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Orchids in the Mojave

Brassolaeliocattleya Empress Worsley ‘Roman Holiday’, HCC purple orchid photo
Orchid Society of Northern Nevada
Brassolaeliocattleya Empress Worsley ‘Roman Holiday’, HCC via Orchid Society of Northern Nevada

The other day I was speaking with some folks who were complaining about trying to grow plants here in the Mojave Desert. After the first comments — “You mean you can actually grow anything here? It’s so dry, and hot, and the soil is so poor, how is it possible?”

So often, I feel that I’m repeating the same old message — “You can grow anything here, if you’re willing to expend the necessary time and effort”. In fact, it’s not necessarily a huge amount of effort, but it does require rising to the challenge.

I did convert some of the audience to my point of view, but then the questions arose, mainly concerning plants that seem unlikely to survive here in our part of the world. One of the first questions was “How about orchids?” I smiled, since orchids would seem to be among the fussiest of flowers. Surprise! They’re not.

It may be hard to believe, but orchids are one of the largest flowering plant families, with 28,000 species.

In fact, there are orchids that grow wild here in Nevada. There are more native Nevada orchids than there are in Hawaii! Our state has 14 native orchids, which includes the three that grow in the Las Vegas environment. Hawaii has only three, total.


Who doesn’t like orchids? They’re lovely, and different. So how can we grow these plants successfully? Like I said before, there are some that you can find growing in the ground outdoors, but these aren’t ones we usually grow domestically.

Because of our unique and challenging environment, it’s probably best to grow them indoors, especially when you’re just getting started. And as houseplants, they’re terrific!

Most of our indoor orchids evolved in the tropics — central and south America, although there are some that arose in tropical Asia. While they originated in areas very different from our bit of heaven, you don’t need to invest in a greenhouse to have success with them.

Think about a tropical rain forest, where many of them evolved. Warm temperatures, around 80°F. A lot of moisture in the air, but not flooding around the plant roots.

You need to provide high humidity. High humidity doesn’t mean wet soil, though. In nature, many of the houseplant orchids are epiphytes — they grow on other plants, but they aren’t parasites. They get their moisture and nutrition from the air, and they’re just holding onto a neighbor for support.

A rain forest, like any other forest, is usually not intensely bright. It has what we call filtered sunlight, or dappled light.

And fertilizer? They are plants, so they do need nutrients. You can buy commercial orchid fertilizer. Most of them have higher levels of nitrogen and then nearly equal amounts of phosphorus and potassium. Online there are dozens of recipes for homemade fertilizer. I haven’t tried any of them, so I won’t give any advice.

Another thing to remember is that these plants have different blooming times. Some only produce one flower stalk per year, while others might bloom every few months. It’s a good idea to know the blossoming schedule so you avoid disappointment.

What I’ve found personally was that my dendrobium orchid loved life on the windowsill of the north facing window in my kitchen. Sitting just above the kitchen sink, basking in the diffuse light, enjoying the moist air and evenly moist soil. It lived over ten years, blooming annually, with infrequent fertilization!

The Greater Las Vegas Orchid Society is a terrific source of knowledge. There’s also a website called with a list of twenty orchid types for houseplants. Pretty pictures, so if you see something you like, you can click the link and get practical information.

So, I’m pushing orchids as my new favorite indoor plant. Definitely worth a try.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan, Nevada’s Social Horticulture Specialist.