Buying Orchids


These days, most people don’t give much thought to buying orchids. Unlike even 10 years ago, orchids are now readily available in the grocery store and, oftentimes, priced for anyone’s budget. But if you want your orchids to survive happily, a little more thought than simply putting a Phalaenopsis into your grocery cart is needed.

A lot of emphasis on knowing which orchids you can grow in your growing space has been made on our website. This is advice you should always keep in mind. The purpose of this section of our site is not to emphasize where you ultimately put your orchids, but to look at where you get them from and to determine the best strategy for optimal orchid culture based on the vendor. We’ll also take a look at some of the unique requirements of buying orchids from international sources, which we hope will be useful to many people.

There are numerous places that one can choose to buy orchids. We’ve separated them into three distinct categories – each one having unique necessities if you want to keep your orchids healthy and happy. These three categories are: “The Grocery Store Orchid”, “The Reseller” and “The Orchid Grower”.

Many orchidists bought their first orchid at the local grocery store. Far more people have been turned off to the orchid hobby because of their experience of buying orchids at the store. A vast selection of orchids are so easy to grow they would rival weeds, but most people consider orchids very difficult to grow because they once had an orchid and killed it. It is highly likely that this was a grocery store bought orchid.

Knowing the reasons for this orchid death should be the key to actually being able to keep a grocery store orchid alive, so we’ll outline a bit of what these orchids go through before they get to your home and look at what you can do to keep them happy.

The orchids that are sold in grocery stores are de facto mass produced products. Mass production by nature calls for less money to be put into the production process to maximize profits. This plays out in the quality of mix that the grocery store orchid is potted in. As the cultivation section of this website will tell you, the media that you use for your orchid is a critical element of your orchid’s happiness. Mass-produced orchids are usually potted in very cheap mix that holds too much moisture and can rot the roots. Of course, water retention will differ depending on growing space, so the store mix MAY work for you, but you can be pretty sure that it is not high-quality mix because of its mass-produced nature.

Furthermore, orchids differ from other flowering plants in that stress can be a trigger for blooming. While other plants will wither and die when starved for water or warmth, orchids will make one last effort at survival by blooming to reproduce. Orchids sold in the grocery store would never sell if they weren’t in bloom and stressing orchids into bloom is a common strategy to getting product to the market by mass-producers. Further stress is created by the multiple stages of transport from the greenhouse to various wholesalers or distributors before landing in the retail store. Finally, this stress reaches a climax with grocery store employees that don’t have a good understanding of how to care for orchids – especially orchids that have been stressed out and/or aren’t in very good potting mix.

The purpose of this presentation is NOT to deter you from buying orchids at your local grocery store. After all, if you see an orchid there that you like, why shouldn’t you be able to buy it? On the contrary, we’d like to see you get these grocery store orchids to thrive and re-bloom. While this is more difficult than if you were to buy your orchids from an orchid grower, knowing this history of your grocery store orchid should help you in this quest.

The key to getting these orchids to survive is to make them extremely happy as soon as possible. Repotting sooner rather than later is important to get the old, low-quality mix out of the picture. Use only high-quality potting media and choose the best possible mix for your growing space and the type of orchid you’ve bought. This last item may also be problematic as many grocery stores remove the ID tags from the orchid pots (to make them more “attractive”), so if you are unfamiliar with orchids in general, you may not be able to identify the type of orchid you’ve bought and different orchids can have radically different growing needs. A side note here, an orchid without an ID tag is actually less valuable in the orchid world, so if you’re shopping for orchids at the store, you might opt to buy only orchids with tags if you ever think you’ll want to resell the plant.

Most orchid tutorials will instruct you to repot only AFTER the orchid is finished blooming. This is not because it will harm the plant if you repot while the blooms are still there, but because repotting will probably cause the blooms to drop – and the whole point of having an orchid is to have it in bloom, right? In the case of the grocery store orchid, if you suspect that the potting mix is significantly degraded you may consider repotting it as soon as you get it home. Phalaneopsis, a very ubiquitous variety at grocery stores, begin their new growth while they are still in bloom and this practice is probably especially wise for these orchids.

Remember that your grocery store orchid has gone through a very stressful series of events and places, so your goal is to provide it a good place to grow. If you don’t have optimal growing space for the orchid you’re interested in, it might be best if you don’t buy it – if you expect it to live, that is. A windowsill with bright light and room-temperature conditions is usually all an orchid needs, but if you plan on putting it in the dark or if you don’t use heat at night and your house drops into the 50s it might not be best for, say, a Phalaenopsis (though many orchids would love it, so again, know what type of orchid you’ve bought).

The main way people kill their grocery store orchids is by coddling them. Orchids don’t like doting or coddling. They love neglect. Still, they need good conditions, including their potting media. Change these things and then let them be. Daily watering is not good for (most) orchids. Let them dry slightly between watering and when you water drench the plant thoroughly. Phalaenopsis are oftentimes rotted to death by over-watering or by sitting water in their leaf axils. When people see their grocery store orchid looking unhappy (wilting or yellowing) they will often begin the doting process. Unfortunately, orchids are not like daisies or other plants that wilt until they are watered and then they spring back to life. An unhappy looking orchid is expressing a problem that began months earlier. This is an effect of orchids being very hardy, actually. They go through adverse conditions well and it’s only after months of endurance that they begin to be visually affected. Unfortunately this may be too late to save them – and excessive water will only make the process of death swifter.

