The coconut orchid, or the Maxillaria tenuifolia, is one of the most common species of orchid in the world. It is relatively low-maintenance and easy to propagate, making it a great choice for beginner orchid growers.
The plant gets its name because of its scent that strongly resembles coconut. It has beautiful triangular flowers and long leaves, and these are only some of the reasons this plant is a collector’s favorite.
In this article, we will discuss the proper cultural care of the coconut orchid, as well as the correct way to propagate it. So, if you are considering adding the coconut orchid to your collection and wish to learn more about it, then keep reading.
Coconut Orchid Care
As with most plants, the best way to water your coconut orchid is to simulate the watering conditions it would get if it were growing in its natural habitat. Because the plant is native to rainforests, it appreciates a bit more moisture during the rainy season, while being allowed to dry between waterings during the dry season. The dry season is typically between the months of December and April, so during this period, you should water the plant once every two to three weeks. Although the plant does not need as much water during this period, remember that this is not a strict rule. If the plant seems to be drying out when you water it every 14 days, you may need to adjust and reduce the number of days between waterings.
If you have a hard time keeping track of when to water the plant, the easiest way to determine the need for water is by touching the plant’s potting medium. If the potting medium is dry to the touch, water the plant, but if it is still damp, wait a few days before checking it again.
In the rainy season, mimic the plentiful rainfall that the plant gets in its natural habitat, and water it up to five times a week. The plant needs this constant moisture during this time to grow optimally. Keep in mind, though, that it should still dry out to a certain extent between waterings. Do not just mindlessly water the plant if the potting medium is still visibly soggy, because too much water in the potting medium can lead to root rot.
Root rot happens when the plant’s roots are not allowed to dry out between waterings. The constant moisture attracts fungi and bacteria and will cause the roots to die and rot. The rot will spread to the other parts of the plant and before you know it, the entire orchid may be affected.
If you suspect that your coconut orchid is overwatered, check its roots for signs of root rot. If there are roots that are brown or black, cut them off using a sterilized knife or pruning shears. Make sure the only remaining roots are white or green, because those are the healthy ones. Change the potting medium for one that is more airy, porous and well-draining.
Be vigilant of when the dry season starts so that you know when to start tapering the plant’s watering schedule. Normally, watering is gradually reduced around September.
Coconut orchids are particular about the kind of water they get. Use filtered water or, better yet, rainwater, so that there are minimal amounts of minerals that can possibly build up around the plant’s roots.
Coconut orchids prefer bright, indirect light. Direct light will cause sun damage to the plant’s bulbs and foliage. If kept indoors, place the plant next to a north- or east-facing window. If the only window available is letting in light that is too harsh, you can place a sheer curtain over the window to help diffuse the light.
If you are keeping the plant outside, make sure that you keep it under a garden net or under the shade of a large tree. Remember that in the rainforest, these plants grow on the trunks of large trees and only get the dappled light that filters through the tree canopy.
In the winter, when light is scarce, help your plant by getting it a grow light. If you keep it in low light conditions, its leaves will grow unnaturally long in an attempt to reach the nearest available source of light.
Because these plants are native to rainforests, they enjoy a level of humidity higher than most plants do. They can generally tolerate the humidity levels found in most homes, but if you live in a place where the air is drier than normal, you may need to take some measures to keep the humidity at around 50 to 70 percent.
You can do this by misting the plant every once in a while so that the foliage and bulbs do not dry out. You can also place a pebble tray filled with water under the plant’s pot, and as the water evaporates it will moisten the foliage and the potting medium. If you have other plants that also enjoy increased humidity, place the orchid near them so that, as a group, they can create a microclimate around each other. Lastly, if you have the budget, you could buy a humidifier to help automatically regulate the humidity level around the plant.
Keep the temperature around the plant between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day, and make sure anything lower or higher than this range only lasts for short periods. The plant can tolerate extremes, but prolonged exposure to these can cause lasting damage.
If the plant is kept indoors, make sure it is not directly in the path of warm or cold drafts. These drafts can dry out the plant very quickly. This means keeping the plant away from heating vents, air conditioners, and spots where air from the outside can get in through cracks in doors or windows.
The coconut orchid is an epiphytic plant, meaning that it grows on the bark of trees or on other plants in its natural habitat. If you are able to mount the plant on cork or on tree ferns, this will make it very happy, but you need to know how to do this properly.
If you plant the orchid in a pot, use a potting mix with perlite, coir and bark. Planting it in soil will make it susceptible to root rot, because soil does not dry fast enough for the orchid’s liking. You can also place the plant in a hanging basket so that the roots and leaves have more air passing through them, as they would in the wild.
Adding sphagnum moss to the potting medium helps with water retention while also allowing the roots to dry out properly. Try not to add too much, however, because that will cause too much moisture and sogginess. You can also add charcoal into the pot to help get rid of excess moisture.
The best time to fertilize your coconut orchid is during the spring. Use a fertilizer that is rich in nitrogen, and apply it once a week. Nitrogen-rich fertilizer helps the plant’s metabolism.
The coconut orchid blooms in the summer, and you can help increase the flowering cycle by giving it a phosphorus-based fertilizer.
Dilute the fertilizer to half-strength so that the plant does not get root burn from the minerals and nutrients present in the fertilizer. If you think you have applied too much fertilizer, simply flush it out by letting water flow through the potting medium and over the roots.
Coconut orchid diseases
This disease manifests as brownish-red spots on the plant’s leaves, which will become bigger and rounder the more serious the disease becomes. Eventually, the leaves will turn yellow and die off one by one.
You can remedy this disease by removing the affected foliage and burning it. Avoid overwatering the plant, and make sure it is well-ventilated and gets enough light.
This is one of the most common coconut orchid diseases, and it is caused by fungi. It is commonly observed between May and August. It proliferates in the rainy season and in high temperatures.
To remedy this, remove the affected foliage and spray the plant with chlorothalonil while irrigating the roots.
This is the most common coconut orchid disease. It affects the leaves, causing black spots. The leaves will eventually turn yellow and wither.
Remove the affected leaves and burn them. Avoid overwatering the plant to reduce the chance of the disease occurring.
These insects are usually seen between April and October. They reproduce very quickly and will need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent their spread to your other plants.
Use an insecticide, or you can simply spray the insects off with a strong stream of water.
Coconut orchid propagation
The coconut orchid is propagated through division. The roots of the plant can be separated with little effort, because they grow loosely. Break the plant apart into the number of new plants you wish to have.
The pseudobulbs grow on top of one another and all have their own roots, so you can use each one to grow an individual plant. The pseudobulb will grow as a thin spike, eventually filling out over time.
Plant each pseudobulb in its own five-inch pot using an airy, porous, well-draining potting medium. After a month or so, the roots will have been established nicely. You can also wrap the stem and roots in sphagnum moss to help retain moisture.
The coconut orchid is one of the most popular, low-maintenance orchids to care for. It requires bright, indirect light, intermediate temperatures, and slightly higher humidity than normal. Water the plant every two to three weeks in the dry season and up to five times a week in the rainy season. Use a potting medium that is airy and well-draining, and fertilize as needed.
Propagate the plant using division. Separate the pseudobulbs, each of which has its own roots, and place them in their own pots. After a month, the roots will have grown out nicely and you can now care for the plants the same way you would a regular coconut orchid.
Image: istockphoto.com / Hardt_E