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
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
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
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.
John Lonsdale - www.edgewoodgardens.net