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February in Your Orchid Collection

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  • FEBRUARY CLIMATE DATA

  • Average high: 77.7

  • Average low: 60.7

  • Average mean: 69.1

  • Average rainfall: 2.07"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.


Despite the bloom on the avocados and the burgeoning new leaves on the live oaks, February is not spring in South Florida. Danger of freeze continues past mid month and frost can occur still into March. Even if the weather is balmy it’s too early to let down our guard or take down any protection we have mounted against the cold. The trend however is toward the positive as each lengthening day brings extra hours of warming sunshine to begin waking our plants from their long winter’s rest. 


February characteristically brings a wide swing of day to night temperatures, ideal for spiking ascocendas and vandas but also wringing from the air heavy dews and dense fog. Whilst these add a romantic atmosphere to the South Florida landscape, Wuthering Heights is singularly devoid of snails and slugs (much less Botrytis). The silvery carpet of dew provides a silky path to our orchids for snails and slugs which can range far, under these favorable conditions. They are eager to make a nice meal of your Phalaenopsis leaves or the soft crowns of your vandas before they retire during the dry months of March and April only to dream of the fresh shoots of the sympodial orchids brought forth by the first rains of May. Now is the time to give them a rude awakening. Remember that snail bait is most effectively applied lightly (scatter the pellets every few feet) and frequently (every 7 to 10 days). Two or three applications should do the job.


The heavy fog which can cause condensation on leaves even under cover can also bring trouble. Botrytis is a fungus disease that can disfigure flowers with small black spots. Particularly apparent and annoying on white Phalaenopsis, Botrytis can ruin other flowers as well. Control is typically achieved in commercial greenhouses with fungicide in aerosol forms and by running fans to prevent condensation on the flowers. The latter option is also available to collectors. A small fan turned on the spiking and opened flowers at night will greatly alleviate the pressure of Botrytis. So will, to a degree, the application of soap which we suggested in January to control mites. Bicarbonate of soda, ordinary baking soda, at 1Tbs. per gal will help as well. Quaternary ammonium compounds (Physan, RD40, Consan, pool algicide) also give some control. Maintaining long lasting flowers like Phalaenopsis, dendrobiums and bi-foliate cattleyas in more perfect condition is well worth the effort. Having waited so long for the flowers we want to enjoy them as long as possible and they do all last longer in cool weather. 


The lower overall temperatures of February call for less frequent and lighter applications of fertilizer as was the practice in January. If any reddening of the foliage persists another application of Epsom salts (1Tbs per gal), preferably in combination with Potassium nitrate, is called for; Nitrate nitrogen being more available to the plants under cooler conditions. If your resolve holds steady not to water (or above all) fertilize those Himalayan dendrobiums, your reward may shortly become evident in bursting flower spikes. 


Like the avocados and the live oaks, many cattleyas and other sympodial orchids have bloomed and are just commencing new growth in February. Right after flowering is usually an excellent time for repotting from the plant’s perspective and the cool day time temperatures in the greenhouse are hospitable to the orchid grower as well. It’s still a bit early to re-basket vandas But an early start on the cattleyas will allow plenty of time and energy for those Spring chores which are right around the corner. With that thought setting out to secure a good supply of pots in anticipation of the potting season ahead is on February’s agenda.

Treating Cold Damaged Orchids

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Cold damage appears on orchids as whitening of the foliage and stems. The white gradually turns to brown as the effected tissue dies. Often this dead tissue simply dries and the damage is limited to the unsightly patches that are left. Frequently, however, the damaged tissue is infected with bacterial rot which can spread in the plant and cause further damage. 
 
Softening of the edges of the cold damaged areas or oozing of brown fluid indicates bacterial infection. Removal of the leaf or stem is a simple but somewhat drastic solution. If one is loath to lose so much of the plant, the most effective treatment for bacterial infection is treatment with cupric hydroxide (Kocide or Champion) which should if possible be combined in equal parts with mancozeb (Manzate or Dithane M45). 
 
This combination is packaged, pre-mixed as Junction. By adding a small amount of water to the chemicals in a jam, one can make a slurry that can be brushed on the lesions.

