Paphiopedilum: Care, Culture and Tips for Growing Paphs For Windowsill & Indoor Growers

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So you’re looking for some tips on how to grow Paphiopedilum slipper orchids, eh? Wonderful, I cannot wait to share my experience with you because slipper orchids are one of my most favourite groups of plants to grow. I’m also excited to share this information because back about 5 years ago (when I first really dove into paphs), I could NOT find really valuable or detailed care sheets from skilled indoor growers! It seemed like everyone who grew paphs with any degree of expertise, either didn’t openly share their secrets, or they were growing them in greenhouses (which, good for them…but I want houseplants, not another plant project). I was nervous about growing paphs in my apartment here in Canada, because my humidity is TERRIBLE (it’s consistently under 40% rH). However, there was this indoor grower in the UK who grew beautiful and lush paphs by the windows, and he claimed his humidity pretty low too—his plants were seriously impressive (and inspiring), but I just couldn’t get him to confess his secrets to me and my hunt for knowledge continued.

I did what we all do these days: I turned to Facebook for advice from the best indoor growers I could find. I also paid very close attention to photos of well-grown plants shared online. I noticed live moss was common in the pots of the best-grown paphs, and I later discovered to grow many species of moss you don’t actually need high humidity—you just need to offer regular and consistent moisture and good light. I now grow moss in my dry apartment conditions and all it takes is a proper watering schedule. Understanding this context about the moisture required for moss helped me understand what paphs need and I think you’ll find that insight helpful too…but I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Where are slipper orchids from: For a high-level understanding, Paphiopedlium orchids belong to the group of “Slipper Orchids.” Within slippers, there some non-paphiopedilum species which are native to the Americas (there are even some wild species in Canada) and Europe; however, Paphiopedilums specifically are native only to Asia (predominantly within Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, southern China, New Guinea and the cluster of islands within that geographic area). The other popular type of tropical slipper orchids you’ll find are Phragmipediums (they’re native to Central and South America) and those typically prefer slightly cooler temps and even more moist conditions than paphs prefer. As with all things orchids though, care really depends on each individual species as there are cold growing paphs and warm growing phrags! While both of these slipper orchids look similar, their flowers are distinct and their care is different, so just make sure you know if you have either a paph or phrag and apply care as necessary.

Note: At the end of this article there are a bunch of photos of my plants if you want to see them, but let’s into the valuable and detailed care tips you want about how to grow paphipedium orchids.

Paphiopedium philippinense (possibly roebelenii)
This plant was tagged as roebelenii, but I honestly can’t figure out exactly what the defining features of that variant are. Regardless, the flowers are stunning—the parents are from Orchid Inn: an awarded FCC ‘Sam’s Choice’ x ‘Ed’

 

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Paphiopedium lowii
When I first got this plant, it was small, light stressed and I nearly lost it to crown rot within the first month. After some careful attention to watering and providing the care I’ll cover in the article below, it came through and finally bloomed 3 years later.

 

I love Paphiopedilums but let me tell you…they grow SO SLOWLY

 

Perceived difficulty – Are Paphiopedilums hard to grow?

Paphs get a reputation for being difficult to grow, but then people who have mastered their care, feel they’re very easy to grow. So what is it—difficult or easy? And the answer to that depends on your expectations of the plant and your ability to provide consistent care over a long period of time. I consider them easy NOW, but you know how I mentioned “the last 5 years” up above? Before that, every paph I tried growing, I killed. I struggled to grow them and as I mentioned, I had a heck of a time finding the core advice needed to unlock the power of growing paphs. These days, I consider myself a good paph grower. I have learned and applied knowledge consistently over the past 5 years and am at a point where I feel confident in my ability to grow them—I’m even making my own paph hybrids and I grow them from seed in flask. So I’ll stop tooting my horn—let’s break it down so I can convey my experience to you and hopefully give you some new perspectives that may improve your chance for success.

