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Stew Tips: The Dreaded Orchids

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Most stews have been employed on a yacht where they had to look after those dreaded Phalaenopsis orchids.  This month’s column is dedicated to some handy (and tried-out) tips for actually keeping them alive for longer than the guests’ arrival day. 

These stunning flowers are still one of my favourites, and after learning how to keep them alive, they don’t scare me anymore, as was the case when I first had to care for them on a yacht many years ago. 

When it comes to plants, I don’t have a green thumb- not at all-  but I pride myself that I have managed to keep many Phals (as they are also known) alive over the years.


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Phals usually have 3 - 6 very broad, somewhat floppy leaves that alternate. The flower spike comes from between these leaves.

The flowers on Phals can be any colour, including white, pink, yellow, striped or splotched. Flowers are usually 3 – 6 cm in diameter and bloom on a spike that may be 36 – 50 cm in length.

There may be more than one spike on a large plant and it may have anywhere from 3 - 20 flowers.



For some reason, people believe that orchids need a lot of water, but this is not true.

Phals are epiphytic plants; meaning that in the wild they attach themselves by their roots to a tree or rock and get their nutrients from detritus that accumulate around their roots.  This means that their roots aren't sitting in wet soil under natural conditions.  Over-watered orchids will get root rot and then cannot absorb water. 

orchid 300Here's some tips on watering:

  • Place 3 - 4 ice cubes on the moss once a week and let them melt into the vase.  

  • Once a week is just a guide; so check the area around the roots – if there is still moisture, don’t water again.  Never over-water your orchid plants, they will die faster. 

  • However, do keep in mind that air conditioning can dry plants out, so keep a close eye on them until you know how much water they need. 

  • Do not spray the flowers with water – the flowers will turn brown.

  • If the leaves get dusty, wipe down with cotton wool dipped in milk, this will make the leaves shiny and feed the plant. Never wet the leaves as this can cause rot, which can kill the plant.


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  • Do not position close to an air conditioner outlet, a warm fan/area or in direct sunlight.  However, once every two weeks, place them outside near some sunlight (not in direct sunlight); they seem to enjoy a bit of time out of the air conditioned environment of the yacht.

  • Phals flourish in a humid area, like a bathroom.

  • Keep your plant warm. Phals do not like to get too cold. Temperatures at night shouldn't get below about 16 degrees Celsius.  The best daytime temperature for your orchid is between 23 - 25 degrees Celsius.

  • Overhead lights in the yacht will probably not provide enough light, so you should keep it near a window where it gets some natural, but not direct light.

  • Don’t let the orchid flowers touch anything, for instance, a wall.  This damages the very precious petals and leaves of the orchid.




  • The best substance to plant your orchid in is orchid bark - an orchid should not be planted in soil in the vase, as the roots need plenty of oxygen. Never use potting soil for houseplants on phals.

  • Don't forget to feed them. Phals need plant food at some point.  Ask your florist for a good orchid food.

  • How long they will live for will depend on whether they are potted with roots or without.

  • Try not to touch the plant, leaves, flowers and roots too much.

  • Some yacht phals are potted in moss.  If you know what you're doing, this can work very well for phals (allow the moss to get almost crunchy before rewetting it) - if not, it can be easy to over-water a phal in this, so go with bark if you aren't sure.



  • orchids background 200Position your flower in the middle of the pot and fill in the pot with the bark mix. As you fill, you should bang the pot against the floor to help settle the bark.  It helps to soak the bark beforehand in water. Pots should always have holes in the bottom to allow good drainage.

  • You can put a plastic pot with holes into a more decorative container if you want to and then just take it out when you water it.

  • If all of the roots don’t fit into the pot, that is ok, even if the roots start hanging down the side of the pot.  (Phals have aerial roots, you can mist them with a spray bottle at the same time that you water the plant with the ice cubes).

  • Go with a pot size that fits the roots the best, not the leaves. Smaller is always better, as it dries faster.

  • Healthy roots should be thick, a silvery green with bright green tips.  If all the roots are brown and squishy, trim them off and re-pot the plant.  Keep it on the dry side until you see new roots forming.  Generally, under watering is a lot less likely to kill a phal than over watering

  • Flower spikes with no flowers left on them can be cut down to the base of the plant. If you cut them down to about 2 nodes from the base, sometimes they will re-bloom.  Phals usually bloom around the same time every year, so if you bought it while it was blooming, you can expect bloom at that time each year.  Once a spike starts to grow, it can take a while before flowers show up, so be patient!

Good luck and don't be scared of looking after your beautiful orchids!

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*Image credits:  Chris Waits, slgckgc, Thor Thorsson, Maja Dumat, Sonny Abesamis, Maja Dumat via Flickr (C.C 2.0)

About the Author:

After working in the super yacht industry as a stewardess, chief stew and purser for 10 years, Isobel Odendaal moved back to her home country, South Africa, and co-started a training school for super yacht steward/esses, Super Yachting South Africa, where she continues to learn and teach every day. super yachting south africa logo


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