Be cautious when making the slurry not to inhale any of the dust and never, never, dust these chemicals without wearing a mask.

An old toothbrush is efficient in applying this and your dentist will be happy to have it out of your mouth. Any left over slurry can be placed on a high shelf (brush and all) and re-hydrated later. This stuff is also the cure for those soft spots that appear on Phal. leaves in summer. 
 
For large collections, with extensive damage, one tablespoon per gallon of cupric hydroxide and mancozeb can be sprayed. Mix the two and wait an hour or more before spraying. Do not apply this mixture to dendrobiums which are hyper-sensitive to copper or to bromeliads (ditto).

December in Your Orchid Collection

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  • Average high: 77.5

  • Average low: 62.2

  • Average mean: 69.9

  • Average rainfall: 2.18"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

December marks the beginning of the serious dry season in South Florida. While this additional dryness provides relief from the autumnal rains that can bring so many fungal problems, December is also the month of shortest day lengths. This contracted period of light, on the contrary, reduces severely the drying potential for our plants. Nature thus both gives and takes away from us in December. We must make sure, therefore, that we do not aid the dark side of the force by improper watering. In December, above all, one must stick strictly to the two cardinal principles of orchid watering: water early in the day so your plants have as many hours as possible to dry, and water heavily when you water, allowing longer intervals between watering to dry plants thoroughly. This practice maximizes the benefit of the dryer air of December and minimizes the adverse effect of the shorter day lengths.

            When nature has delivered a light overnight or early morning rain as she so often does in December at the leading edge of a cold front, add to her efforts by watering thoroughly that same morning and skip out watering for an extra several days afterward. With this method you can use the general dryness of December to give yourself much of the advantage of a greenhouse in terms of controlling watering. As in all aspects of orchid culture, keen observation is the key to success. In cooler weather your plants need much less water. Moreover cool air even at the same relative humidity, strips less water from your plants because cool air has less water holding capability. Always be sure that your plants really need water before you roll out the hose in December. Remember to use at least one of the standard tests for dryness: the finger dug slightly into the media test or the newly sharpened pencil coming dry like a knife from a well cooked custard, or test by hefting a pot that you know the weight of, both wet and dry and be sure that it has attained sufficient lightness. When you are sure they are dry, water them until you are sure they are very wet, then let the drying air of December do its magic to ward off leaf spotting diseases.

            Himalayan dendrobiums of the nobile and Callista (D. aggregatum, chrysotoxum, etc.) Sections require no additional water (beyond rain) in December. Remember, those of you who water (or, even worse, fertilize) these dendrobiums in December, will be punished by having your flowers taken away in the Spring. Some growers who have the space, isolate these dendrobiums along with other types that want hard drying such as Catasetum, Cycnoches, Mormodes, and Calanthe. Another strategy is to hang these plants high or at the edges of the collection reminding oneself to neglect them and also to avoid watering them by mistake. Some growers achieve the same result effect by turning the pots of these genera on their side in November or December, to avoid catching water from whatever source. Plants of some of these genera that have finished flowering can even be removed from their pots and stripped to bare roots in anticipation of re-potting them in new media when they break growth in the spring.

            Most sympodial orchids are resting in December and require less fertilizer. Biweekly or even monthly applications of a balanced fertilizer or 15-515 are still desirable. Nitrate nitrogen is the most readily absorbed in cooler weather; therefore at least one more application of the potassium nitrate/magnesium sulphate (at 1tbs. each per gal.) recommended in November is still a good idea. It’s good stuff! Vandas, Phalaenopsis and other monopodial orchids should be fertilized right through the winter although both the amount of fertilizer and the frequency of application can be reduced. Remember reddening of the foliage is not natural, nor is it a response to the cold per se but rather a symptom of nutritional deficiency. The plants are asking for more potassium and magnesium. Give them the groceries.

            December can be cold. Frost has occurred in the first week of the month and unforgettably, the coldest temperatures ever recorded in South Florida were registered on December 25, 1989. If you haven’t taken some of the precautions outlined in the November Newsletter, get busy! Keep a close eye on the forecasts during this volatile month.