Expectations of Paphiopedilums

  • Paphs grow slowly: on young plants, they are especially slow and it may take a “seedling size” or “near blooming size” plant many years to finally bloom for the first time—in extreme cases we’re talking 8 to 10 years (and occasionally longer)! Don’t fret though, most species will bloom within 2-4 years from seedling size, so don’t be discouraged even if your paphiopedilum is quite small. They will grow faster with good culture. Once you achieve the first flowering, then you’ll generally get one or two new growths per year from each previous crown that will flower at the end of their growth cycle. This means a plant that has 2 existing growths may produce 2 to 4 new growths the next seasonal and you could end up with 2 to 4 inflorescence on that plant. Once you have a mature plant, they size up “quickly” after that, doubling size about every year or…three. BUT…to get a paphiopedilum to flower for the first time can be a test of your patience, especially since a lot of paphs for sale are small. Faster growing paphs may produce a new leaf every month or two, and new leads (pups/offshoots/crowns) can be produced as often as twice a year. Some slower-growing species may take 2 or more years to develop a mature growth, but most paphs generally fall into an annual cycle of: new growth, flower, pause, repeat.
  • They spike once per growth: each new growth will spike and flower once only from the crown as that section of the plant matures. Depending on the species, a spike may put out a single flower, a series of sequential blooms, or a cluster of flowers which open at the same time. You will only get one flush of flowers per crown and once that spike dies it will not flower again from that same growth.
  • Some Paphiopedilum flowers are fragrant: but most are not. I recommend, if you have one in flower, give it a sniff. I have had flowers that smell like alfalfa or cut grass (paph primulinum var purpurascens), or black pepper (a henryanum-rosthchildianum-primulinum hybrid), and I’ve heard of some that smell like green apple or strawberries. So…just give it a sniff because you might be surprised at what you find.
Paph Delophyllum and other paphs near a South window
(which has since been “screened” to reduce the intensity in the summer)
The same paph Delophyllum a couple years later

 

Paphiopedilum Care – Consistency is Key

Understanding that paphs are both slow growers and that they only spike once per new growth, comes the next tricky component…Paphs need really consistent care year-round. You can’t forget about them for half the year and start watering them in the spring. They grow slowly but need very consistent conditions to maintain that slow but progressive growth through the spring, summer, fall and winter.

One of the challenges with this for me is that…they aren’t very responsive plants; I’m used to plants really showing off when they’re happy, but with paphs they are always in a state of “the same” until they flower. If you’re expecting a validating plant that shows it’s appreciation in weeks and months…Paphs may not be for you. You’ll measure success more in years and possibly decades, but when they do flower…wow, it’s years of commitment that’s made that happen and you may find THAT more rewarding than growing any other plant.

If you’re the type of person who frequently forgets to water your plants…don’t start with a paphiopedilum. It’s not going to go well—and I can tell you this because that’s how I started and I killed a lot of paphs. The problem is, by the time you can see that a plant needs to be watered (withered/leathery leaves), the damage is done; root tips have aborted, some may have possibly died off and because the plants aren’t aggressive rooters, if you lose the few roots they do have, it’s pretty much doomed.

So… TL;DR: Paphs are great for people with a routine.

 

 

How to Grow Paphiopedilum Orchids

Watering & Hydration

Your goal is to have “moist roots, but not constantly wet or dry”…but WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN??? This was so confusing for me when I started growing paphiopedilums. Understanding, “Not dry, always moist, but not wet” was especially challenging because in my dry Alberta climate, the difference between all three extremes is literally a matter of waiting 24-48 hours.

