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Nature's view of watering
When I started growing orchids, I rapidly became frustrated with sage pronouncements I heard on watering schedules. 


“Water when the top of the medium looks dry.” 

“Water only on Tuesdays and Fridays.” 

“Water only once a week, and be sure to give the plant a winter rest.”

“Use semi-hydroponics – you’ll never overwater.”


I eventually found that the best answer to the question: “When should I water my plants” is “When they need watering.” 


No great surprise there, but nevertheless, that statement imposes upon you the burden of knowing when your plants need water.  After all, the plants are your babies.  They depend completely on you for whatever would come naturally to them in the wild (unless you happen to grow species native to where you live).


But when you grow a lot of stuff that comes from a swath of the planet stretching thousands of miles in every direction, you will have plants that get radically different climate conditions in the wild.  Only crazy people would try to replicate those conditions precisely in their greenhouse or windowsill or Wardian case.  (Oh yeah, we’re talking about orchid folk here…)


It’s always useful, of course, to look at what happens in the wild… While I haven’t trekked through Borneo (yet), a recent exercise with rainfall data from that part of the world proved quite illuminating.  I took rainfall data from weather recording stations located near the areas where certain species grow in the wild, and put them all onto the same graph:



(Note: the months have been adjusted for Northern hemisphere equivalents)


Some caveats:

  • The rainfall recorded at these weather stations may be quite different from the rain actually experienced by the plants.
  • Some plants may live close to areas where streams or rivers provide some moisture.
  • Fog and mist may also contribute a significant amount of moisture to the plants not captured by rainfall measurements.


Several things struck me immediately after I saw the graph:


1)      The rothschildianum area (and lowii area on Borneo) gets a fairly steady level of rainfall throughout the year.

2)      The stonei area shows a very interesting pattern.  At the peak in winter, that locale receives five times the amount of rain as the roth area.

3)      The P. parishii area appears to receive almost no rainfall for half the year!


Despite the above caveats, these rain patterns do provide a useful view of what happens in the big picture of a given species’ environment.


So what does it mean for you, the grower? 


It means that comparing rainfall data from the wild can be useful in helping you know when and how much water to use on various species.  I had pretty much been treating my stonei like my roths – fairly constant watering.  Now I will try watering them much more heavily during the winter months.  The regularity and amount of water received may trigger new growth, root production, flowering, etc. 


Knowing these rainfall patterns also reduces the fear of overwatering, that bete noir of orchid growers everywhere.


It can also give you an idea about what might be causing stress in your plants.  Perhaps too much water in the wrong time of year is causing some not to grow or flower.


What does an inch of rain actually mean?  I believe that getting five inches of rain means that if you were to put out a bucket, a cup, or a straw for the measured amount of time, you’d get five inches of liquid in each.  So if you assume the average area of a plant is 100 square cm, 10 inches  (25.4 cm) of rain in a month would translate to about 83 ml (2.8 fluid oz) per day.  Obviously run off from areas around the plant can add considerably to the liquid the plant receives, but at least this gives us a ballpark idea.


The amount of water dumped onto a plant at any one time probably won’t hurt it long as the plant gets a chance to dry its roots out somewhat.  In nature, of course, orchids grow on rocks, leaf detritus, and trees and so water typically runs off or soaks into the ground, rather than getting absorbed into fir bark, CHCs, or lava rock media.  Thus pot-grown plants likely have roots that stay wetter than their counterparts in the wild.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and that leads us to a radical idea: nature may not have optimal growing conditions for your plants!  The jungle can be a very harsh, unforgiving environment, and the plants we grow have often been selected for ease of growth, rather than survivability in nature.  So your growing conditions may actually suit your own plants better than nature.  But nature is certainly the best guide for understanding your plants.


Orchids will try to adapt to whatever conditions they grow in.  Some species adapt more successfully than others.  And, some individual plants adapt better than their siblings.  Nevertheless, a clearer understanding of rainfall in the plants’ natural habitats will give you a better idea of how to water your own.


If you’d like a chart of rainfall patterns for Paphiopedilum species of your choice (laminated so you can keep in your growing area), please let me know!

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Nature's view of watering