So the game plan with grocery store bought orchids needs to be to repot them into good mix and give them a good home ASAP regardless of how healthy they look because once they begin to overtly express stress your chances of keeping them alive become quite slim.

Many plant nurseries sell orchids. These places obviously know more about plants (and perhaps orchids) than your typical grocery store. Still, they are not the expert in the field as most of what they sell they themselves bought from growers and they are functioning as a retailer only. This is especially the case with orchids as their growth is relatively specialized. In the orchid world this same arrangement is seen quite often with small businesses that focus on orchids or tropicals. We call these people “resellers”.

A reseller, whether a brick and mortar shop or an online merchant, is one that buys plants at a wholesale rate and sells them to the general public. Sometimes they are buying from overseas, which can be difficult for the individual, so this offers a great service.

The benefits of buying from a reseller rather than the grocery store include:

  1. Plants may be healthier because they are probably not mass produced and therefore use better media
  2. If the reseller is good you can expect they are picky in terms of quality
  3. ID Tags will typically not be lost (of course, this means the reseller knows the actual value of the plant and you will likely pay this difference)
  4. The orchid has probably not been as stressed from transport

While there are exceptions to each of the above statements about resellers, most resellers have their own growing space that is good for the orchids they are selling. This greatly reduces the stress on the plant and increases its chance of survival in your home. Furthermore, buying from a reseller allows you the opportunity to ask about how to grow the plant. Keep in mind that the reseller DID NOT actually grow the orchid you’re buying but he or she should have a basic understanding of what the orchid wants. If they seem to not have such knowledge you might consider buying from someone else.

Unfortunately, the world of orchid resellers ranges from true experts on orchid growing to proprietors that simply want to make money and toss their bulk orchid purchases into the same unhappy conditions that the grocery store plants saw. Also, some resellers are simply marking up or distributing orchids that you could otherwise buy directly from the source yourself. So knowing the caliber of a reseller is a useful thing if you plan on buying numerous plants from that source.

There is no better place to buy an orchid than directly from the person or business that grew it. Buying this way gives you the knowledge of how the orchid wants to grow and how it has been grown. When you buy from a grower you can be sure that they are giving you accurate information. One of the benefits of an orchid society is that you can meet other orchid growers and have the opportunity to obtain plants that they are selling, trading or giving away. Beyond the local orchid grower, many orchid businesses have vast greenhouses where they grow orchids from seed or seedling for years before selling directly to the public. These businesses are great resources for information on the orchid you’re buying and truly constitute the ideal source for orchids.

Unfortunately, many resellers pose as actual growers and the Internet is a great place for them to do that. If you want to buy directly from the source, do a little research to discover how the seller runs their business. Of course, if there’s an orchid you want, buying from a reseller is a fine thing to do, but it’s always best to know the plant’s history so that you can give it what it needs to survive.

One thing to always keep in mind when buying from anywhere is that your growing space will ALWAYS differ from the space the orchid has been in. If an orchid was grown in a greenhouse and you are growing under lights there will be a time of adjustment. This type of change is not something that will cause the orchid to stress or die, but it may take a bit longer for the orchid to bloom again as it adjusts. Of course, this is assuming that you still have ideal conditions for that particular orchid.

As mentioned above, one advantage of buying from a reseller is that you can get plants that were imported without going through the hassles and expenses of importing the plants yourself. CITES permits and photo sanitary requirements along with overseas shipping come with steep prices and would augment the price of a $20 plant into the hundreds of dollars. Obviously this is not something you’d want to do for one plant.

Resellers buy their plants in bulk when they purchase from overseas and each permit will apply to all of their plants. Therefore only a fraction of the cost of permitting is absorbed into each plant, resulting in a reasonable price on the end purchaser.

In many cases overseas retailers have devised systems to sell directly to the US populace that, if you don’t mind waiting for your purchase, allows you to buy directly from the grower. Typically this is done by ordering the orchid or orchids and indicating that you will wait until they, the grower, visits the US for one reason or another. This will usually be a tour of orchid shows. If they are coming to a show in your town you can indicate that and pick up your purchase at the show or, if they are not coming to your town, they can ship the plants to you from inside the US once they’ve brought them through customs. Keep in mind that orchid shows are mostly in the spring and somewhat in the fall, so prior to then is a good time to think about ordering from overseas vendors. You can usually check their “tour” schedule from their website. A word of advice if you are going to do this, though: be very careful as you order because you don’t want there to be a misunderstanding resulting in orchids being shipped from overseas to your residence. The costs of this mistake would be enormous.

Finally, you should be aware that transportation of certain orchids across international borders is illegal and punishable by jail time. This is due to the USDA interpretation of CITES (an international treaty). While you should not worry at all about reputable businesses shipping you illegal orchids, you should be careful if the source seems questionable. Most of these orchids would eminate from Asia, but CITES does apply everywhere. Do a little research if you are unsure (ask an orchid society member, perhaps) – it will be worth your while.