Vibrant Gems

Meet the jewel orchids. Year after year, these bloom atop crowns of colorful leaves.
Linda C. Askey

The name "orchid" brings to mind big corsages, greenhouses, and awkwardly shaped, difficult-to-grow plants. But seldom does it conjure memories of velvet foliage and easy care. That's the wonder of the jewel orchids. They'll be a welcome addition to your winter days indoors. For a closer look at these precious jewels, take a look at our slide show.

These tabletop favorites hail from the forest floor of tropical climates such as Indonesia and Malaysia, so they will not enjoy life outdoors in areas that are cold right now. But they will thrive in a heated home with no more than indirect window light. In fact, if that window is south-facing, pull the plant away a few feet or it may appear bleached from the overabundance of sunlight.

The jewel orchids are actually a group of genera, all of which offer handsome leaves and easy maintenance. The easiest of all is Ludisia discolor, an orchid commonly found in retail centers. Its greenish-bronze leaves are streaked with red veins. Most of us would be happy if it simply survived, but it grows well and blooms to boot.

 

According to Dwayne Louder of The Dowery Orchid Nursery in Hiwassee, Virginia, "Ludisia discolor will grow in Pro-Mix (or similar potting soil) just fine, and it will grow in plain water. If you take a cutting and drop it into a glass of water, it will root and bloom and grow like crazy."

Busy gardeners need agreeable plants, and this is a good one. Flowering is almost automatic. Cooler temperatures near a window and shorter days cause the flowerbuds to set in the center of the rosettes. Stems will grow to 12 inches and produce dozens of half-inch white flowers in the middle of winter.

After your orchid flowers, cut off the stalks. The plant will then begin growing, producing side shoots both above and below ground during the spring and summer. In fact, a small orchid is enough to make a showy specimen in only a year or two.

Feed your plants with a water-soluble fertilizer such as 12-12-12 mixed at half the recommended strength. Apply this instead of water once every three weeks.

As easy to grow, but with a distinctly different pattern on the leaves, is Macodes marmorata. With the texture of red-and-green mottled velvet, the veins are a net of red, silver, or green. Its close relative Macodes petola has velvet green leaves with a net of gold veins. Because of the look of these leaves, Virginia gardener Elissa Steeves calls the Macodes "Oriental carpet orchids."

Once you get hooked on these and want to enhance your collection, you might try to collect rarer jewels such as Anoectochilus sp., Goodyera sp., and Cystorchis sp.

Dwayne suggests top-dressing the plants with sheet moss. He collects his from the forest near his home. It helps give the foliage an attractive background while retaining moisture, much like a mulch does in a garden bed. "I would hesitate to use Spanish moss," Dwayne explains, "as it often contains spider mites, to everyone's regret."