Stare deeply into the heart of a Venus slipper orchid, and you will understand that nature (like life) is so complex and so beautiful, all at the same time. It almost seems impossible that this flower exists, but anyone can grow one with the right knowledge.
Borne from myths and legends, Paphiopedilum orchids, particularly the Venus slipper orchid, have a story to share. In this article, we cover everything you ever wanted to know about caring for these magnificent plants, what to do if something goes wrong, and how to fix it.
Venus Slipper Orchids Overview
What is it?
A German botanist named the Paphiopedilum genus, which includes around 110 varieties known as lady’s slipper orchids.
The genus Paphiopedilum has an interesting legend from Roman and Greek mythology; it all stems from the Roman goddess Aphrodite (The Greeks renamed her Venus). The legend goes that the unfortunate Orchis took a liking to one of Bacchus’ maidens and was subsequently chopped into bits and spread far and wide. Wherever a bit landed, so grew an orchid. The last bit was thrown into the sea, where Venus was born with the foaming waters.
This Greek myth shows the links that make up this Paphiopedilum genus of plants. Paphio is the name for Venus (or Aphrodite), and pedilum is the Latin for foot or, more accurately, sandal or slipper. We then get the common names Venus slipper orchids and lady’s slipper orchids.
Ernst Hugo Heinrich Pfitzer, a German botanist, was instrumental in naming this and several other orchid species and published several books on the subject.
Paphiopedilum orchids, mainly terrestrial, feature distinctive waxy flowers with varied colors, spots, and stripes.
Most of the Paphiopedilum orchids grow in their natural habitat on the ground of forest floors amongst the leaf mold. This makes them terrestrial, but there are a few that are epiphytic. The shape of the flowers is very distinctive with its waxy pouch and striking markings, including spots and stripes of various colors. They also sometimes have fine hairs and even warts, making them very interesting and captivating for collectors.
Preferring the cooler temperatures, the flowers appear more from November to March, but can also flower at other times of the year. Like other orchids, they can last for months, making them very sought after as houseplants.
The leaves of these orchids are variable depending on the variety – some are long and narrow, others short and round. Some are plain green, and some have mottling. What they all have in common is water-holding succulence.
The slipper part of the orchid gives off a scent that lures flying insects into a trap as a Venus flytrap does. Instead of catching the insect and using it as a food source, it allows it to escape, but only after passing by the pistil and stamens along a narrow opening to send pollen along with them to the next flower. In case you were wondering, humans can’t smell much of the scent, so it won’t change the ambiance in a room.
They naturally thrive in Southeast Asia, spanning India, China, and surrounding islands.
The natural distribution of Paphiopedilum orchids covers a large area around Southeast Asia, including India and China, and all the islands south of this area. This tropical or sub-tropical region has temperatures at an average of 80°F.
You can grow Paphiopedilum orchids outdoors in mild climates – around 9-10 on the USDA zone map. A temperature range not less than 40°F and not higher than 95°F will be ideal, but they will need protection during colder temperatures. They will need dappled shade – think forest floor. Excess sun will burn the leaves.
Indoors, you can cultivate these beauties as long-lasting, pretty houseplants. They will grow well with the right conditions and become favorites in any houseplant collection. They also do well in terrariums.
How to Grow
Once you have these specific requirements for Paphiopedilum orchids, they will be rewarding and require very little for a big performance.
Growing Paphiopedilum orchids indoors is advantageous as they can grow in low light.
One of the benefits of growing Paphiopedilum sp as a houseplant is that it grows in low light. This is perfect for those difficult areas like bathrooms and bedrooms.
However, if your orchid fails to flower, it may need more light. East or west-facing windows or shaded south-facing will be sufficient. They are often grouped with African violets that will enjoy the same conditions. Avoid direct sunlight at all times.
Unlike some orchids, Paphiopedilum orchids lack pseudobulbs and need consistent moisture.
Water this orchid once or twice a week to keep the soil moist around the roots but not waterlogged. Unlike some other orchids, Paphiopedilum sp don’t have pseudobulbs at their roots to store extra water, so they need more water than other types. Use a plant moisture sensor to ensure the plant is getting enough water.
When the temperature drops, reduce watering and avoid watering the leaves and stems, which could invite fungal diseases.
Temperature and Humidity
Venus Slippers prefer 40-50% humidity but dislike misting; instead, use water-filled trays for dry conditions.
Regarding temperature, these orchids can be divided into two groups: the warm temperature (60 – 85°F) types with mottled strappy leaves and the cool temperature (50 – 80°F) types with green leaves.
Although these plants like moderate humidity (40 – 50%), they don’t do well with misting. Rather, place trays of pebbles with water nearby to increase humidity levels in very dry conditions and ensure the watering schedule is adhered to. In high-humidity areas, give enough enough air circulation between plants.
Use well-draining soil with fine bark, perlite, and coarse sand for Paphiopedilum orchids.
Well-draining soil is essential with lots of fine bark and drainage materials like perlite and coarse sand. A commercially available orchid mix is a good option, or you can make your own.