 Remember that hard cane dendrobiums of the sections Spathulata and Phalaenanthe are the most sensitive of commonly cultivated orchids. They resent temperature much below 60 degrees F. Phalaenopsis are next most sensitive, then vandas. Protect all these genera more carefully.

            If you are getting a jump on Spring potting chores by repotting sympodial orchids that have finished blooming, it is particularly important that you take extra care in securing them in their containers. These plants may not be sending out new roots for several months, enough time for them to be shaken loose from insufficient staking. Passing cold fronts can bring brisk winds in December. When new roots start to form on insufficiently secured plants, wind moves the plant and chafes the new root tips off. Improperly secured plants are never able to root properly and slowly pine away. If you love them you must tie them up, tie them down. This is also especially true of mass produced orchids sold in Home Depot, K Mart etc. The soft, peat based media used to grow these commercially produced plants in the controlled environment of a greenhouse often does not provide sufficient purchase to secure the plants in the rough and tumble of a South Florida orchid collection buffeted by harsh winter winds. You probably should have already re-potted these into more durable medium but until you do, tie ‘em up!

            Keep those vandas, phalaenopsis and hard cane dendrobiums as warm as you can. Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza!

November in Your Orchid Collection

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  • Average high: 81.2

  • Average low: 67.5

  • Average mean: 74.4

  • Average rainfall: 3.43"

Excerpted from Florida Orchid Growing: Month by Month by Martin Motes. All rights reserved.

