Hardy Orchids for the Exotic Border

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Bletilla striata

By Mary Gutierrez

Every year at the flower show I browse through the orchid display and sales area. The intricate flowers range from achingly beautiful to downright strange. I have always thought of orchids as tropical plants and did not realize there was such a thing as a hardy orchid until just a few years ago. (For some reason, I never filed the native lady slipper under the category "orchid" in my brain .)

Last summer I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Bletilla striata, the Chinese  ground orchid, and how easy it is to grow in the Pacific Northwest. I was at a nursery and noticed a clump of pleated lily-like foliage in a garden border. The nodding magenta flowers were unfamiliar to me, and upon closer inspection I was pleasantly surprised to find they were little orchids. Tough, little, orchids. These terrestrial beauties grow in the ground, unlike their fancy tropical cousins who prefer to hang from trees in humid forests.

Soon, I noticed listings for Bletilla striata in the mail-order catalogs I receive in the mail--I must have just skimmed right on by them before. I quickly acquired my own Bletilla striata and proceeded to find out as much information as I could about it.

I consulted "Growing Hardy Orchids" by John Tullock and was encouraged by the chapter in his book entitled "Bletilla: The Ideal Beginner's Plant." That chapter, along with a few internet searches, taught me what I needed to know go grow Bletilla successfully.

If you enjoy growing herbaceous perennials and do so successfully, you'll have no trouble cultivating a nice clump of Bletilla. The plant grows from a corm, according to Tullock--though to me it looks more like a rhizome--apparently it is a little bit of both. Like an iris, the fleshy root is planted just barely under the soil's surface in a sunny to semi-shady spot. Like most geophytes, Bletilla requires perfect drainage or the root will rot in winter. I have a part-sun bed that I tucked my plant into. If the soil is rich and well-drained, you should be rewarded with those lovely magenta flowers within a year or two depending on your climate. My plant has sent up a few shoots so far this spring, but I don't know if I will see flowers this season.

According to Tullock, once the plant has gotten underway with the help of sufficient spring rain, it requires only occasional watering during the summer--but he lives in Tennessee. Here, where we will go without rain for weeks after summer sets in, so plan to provide the same supplemental water  that you would any perennial.

The usual pests that plague the Northwest gardens, specifically slugs and snails, have no appetite for the foliage of Bletilla. The moderate application of a dilute orchid fertilizer will reward you with more flowers and a rapidly expanding clump of foot-tall foliage.

In most areas of western Washington and Oregon, you should be safe leaving the roots in the ground over winter. Most sources say it is hardy to zone 6. A bulb expert in the Cascade foothills in Oregon, Jane McGary, tells me that Bletilla will grow for her but does not get enough heat to bloom. If you garden at the cooler end of its hardiness zone, perhaps it would grow best in a container that can be placed in a warm spot in summer, and a cool greenhouse in winter. The greatest winter concern, however, is too much water accumulating around the root-if you've amended the soil with compost and raised it slightly, you shouldn't have any problem.

Once you become entranced with Bletilla striata, you'll find it has some hybrid friends who would look just lovely alongside the species. There is a white flowered form, B. striata v. alba, and a form with variegated foliage. As you can see in the accompanying photos, these two have hybrids whose flowers combine magenta and white to good effect.

And if you need something a little wilder, the related Bletilla ochracea has yellow flowers with red spots. Just right for the hot-colored tropical border.

Photo credit:  John Lonsdale -



Brent and Becky's Bulbs, 7900 Daffodil Lane, Gloucester, VA  23061, PH 804-693-3966,

Fraser's Thimble Farms, 175 Arbutus Road, Salt Spring Island, BC, V8K 1A3 CANADA,

Keeping it Green Nursery, 19401 96th Ave. NW, Stanwood, WA  98292, 360-652-1779,

 Plant Delights Nursery, 9241 Sauls Rd., Raleigh, NC  27603,  PH 919-772-4794,

Red's Hardy Orchids, 15920 SW Oberst Lane, Sherwood, OR  97140, PH 503-625-6331

Van Bourgondien, 245 Route 109, PO Box 1000, Babylon, NY  11702, PH 800-622-9997,

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