 
This is very encouraging, especially since your Paphs in bloom are not super huge, like all the specimen paphs I see which feel unattainable.
The problem I have in my little grow space is also that some of the Catts seem to tolerate more light than others, and some are looking a bit yellow and bleached, as you may be able to make out in the attached photo, if you look at the front and rear orchids on the left side. My total growing space is about 6 square feet, so I don't have alot of lattitude in creating different light intensities.
I'm also confused about light intensity. I do vary the photoperiods per some advice from Fred Clarke, of SVO, but I'm not sure how many footcandles I should be dropping on these guys because as you know the light is steady, rather than varying through the day as with natural sunlight. Catts supposedly like 2400 FC, but I felt like I was hammering them, and now it's down to maybe 1400 fc. Any insight on light intensity under artificial lights?
Closet Lighting Setup 2.jpg
 
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They bloom once per growth, like a Paph. But they can bloom multiple times per year once they have many growths.



Yep, that's what I typically do when a vendor only shows the hybrid name. But a lot of vendors (at least most that I purchase from regularly) will show the parents as well, or they'll mention some of the more prominent background species.

With so many Phrag hybrids out there, it's tough to give suggestions -- especially since I don't know what's currently available at vendors you'd be using. But, as you said ... OrchidRoots could be a good starting point, and from there you could cross reference with your favorite vendors.

Plus I'm assuming others will chime in with more specific suggestions (I hope)!



That will open up more possibilities then. Something to consider though is that a lot of Phrag hybrids can bloom throughout the year and start spiking up at any time of the year. In fact, some hybrids will bloom more than once a year (but not more than once per growth). Most Phrag hybrids (and pretty much all intersectional hybrids) are sequential bloomers. Each flower is fairly short lived by orchid standards (maybe 1 - 3 weeks), but the spike itself can produce many, many blooms, grow very tall, and stay in bloom for many months or more.
Is there anything I can do to encourage my paphs to sprout additional leads, or is it just a matter of good culture and a lot of patience?
 
Just for fun, I'm going to post a local slipper orchid that grows wild: Calypso Bulbosa. It's a tiny gorgeous little flower that blooms in late May, early June in just a few places that are spoken of between those of us who love them. My wife and I kayaked out to an island where a friend had seen them and found two little clusters of them. Their growing pattern makes them rather elusive and a bit rare here. We also have Cypripedium Guttatum, but I'm not sure they are found in my part of Southeast Alaska. Enjoy the photo!
 

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Is there anything I can do to encourage my paphs to sprout additional leads, or is it just a matter of good culture and a lot of patience?
Yes, and absolutely.

How warm are you growing that Paph? The type you have is colloquially referred to as a Maudiae type, and these are overwhelmingly plants that prefer warm temperatures year round in my experience. Elevated humidity levels, typically in the 50% - 60% range are a good balance and that goes a long way towards keeping the plant happy.

Though I will mention, some plants and some hybrids just aren't great clumpers and tend not to produce tons of basal growths in any season.

I haven't tried it, but some people have reported success with applying hormones called "keiki paste" to the base of their plants just above the roots where new growths typically form. It may help stimulate development of otherwise dormant eyes. No guarantees there, though, and honestly I think this methodology would be a last resort. Better to focus on improving care routine and growing conditions, at least that's my opinion.
 
Well you can purchase light meters that spout out foot candle readings. They run anywhere from $15, to $40 to a few hundred dollars. I prefer to spend money on orchids rather then meters of dubious reliability.

I much prefer a more practical approach. I let the Cattleyas themselves tell me just how happy they are. I generally want to see a nice bright grass green color to the bulbs and leaves. If they go yellowish all over that equates to too much light. I move them further from the tubes.
If they go towards a darker green color it equates to not enough light. So I move them closer to the tubes.
Lastly their production of flowers is your last clue. Mature, previous bloomed plants that do not flower under lights mean they need more light. That could be accomplished by being closer to the light source or the lights could be on for more hours.

Back in the early eighties I read somewhere that a standard, single leaf Cattleya needs 30,000 ft. Candles total per day to flower. So if your light set up produces 2,000 ft. candles per hour, the lights need to be on for 15 hours. ( 30,000 •/• by 2,000 = 15 hours) seedlings or compact Cattleyas take 20,000 to 24,000 ft. candles per day. Things with Rhyncholaelia digbyana recently in its background may need more then 30,000.

Just how valid are these numbers? Who knows. I just use them occasionally for discussion. But I watch the plants. Cattleyas will bloom regularly with too much light! BUT with insufficient light, they will rarely bloom.
 
Well you can purchase light meters that spout out foot candle readings. They run anywhere from $15, to $40 to a few hundred dollars. I prefer to spend money on orchids rather then meters of dubious reliability.

I much prefer a more practical approach. I let the Cattleyas themselves tell me just how happy they are. I generally want to see a nice bright grass green color to the bulbs and leaves. If they go yellowish all over that equates to too much light. I move them further from the tubes.
If they go towards a darker green color it equates to not enough light. So I move them closer to the tubes.
Lastly their production of flowers is your last clue. Mature, previous bloomed plants that do not flower under lights mean they need more light. That could be accomplished by being closer to the light source or the lights could be on for more hours.

Back in the early eighties I read somewhere that a standard, single leaf Cattleya needs 30,000 ft. Candles total per day to flower. So if your light set up produces 2,000 ft. candles per hour, the lights need to be on for 15 hours. ( 30,000 •/• by 2,000 = 15 hours) seedlings or compact Cattleyas take 20,000 to 24,000 ft. candles per day. Things with Rhyncholaelia digbyana recently in its background may need more then 30,000.

Just how valid are these numbers? Who knows. I just use them occasionally for discussion. But I watch the plants. Cattleyas will bloom regularly with too much light! BUT with insufficient light, they will rarely bloom.
Thanks! Generally, most of them look healthy but a couple have some of the backbulbs (or, many of the backbulbs) yellowing. It may be because I haven't changed the medium in a couple of years, but I'm not sure. Roots are very healthy and both have new growths.
For the light meter, I downloaded an app for my iphone (called, interestingly, "Light Meter") for I think $7. Definitely not a pro setup, but it gets me in the ballpark. The tip about FCs and total FCs is a good guideline. Thanks!
 
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