So let me help clarify this…with some watering tips

    1. Don’t let the roots hard dry! There is a saying, “if the roots are dry, you should have watered yesterday”, and for me that’s was the biggest tip because a lot of resources say paphs don’t like “wet roots”; your goal is for continuously moist roots. With that context of when to water, you can carefully observe the dry-out speed after you water (in your given climate) and generally follow a pretty predictable watering schedule for the future. Using clear orchid pots really helps with this because you can see what’s happening in the pot – if you don’t see condensation on the pot between the media or if the roots in the middle/bottom look dry, then it’s time to water.
    2. On watering day soak the whole pot in water up to the base of the plant for at least 5 minutes. My 4.5″ pots fit perfectly in a coffee mug, so I plop the pot in and drench the media from the top until the mug is full and then I let them soak for at least a good 5-10 minutes. If your climate is especially dry (under 50% rH), then you can let them soak for them for a good 20-45 minutes without causing issues.
    3. Anaerobic conditions cause root rot…not water (we’ll cover this in potting media below).
    4. Calcium, nutrient deficiencies and low pH cause root rot…not water (we’ll cover this more below).
    5. When watering you want to actively irrigate and flush lots of water through the pot to help oxygenate the roots AND to waterlog the bark. When bark is saturated, it will release that moisture over the week creating a microclimate of high humidity in your pot. That means “dribble watering” is probably not as effective as it may create a bottom section that’s moist, with a top section that’s bone dry. You want to drench all the bark so the whole pot is evenly moist (allowing the short new roots to succeed as well as older longer ones). Soaking and flushing your pots about every 5-10 days is very helpful for keeping your roots healthy while avoiding drought, and the soaking action allows your plant to rehydrate if it’s slightly dehydrated. You may need to adjust that watering cadence based on: your own climate, on the size of the pot, on the type of pot (terracotta really SUCKS water out of the potting media while plastic pots trap moisture), and on the size of the potting media. Please don’t read that and think you only need to water your paph every 10 days… if you’re using a small pot with large bark chunks and your humidity is 30%, you may need to water that plant every 2 days just to keep the roots moist.
    6. Keep roots moist longer: Once you’ve soaked and drained the potting media you can leave an additional 1/8-1/4 inch of water in the tray. Applying this nugget of advice fundamentally changed how my paphs grew…and I have both Barbara Bielecka and Neil Kim to thank for instilling that advice in me (thank you, paph gurus for sharing your insights). It’s a very powerful tip if you understand the goal—which is to keep the roots consistently moist between waterings, while also keeping them oxygenated. You only want to use enough water that it will dry up within 24-48 hours, AND initially you should pay very close attention to this practice to avoid using too much water. The goal isn’t to have the pot sitting in water all week long and if you watered on Sunday and there is still water there Wednesday morning, you should dump it out and use less water next time. Seasonal changes may also alter your evaporation rates, so beware that what works in winter may need to be adjusted in the summer.
      • Before I started doing this, I used to have paphs that would only grow spurts of roots in the spring/summer. However, now that they’re evenly moist all week long, they grow roots year round.

Watering Frequency: “How often should I water my paph?” – For me, I’ve perfected a potting mix that allows me to water once per week (sometimes twice for the seedlings). For you, like I mentioned above, the frequency will depend on your potting mix, your climate, and your general lifestyle. Some people enjoy watering their plants often and they will use a chunkier media that dries quickly. I will say…if your potting media is taking more than 10 days to dry, then you may have to contend with anaerobic conditions because it could mean airflow is poor or the media has compacted—repot if in doubt.

Humidity: I’ve left this until the end of the hydration section because while most care guides say “high humidity is required”, I’ve found that not to be true (as long as you keep your plant hydrated and avoid drought). You can see that much of this care sheet focuses on hydration, watering tempo, and avoiding extremes of wetness or dryness at the roots…this is how I’ve been able to grow paphs well in my very dry climate that rarely exceeds 50%rH and often sits around 20-35%.

As with care for all tropical plants, if you can increase your humidity then YOU SHOULD, it will probably make it easier to care for the plant week over week and lessen the chance of extreme drought. However, from my experience growing a wide range of rare plants and paphs for many years (including paph lowii, philippinense, henryanum, tigrinum, primulinum, helenae, and a bunch of hybrids), low humidity isn’t a death sentence so long as you can avoid hard drying of the roots.

Paph helenae growing in live moss
Despite my humidity being so low, my irrigation practice even keeps live moss thriving. If you like the look of this pot, check out my post on how to grow live moss, but to be clear in order to grow paphiopedilums well, you don’t also have to grow moss—you just need to have conditions favorable for moss (which generally means after a year or two moss tends to just pop up in your paph pots)
The same paphiopedilum helenae with a seed pod

 

Light – How much light do Paphiopedilums need?

Everything I read says paphs like “low light”. In my experience they like intermediate light…bright enough to encourage vibrant leaves and vigorous growth, but not HOT enough that it will burn the leaf. So what does that mean? East-facing windows with direct sun for a small portion of the morning seems to be good, or South/West windows with a sheer cloth that screens at least 50% of the sun. LED grow light are especially helpful because you can provide long hours (10-14h) of consistent low-to-moderate light, but you only need about 8-20 watts per square foot of coverage. If you really want to dive into light, I’ve written a great post on the topic as it applies not only to paphiopedilums, but all houseplants; here’s a link to Light Recommendations: PPFD (PAR) for Orchids and Houseplants.

