How not to kill orchids


Orchids represent unity, love, beauty, and unbridled passion. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

The orchid is considered Kenya’s national flower, but very few Kenyans keep it. Orchids are luxurious and offer colourful, ravishing blooms in pink, white, green, orange, yellow, and blue, but they are hard to keep.

It is the tender care that has seen many plant parents dread the thought of growing them for fear of becoming orchid killers.

Purity Githembe, a plant parent in South Africa, disagrees with this.

“The biggest problem is that we do not understand how to care for orchids. We, therefore, end up scaring one another into believing that orchids are difficult to care for. With orchids, you need to be willing to invest in them,” Purity says.

Having grown up on a farm in Meru, farming was the dominant economic activity and the bane of Purity’s existence. While back then it was a tedious and not-so-fun task, she now alludes her current love for gardening to the farming she did while growing up.


The orchid is considered Kenya’s national flower. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

In her garden in South Africa, she has over 600 plants, both indoor and outdoor plants. She calls herself a plant rescuer as she often takes the plants from people who are unable to care for them or are relocating from the country.

“I was into gardening when I was much younger in college, and I would collect different kinds of plants, but when I got married, and children came, I took a step back and focused on my family. Now that the children are older, I have been an avid gardener for the past eight years,” says the mother of four.

“It is now something that makes me very happy,” the 52-year-old tells the BDLife, adding, “I do a lot of potted gardening, even for my outdoor plants, as we are renting here in South Africa. However, I have still managed to build a sizeable garden. Now I am really into orchids.”

How she fell in love with orchids

Her first encounter with orchids was seven years ago when a friend gifted her some. At that time, try as she did, the orchids were not blooming, and she naturally disliked them.

Eventually, she decided to sell them. When she put them up online for sale cheaply, many people were eager to get them. At the time, she did not know how expensive orchids were.

“I sold them as I would have killed them eventually since I did not know how to care for them. A few years later, I visited a friend who was an orchids collector. His flowers bloomed, and I caved into the temptation to buy some from him. When I got them, the orchids did not bloom for the first two years,” she says.

With a lot of patience, her first orchid eventually bloomed. She was so excited that it sparked her curiosity to understand how to properly maintain them.

“I bought the growing and flowering fertilisers, and by the following year, 2002, I got a few more blooms. Last year, I had 16 blooming orchids,” Purity says.

Orchids are pretty expensive.

Purity tells BDLife, “I look for people relocating from South Africa looking to get rid of their plants, and I buy from them. This has helped me to build my orchids collection. Now I have about 50 orchids of over eight varieties.”

Purity has both indoor and outdoor orchids.

“I have the cymbidium orchid, which is a common outdoor orchid. I also have the phalaenopsis orchid,” she says.

Other varieties include the Cattleya orchid, the dendrobium, and the paphiopedilum.

“I do not mind growing it from the small cutting.”

Caring for orchids

Purity says that there isn’t a big difference in how we care for outdoor and indoor orchids noting, “The only difference is that the outdoor orchids need more sunlight while the indoor orchids require more humidity than their counterparts.”

The general rule with orchids is that the soil and the pot must be well-draining.


Purity Githembe is an avid gardener in South Africa. FILE PHOTO | POOL

Orchids also need fertiliser for optimal growth.

“I try to water my orchids monthly with the fertiliser,” she says.

Sunlight therapy

The owner of The Hanging Gardens of Malindi, Conway Nick, says that orchids can do well as indoor and outdoor plants.

“Most orchids are sun hungry and do better outside. The moth orchid is the best indoor variety as it does not require so much light. Orchids prefer the early morning or the late afternoon light,” says Nick.

“Orchids need a lot of light but not direct sunlight. For my outdoor orchids, I keep them under a shade where the light can filter in through the tree branches. I have a patio covered with glass for my indoor orchids, which gives them plenty of light,” Purity tells the BDLife.


Nick recommends some little water spraying for the orchids every morning during the dry season. “In our garden, we just do some misting when it is dry. Now that it is raining, there is no need to water them.”

Purity waters her indoor orchids once a week and once or twice a week for her outdoor orchids. “The water must drain straight away as orchids should not sit in water.”

Blooming season

Nick tells the BDLife that orchids have different blooming seasons depending on the type of orchid. “The hybrid orchids can flower for around five to six months. Some orchids rarely flower. You may work on them like crazy and only get a flower once in a blue moon,” he says.


Orchids like to be pot-bound, where there are a lot of roots around. While paphiopedilums and cymbidiums may grow in soil, most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow in the air.


Dendrobium is a type of orchid. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

“The only time you need to repot orchids is when they outgrow the pot because orchids mostly feed off the air. The pots are just something for them to hold on to,” says Nick.

Dealing with the costs

“I keep my plants as a hobby. However, I do commercialise them when I have many orchids of the same variety blooming. I, mostly, sell online and try to sell at a lower price as I get my plants cheaply, and I want to pass the deal to the next person,” Purity tells BDLife.

The selling helps her fund her hobby; hence, she does not have to dip into her savings. “For cymbidiums, they sell for anywhere from 409 Rand (Sh3,000) and 600 Rand (Sh4,500).

In Kenya, orchids can cost between Sh2,000 and Sh5,000, depending on the variety.

For her spending on the orchids, Purity spends on fertilisers, the potting mix, and pesticides. Her monthly expenditure is around Sh7,000.


Purity’s biggest challenge has been pests, particularly aphids. “I always keep neem oil within reach. I mix it with water and spray on my plants to eliminate the pests.”

Rotting is a common predicament that befalls orchids “when they are in the wrong potting medium that is not well drained or when they are overwatered.”

So strong is her love for gardening that Purity, a PhD holder in Early Childhood Education, hopes to get into teaching about plants.

“I would like to get back to school, get some more knowledge, and add that to my experience to teach about plants.”

Knowing that one of her children would want to pursue a career in horticulture and landscaping is her most outstanding achievement. She says it makes her feel that all her gardening efforts have not been in vain.

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