Unknown Phalaenopsis hybrid. Photo © Arad; retrieved from Wikipedia
Unknown Phalaenopsis hybrid. Photo © Arad; retrieved from Wikipedia
In Situ Plants interior landscapes, vertical gardens, and other plant installations in Toronto
Bulbophyllum 'Elizabeth Ann Buckleberry', probably one of the most commonly grown plants in the genus. Photo © Ed M.; retrieved from The Orchid Source

Did your eye even register the photo to the left? You can be forgiven if so: a beautiful sight it might be, but the now ubiquitous Phalaenopsis has become such a commonplace sight in homes and commercial settings that it’s nearly impossible now to regard them as the spectacular plants they are.

Tissue culture, offshore production and improved shipping techniques seem to have contributed most to the availability of these plants at nearly any place that sells plants (and quite a few that don’t): the US imported an estimated 400 40-foot containers of Phalaenopsis in 2010, and that number has surely risen since then. The plants are then forced into flower in greenhouses and then make their way to the mass market a few short weeks later. (This hasty method of production, though certainly bringing production [and thus retail] costs down, can also produce plants which may not perform as well after they leave the greenhouse, but that is a whole other post for another day.)

But why has Phalaenopsis become the poster child for the entire orchid family? After all, there are more than 26,000 species of orchid worldwide (many of them, admittedly, not suitable for culture, such as this exceptional species). Phalaenopsis was already being grown as a cut flower, which made it a good candidate for the early research into commercial production, and it is a very easy plant to grow commercially, growing rapidly and flowering reliably under the right conditions.

I don’t really have anything against Phalaenopsis in particular: there are over 60 species in the genus (check out the photos here), to say nothing of the countless hybrids therefrom. I’m definitely glad that more people are trying these plants out and having success with them. But it just seems a shame that the full diversity of orchids isn’t well represented in the mass market. The whole charm of orchids, after all, is their exoticness, and it certainly gets a lot more exotic than Phalaenopsis.  Even other commercially produced genera offer a little more curiosity, and these are often easier of care for the novice than Phalaenopsis, and can also have more unique foliage so that they hold visual interest when not in flower.

It doesn’t seem as though the humble Phalaenopsis is going anywhere any time soon. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that other species become equally well-represented in commercial production. And my personal hope is that many species become so well-represented: the Orchidaceae really are incredible, and everyone should have the opportunity to try growing something a little different.