In November we can no longer afford to be dominated by the illusion, so easy here at the northern edge of the tropics, that summer will never end. Although Indian Summer persists for the whole winter in South Florida, November is the month to prepare our plants for those short sharp blasts of cold which are inevitably coming as each successive cold front pushes the overall temperature a little lower and a little lower. Each day is shorter too. The loss of daylight savings time should awake us to the fact that there are less hours of sunlight to save our plants from the chill of the night. Many genera are already anticipating this sea change and have completed their growths for the season. Some like Catasetum, Cycnoches, Calanthe and the nobile dendrobiums are even beginning to shed their foliage in preparation for the cool, dry season. While the Himalayan Dendrobium species of the nobile and Callista types, calanthes, cymbidiums and an few others, actually relish temperatures down to near freezing, and most cattleyas and Oncidium alliance species and hybrids are not bothered by temperatures in the mid-thirties, the majority of the genera which we grow, vandas, evergreen dendrobiums, Phalaenopsis and others, benefit from being protected from the cold. Now, while the first breathes of cool air remind us that more and stronger cold is in the offing, is the time to start thinking about protecting our plants.
     In nature nearly all the tender tropical epiphytic orchids native to South Florida are found nestled in the bosom of deep hammocks where they are well protected from the wind. This observation leads us to think of protecting our orchids from the north and northwest winds. Creating or utilizing already existing wind breaks to the north and west of our orchids will limit the ability of the wind to steal the warmth out of our plants. The critical factor is not the low temperature that the air reaches but rather the temperature to which the plant tissue is chilled and for how long. This is why limiting the movement of cold air over our plants is essential. In still air, plant tissue (mostly water but with some dissolved salts) retains heat for a long time and is aided by the plants’ metabolism. The very goings on of life generate heat, therefor considerable exposure to still air is needed to chill a plant to the temperature of the surrounding environment. Not so if wind enters the picture. Wind can quickly rob the plant’s surfaces of heat, chilling the plants tissue deeper and deeper. When the plant’s temperature tolerance is reached, at best growth ceases or worse yet damage ensues. Slowing the cooling process and limiting the hours of exposure to sub-optimal temperature is the best gift we can give our plants for the holidays.
    Protecting our tender plants from exposure to wind must be our primary concern in preparing them for winter. Buildings, walls and even thick hedges can be very effective windbreaks slowing or stopping chill air. Choose places in your garden that offer this sort of protection to your orchid plants wherever possible. The geography of Florida plays into the equation as well. Because the Florida peninsular juts decidedly to the Southeast (Naples is due south of Jacksonville), protection from the Northwest wind is even more crucial than protection from the North wind on the east coast of Florida. Northwest winds are blowing out of the cold heart of the landmass while true North winds have in most locales usually blown over more warm water and less cold land. Regardless of the degree of north, safeguarding our collections from the wind is critical to their healthy maintenance. Not until the air circulating clockwise around the cold high pressure system shifts to the Northeast to blow over the warm Gulfstream can we relax our guard.
    Orchids that are grown in shade houses, in patios or pool enclosures can be protected by installing plastic film on the north and west walls of the structure. This can be attached with staples or other devices that allow the plastic to be furled in warm weather and only lowered for those few nights when it is needed. Easiest to come by (Home Depot, or any hardware store) and cheapest, is 6mil clear polyethylene (don’t use 4mil; it rarely lasts the winter being exposed to Florida’s bright ultraviolet light). One hundred feet by ten costs about $20. Stored in a dark place, this stock will last the average grower several years and be a very small investment that will yield greatly improved orchids. Handled with care in furling and unfurling, 6 mil plastic usually will get the grower through the winter. If unobtrusive, it may be simply left in place till March. White polypropylene, similar to nursery ground cloth, is used by many nurseries for winterizing. More expensive than polyethylene, it is very durable and will last many more years. Some growers have it cut to size, taped and grommeted for easy up and down installation and storing. Universal Supply (1-800-432-3009) has it. Given the dimensions and enough lead time they can customize it for you. 
    Getting our growing area ready for winter is one half of the equation. We must also get the plants themselves ready. Healthy, well-nourished plants withstand cold better as do plants that are harder and not too lushly in growth. Because both light and temperature are lower in November and most orchids have slowed their growth, they need less fertilizer. In cooler weather ammoniacal nitrogen is less available to our plants because it needs the assistance of bacterial action to ease its absorption by the plants. Nitrate nitrogen is more desirable therefore in cooler weather, because it is more quickly and readily absorbed by the orchids. Check the label on your fertilizer and try to choose one with a higher ration of nitrate nitrogen to ammoniacal nitrogen for winter use. The very best source for nitrate nitrogen is potassium nitrate (KNO3). It has the formula 13-0-44. The lower level of the desirable nitrate form of nitrogen is well suited to the continuing but diminished nutritional needs of our orchids in cool weather. The level of potassium is thought to contribute to the ‘hardening’ of the plants. Try to obtain the soluble or ‘Spray’ grade. If only Prills (small beads like tapioca) are available they will need to be dissolved with boiling water, a tedious task. 
    Potassium nitrate is superlative also because it contains no phosphorus which, in combination with our hard, alkaline water interferes with the plants’ absorption of trace elements. Trace element nutrition is especially important to maintain healthy orchids in cool weather: above all, magnesium, the ‘major’ minor element. The reddening of orchid foliage which is usually attributed to cold is in fact the symptom of magnesium and potassium deficiency. Cold is only the efficient cause of this reddening; the material cause is lack of magnesium. Epsom salts at 1tbs. per gal plus potassium nitrate at the same rate will quickly bring back the green. This regimen can be alternated with a general trace element mixture (follow the package rate) plus potassium nitrate. Indeed, following the recommendations of the Michigan State University study published in the July 2003 issue of Orchids, symptoms of magnesium or potassium deficiency might be a warning that we should have been following something closer to this “winter” fertilizer regimen all year. We now recommend alternating applications of 1TBS each of Epsom salts and potassium nitrate with a balance fertilizer such as 20-20-20 or 18-18-18 year round not just in the Fall. Best of all is a 15-5-15 with additional calcium and magnesium. peters markets one as Excel.
    The Epsom salts are as near as your medicine cabinet. The potassium nitrate is more difficult to find but a trip to the nearest Farm supply store is worth the effort. You’ll save a bundle on fertilizer and have plenty of potassium nitrate left over to grow the biggest bunch of bananas in the neighborhood.
    If you have the energy, November is also a great time for starting to pot those sympodial orchids (cattleyas, oncidiums, et al) that have finished blooming. You’ll have a leg up on the Spring potting and will glow with virtue in expectation of the rewards of the Holidays. Be especially careful at this season that the newly transplanted orchids are well secured in their containers. It may be many weeks till they have broken growth and can anchor themselves with their own roots. If the plants are allowed any wiggle room the newly emerging roots will be chaffed off, sending the plant into a slow and difficult to reverse decline.