Garden Talk: Keeping Orchids Blooming

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show
Phalaenopsis Orchid, Don Urban (CC-BY-NC)
Phalaenopsis Orchid. Photo: Don Urban (CC-BY-NC).

Orchids are gorgeous flowers, and much easier to grow than you might think! Tune in to learn how to successfully tend to them, and to get them to rebloom. [Originally broadcast on October 17, 2014.]

Featured in this Show

  • If You Love Vanilla, You Have Orchids To Thank

    While sometimes used as a synonym for bland, vanilla is anything but when it is pure extract. That wonderful flavoring, as it turns out, comes from an orchid that can easily be cultivated in a home environment.

    “Vanilla orchids are a great house plant,” said botanist Chuck Acker. “You can grow it indoors in the months that you need to, and they do also love to spend the summer outside — primarily in the shade, but they will tolerate some sunshine.”

    Acker works with Orchids Garden Centre & Nursery in Waunakee, and also propagates and sells orchids through his own business, Flasks by Chuck Acker. He said that vanilla orchids are one of the few orchid species that are a vining plant.

    “It’s an interesting plant to grow just for that fact,” he said, “and for its voracious growth habit.”

    Vanilla orchids can grow two or three feet in a year, and can be trained to grow on a trellis, obelisk, or just about any other structure. They’ll even stick to glass, according to Acker, thanks to tiny hairs called cilia.

    “You can get it to go across your kitchen ceiling, literally, if you want to,” he said, “because the roots will stick to just about anything you get it close to.”

    In Madison, Acker said that the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens has vanilla orchid vines growing up the palm trees. They are so vigorous, he said, that they have to be pruned frequently because they would travel to as many other plants as they could reach.

    While growing the plants is quite easy, getting them to produce vanilla pods isn’t. Acker said that the flower of the vanilla orchid is only viable for about 12 hours, and must be hand-pollinated during that period.

    The pollination itself is not difficult, Acker said.

    “It’s a very simple process,” he said. “We can show you the mechanics of how to do it using any type of orchid,” he said.

    Acker did say that for commercial growers, time is of the essence, and that because of the short life of the flowers, they have to be in the fields to pollinate every day. If there is a flower open in the morning, it needs to be pollinated the same day, “before that bloom expires and they miss their chance to create a vanilla bean,” he said.

    The pollinated flower turns into the vanilla bean seed pod, and is left to mature on the plant. Extraction of the vanilla itself takes some expertise.

    “It’s a very laborious crop to grow,” Acker said, “and that whole process is why vanilla is so expensive.”

    Acker said that the world expert on vanilla orchids is Ken Cameron, a professor of botany at University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information on vanilla orchids, he said that Cameron’s book, “Vanilla Orchids, Natural History and Cultivation,” is a great resource.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Chuck Acker Guest

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