A general note on the light requirements of different paphiopedilum types:

  • Mottled leafed paphs: need low light, and definitely less than strap-leafed paphs.
  • Sequential-blooming paphs: do well with low-to-moderate light levels.
  • Strapped-leafed & multi-floral paphs: moderate to bright light—you’ll want to go up to Cattleya levels in the fall during inflorescence formation.

 

Potting Medium – What potting mix do paphs need?

I mentioned above that paphs need good airflow at their roots. They typically grow as epiphytes (on trees with their roots covered in live moss) or lithophytes (on rock with their roots also covered in live moss), but many are terrestrial and grow in a mix of leaf litter, decaying forest bits, rock and again…moss. What all of these will typically have in common is that they are water-retentive but well draining (not dense, muddy or compact), and no matter what, they get rained on often—with many species coming from places that have seasonal monsoons where it rains daily for weeks or months at a time! Your potting media needs to retain water but also allow for drainage and airflow too, this is so the roots don’t choke and rot.

My recommended media: I use a baseline blend and I’ve been tinkering with it for a few years now. It’s roughly 50% bark to 50% rock (pumice or large perlite), with a top-dressing of sphagnum moss around the base of the plant. The sphagnum helps keep the base of the plant moist (where new roots start) and it slows evaporation a bit, but it’s only a thin layer of about 1/8-1/4″. For bark I prefer Orchiata (pine bark) because it lasts longer and retains water more reliably than fir bark (which can fragment and get soggy as it ages faster than pine bark). If I have horticultural grade charcoal available, I’ll also add that in place of some of the rock (up to 5% of the total media ratio).

Photo of orchid media: perlite & orchid bark

 

Additional potting media tips:

    • You can optionally also add a small amount of peat moss or fragmented sphagnum moss to the bark/rock media if you’re finding the potting media just dries too fast—but no more than 5% and again, if the media is staying moist for more than 10 days, you definitely should repot and not use this option.
    • You can read more about paphiopedilum potting mixes here.

When to repot paphiopedilums? This is a great question…most people will tell you to repot paphs often…as much as every year. I only repot every 2… to 4  years *awkward face*. However, I use alkaline water (which means the potting media doesn’t get acidic because the pH is constantly buffered up by the calcium in my water), and at least 50% of my potting mix is rock (which gives structure and doesn’t enable compaction as the organic ingredients decay). So…to be safe, you should possibly repot annually (just be careful as paph roots break easily as they are inflexible). If you’re going to repot less frequently then I strongly recommend using a well-draining potting mix with more inert additives like we just covered, and definitely consider adding oyster shell to prevent acidification of your media. Also, repot frequently enough to avoid pot-bound plants; if the roots circle the inside of the pot too much, they can create a barrier and set future root growth back. Make sure your plant has enough space to expand roots but not overpot it to the point the media takes too long to dry out.

Paphiopedilum roots on repotting day
Freshly repotted w/ a top-dressing of sphagnum moss

 

Fertilizer – How to fertilize Paphiopedilums

As with most orchids, fertilize “weakly, weekly” (which means about 1/4-1/2 strength the recommended dose – for paphs it’s even better to tread closer to 1/8 the recommended does). Some paphs are known to be sensitive to salts and unfortunately by the time you know something is wrong, the plant is already severely stressed.

