The Sobralia orchid genus grows ubiquitously in much of South and Central America; I've heard them called "ditchweed"! They have beautiful, short-lived flowers whose appearance is somewhat similar to a large Cattleya orchid. Flowers can be more than 6 inches (15cm) across in some species. The plants can get quite large, however, so you need to have enough space for them!
Another type of orchid you can grow at home is what I call the “Thai restaurant orchids.” These types of orchids are Dendrobium hybrids and can be found at Thai restaurants that decorate their tables with freshly-cut flowers. They come in many colors (white, green, purple, pink, yellow and more) and require a fairly warm environment. In fact, they could loose their leaves in the winter when the ambient temperature drops below 60°F (15°C) or so. But the “Thai restaurant orchid” is really just one small group of hybrids within the Dendrobium genus. Dendrobium is actually one of the largest orchid genera.
Along with the Asteraceae, they are one of the two largest families of flowering plants. The Orchidaceae have about 28,000 currently accepted species, distributed in about 763 genera. The determination of which family is larger is still under debate, because verified data on the members of such enormous families are continually in flux. Regardless, the number of orchid species nearly equals the number of bony fishes and is more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species.
Orchids of all types have also often been sought by collectors of both species and hybrids. Many hundreds of societies and clubs worldwide have been established. These can be small, local clubs, or larger, national organisations such as the American Orchid Society. Both serve to encourage cultivation and collection of orchids, but some go further by concentrating on conservation or research.
Orchids are an incredibly unique and fascinating group of plants. Many people can identify a Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) or Cattleya (the old corsage orchids), but the question often is asked, “What makes an orchid an orchid?” Orchids have some morphological (physical) traits that make them stand out from other plant families. In orchids, many of their floral parts come in groups of three. There are three sepals, which are the outer petals; these are what you see when you look at an unopened bud. There are also three petals, but in orchids one of the petals has been specialized into a labellum, or lip. This is usually the bottommost petal, and it helps to attract the pollinator to the reproductive organ. In orchids the reproductive organ, known as the column, combines both the male and female parts in one structure.
Grammatophyllum speciosum is the largest type of orchid and grows up to three meters in height. The world’s most expensive orchid, Shenzhen Nongke, sold for $200,000 at an auction in 2005 and is named after the university that developed it for eight years. Sri Lanka’s Kadupul flower, on the other hand, is considered the most priceless because it blooms just once a year in the night and withers before dawn breaks.
The most common type of orchid is probably the moth orchid, or the Phalaenopsis orchids. These are the plants that you can buy from a standard grocery store. Or if you happen to live close by an Asian supermarket, you will find truck-loads of the white or purplish-pink variety. Some fashion/interior designers even dubbed this purplish-pink color as “orchid.” (This is ultra confusing for an orchid grower, as orchids come in a million different shades and colors, but well, these are the same people who invented colors like sour lemon and spiced mustard. It’s just all marketing!)
The characteristic that makes these different than many other orchids is their shape, which is triangular, blocky and compact, or thin, whiskery, and elongated. They bloom in the summer and require certain temperatures and humidity levels, so you should research them before you decide to purchase them. They can be tricky to grow and therefore, they are better for people who are more experienced in the garden, and they come in colors such as yellow-orange and have leaves that are a beautiful shade of green.
Cymbidium carry tall stems with many flowers that have a more typical orchid shape. They are easily identified by their grassy leaves, and they readily form large clumps. Most common are the cool-flowering types, which need to experience a cooler winter (nights in the 40s for some time in the fall) in order to initiate flowering. Once the flowers open, they can last for up to two months or more, especially in a cool environment. These are very showy and rewarding plants, and a plant in a six-inch pot can carry three stems with 15 or more flowers each, depending on the type.
Most orchids are not heavy feeders. Many orchids bloom year after year with no fertilizer at all. During active growth, when new leaves are being produced, you may fertilize every other time you water at half the strength recommended on the fertilizer package. However, it's important to deliver water without fertilizer at least once a month to flush excess fertilizer salts from the bark mix and avoid fertilizer burn to the roots.