Beware of the delicate roots with tiny hairs, as they can suffer and burn from excess fertilizer.
Most professional recommendations for orchids suggest using a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer in the 20-20-20 range. This should be diluted to 1/4 strength and provided to the plant every other time you water (usually about once every other week).
The roots of this orchid are delicate, with tiny hairs that will suffer greatly and burn if excess fertilizer is used. It’s ideal to rinse the root system off at least once a month with clean water to remove any salt buildup.
When the temperatures start cooling, reduce feeding to once a month for the winter.
They require little upkeep; trim stems and remove dead leaves after flowering.
These orchids need very little maintenance. Once the flowers have died, cut off the stems right at the base and remove any dead or dying leaves.
Replenish pot soil every 2-3 years, watching for roots escaping drainage holes.
Every 2-3 years, the soil in a pot becomes spent and needs to be replenished so the plant has fresh nutrients to keep it healthy. Look out for roots trying to escape from the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
At this time, you may want to divide thick clumps into sections to increase your stock and just repot your orchid into a slightly bigger pot.
The time to do this is just before spring, around February when the plants are dormant and have finished flowering.
Here are some tips to help with repotting.
- Soak the orchid in its pot in a bucket of warm water to loosen the plant from the pot.
- Select a new pot and clean it with warm soapy water. The pot should be around 4-6 inches and only one size up or even the same pot. Once the roots have been trimmed, you will see what is best for the plant. They prefer to be a little rootbound.
- Squeeze the sides of the pot to remove the plant and gently remove the soil from around the roots. Wash in water so that all the roots are clear of soil.
- Inspect the roots and feel if they are firm. The mushy ones or parts that are squishy can be cut off with a pair of sterilized secateurs. Also, cut back any part of the rhizome that has done its work and is no longer viable and old flower stems.
- Mix a new soil substrate or buy a commercial potting mix specifically for orchids. To make your own, use three parts fine or medium-grade pine bark, half-part sphagnum moss, half-part perlite, and half-part coarse sand mixed together well.
- Place a bit of the new mix into the pot and gently place the plant roots, making sure to line up the top of the roots with the top of the pot. Fill in with the planting medium. Add a top dressing of sphagnum moss.
Growing from Seed
Orchids are extraordinarily difficult to grow from seed.
Orchids are not easily grown at home from seed. The seeds are microscopic and have a symbiotic relationship with specific types of fungi that feed the seeds during the initial germination stage in the wild.
Orchid seeds don’t come with their own endosperms that will normally feed the seeds, so they rely on outside sources to help with this task. They can be grown successfully in a lab setting.
Optimal growth for Paphiopedilum orchids involves dividing every 3-4 years, especially when multiple fans have developed.
Paphiopedilum orchids are best propagated by dividing every 3-4 years when they have produced a good few sets of fans. At this stage, they can be divided and planted into their own containers.
Use the steps for transplanting and divide into clumps of four to five fans for better results. Smaller clumps will grow but may not flower. Be patient in general with these slow growers. They may take up to 3 years to flower.
Most Paphiopedilum orchid problems are minor, with few causing the plants to die, but be sure to watch overwatering and underwatering.
Sucking insects are a concern for Paphiopedilum orchids and can hide in leaf axils.
Sucking insects like mealybugs like Paphiopedilum orchids. They are hard to detect because they hide in the leaf axis.
Inspect your plants whenever they are watered so little pests like these can be dealt with quickly with a bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab. Look out for other sucking insects like aphids, scale insects, spider mites, and thrips.
Delicate orchids are vulnerable to various diseases threatening their health and vitality.
Bacterial and fungal diseases are the things to look for in orchids. Remove any infected plant parts with a sterile knife and then wash the knife carefully to avoid transferring the disease between plants. Serious infections may need a fungicide to clear up the problems.
These are some of the common diseases to look out for:
- Root rot – usually the result of overwatering, bad drainage, or letting pots stand in water.
- Brown rot – caused by a bacteria called Erwinia and mostly due to high humidity and high temperatures.
- Black rot – dark spots may appear on the underside of leaves, and this is caused by an overly wet environment and bad air circulation.
- Fusarium wilt – a disease that thrives in warm, humid conditions and infects the vascular system of plants, preventing water and nutrients from getting through the plant. Look out for yellowing leaves.
- Anthracnose – if the tips of the leaves begin to brown, look out for this fungal disease that will slowly spread through the whole plant.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions people are asking about these special plants.
Water regularly, feed every two weeks in the growing season, and avoid too much sunlight.
Some suppliers sell these plants online, try your local nursery, or visit an orchid show in your area.
Most likely it has come to the end of its blooming season, but it could also be overwatering, underwatering, too little light, or too much sunlight.
Mostly once per year, but they have been known to flower twice or more times a season.
No toxic effects have been reported for this plant.
You can expect to be blown away by the sheer magnificence of a Venus slipper orchid bloom. Once you have these in your collection, you will find them very easy to care for. They may look exotic and only for specialist growers, but they are really enjoyable for everyone. Check out a few orchid shows or exhibits to get the most inspiration to grow these plants.