    • Synthetic feed: I mentioned I use tap water for my paphs and it’s alkaline (7.5-8.3pH w/ 200-250ppm total dissolved salts) so I use 1/8tsp to 1/4tsp of MSU orchid fertilizer per gallon (4L) of water. After a feed, I’ll follow the next two waterings with just water (which flushes and removes the old fertilizer). I don’t think synthetic fertilizers are always as complete as we’d like them to be, so I also highly recommend using organic fertilizer in addition to synthetic ferts…
    • Organic fertilizer for paphiopedilum: 2-3 times per year (at spring, early summer, and when I repot a plant), I add a bit of organic fertilizer to the potting mix. Organic fertilizer is generally not water soluble and basically breaks down in the potting media over time, releasing nutrients. If you follow Ed’s Orchids on YouTube, he also does this and his plants are amazingly healthy. If you haven’t checked out his channel, you should, it’s a great resource for paph care in general. The organic fertilizer I use is called, “Gia Green’s All Purpose 4-4-4″ and it has bat guano, bloodmeal, rock dust, oyster shell, and a bunch of other goodies. If you don’t have access to this product, seek out bloodmeal, oyster shell, and rock dust. Bloodmeal is nitrogen, oyster shell is calcium, and rock dust gives minerals from pulverized rock. If you’re going to use organic fertilizer…ONLY USE A TINY TINY BIT. like a small pinch per pot. As it breaks down, nutrients are released, but if you use too much, you can throw your pot media pH out of whack and kill all of your roots. I know this is true, because I’ve seen people do it! So literally less than 1/8tsp per 6″ pot…just a pinch for 4.5” pots.
    • Calcium & pH: This topic is particularly important with paphs and I believe the main reason most people struggle with brown and black rot is related to a calcium deficiency in the plant or from potting media that has become too acidic. You see, many paphs and slipper orchids come from habitats that are high in calcium carbonate. They are native to limestone regions and mineral rich soils of mountain ranges, where things like calcium, iron and magnesium are more abundantly available than they are in other habitats. Plants adapted to calcium-rich conditions like this will rely on those specific conditions (including not-acidic soils) to grow best, build robust cell walls, resist pathogens, absorb nutrients, and ultimately out-perform competing plants in the same habitat. What makes orchids unique is their ability to grow in really unique places like the side of limestone cliff in a crack between boulders, or on the side of a tree in thick moss that covers the bark. Consider adding a small amount of oyster shell to your potting media if you’re using “pure water” like rainwater, RO water, or if your tap water is low in minerals or even slightly acidic (<7pH). This will help prevent a pH dive if there is any decay happening in your pot (like as wood or sphagnum moss break down). If you have a plant that is constantly getting brown or black rot, definitely add oyster shell to your potting media, and understand you may not see positive change until the following season when the new growth has been built with the calcium-rich conditions you’ve provided. That means, you’ll have to watch active infections closely and be extra careful about preventing the spread of fungal or bacterial infections. Calcium is non-mobile, so cell walls that were made in a deficient state will stay deficient.
      • Where to get oyster shell? Pet stores will carry it in the bird section and you can probably find it online on Amazon in the pet section.
      • Looking for more information on this topic? Read, “Calcicolous Slipper Orchids” by Tony Budrovich

 

Other Paphiopedilum Care Requirements

Generally speaking some other tidbits to be aware of that may influence your success: some species are warm growers, others are cool growers; some require very bright light and grow fast, while others are very slow growers and cannot tolerate bright light. You really need to research each individual species and pursue the ones best fit to your climate and conditions, and then tweak the requirements for each type you grow. All of that said…I grow all of my paphs pretty much the same way—so my opinion is that generally there is some core knowledge that can make you broadly successful with these orchids.

Paph tigrimum – a cold-to-cool growing species
This species can be a challenge to grow if your climate is constantly over 30C

 

That covers my paphiopedilum care sheet. I think I’ve covered the core nuggets of information that helped push me past the general care sheets. If you’re on the fence about trying your first paph…just take the leap. You may kill the first couple, but that’s how you learn and if you want a better chance, stick to hybrids which tend to be easier to grow because they’re less specific about their care. Paph Delophyllum, Deperle, and bulldog paphs are very popular and are known to be easy to grow; same with hybrids of paph spicerinaum, lowii, and villosum. And with that…I wish you good luck! Below are some photos of my collection if you’re still looking for a bit more…

 

Photos of Paphiopedilum

I’ve started flasking orchid, right? Check out my baby paphiopedilum seedlings
Paph Delophyllum (delenatii x glaucophyllum) with two flowers!
A superb and easy to grow hybrid – highly recommended for new paph growers
Paphiopedilum lowii x richardianum
Paphiopedilum lowii
Paphiopedium primulinum var. alba
Note: Yes, I know the correct way of writing the alba form of primulinum is NOT to include the “var. alba” because the very first form of this found was the alba variant. However, for breaking and tracking my plants out of bloom, it’s helpful. Why? Well…if you want to cross two alba flowers and have a chance at making alba progeny, both parents need to have that pigment-lacking mutation. It is more helpful to call the plant “var alba” when we know there is a standard form – especially for tracking tags and future breeding projects.:
Some paphiopedilum repotting photos
A nifty (and fragrant) hybrid I have that is unnamed and has rosthchildianum, henryanum and primulinum in its lineage.